California in Summer

What's Special in California During the Summer

Kayaks on Lake Tahoe
••• Kayaks on Lake Tahoe. Jason Todd/Getty Images

After the winter rains end, California's hillside grasses turn golden, their color intensifying in late afternoon sun. It gives credence to the idea that California's nickname "The Golden State" comes from the color of its hills - although, in reality it came from the California Gold Rush of 1849.

It takes a little getting used to if you're from other parts of the country, but after living here a few years, I find the golden summer landscape one of the most appealing.

If you're looking for more detailed about visiting California in the summer, you can check these monthly guide to California in JuneJuly, and August.

And contrary to any urban legends you may have heard, California does have four seasons. Check it out in the guide to California in Spring,  California in Fall, and California in Winter.

What to Expect

  • Summer is the time for farmers' markets offering fruits and vegetables, all grown locally. Especially delicious are strawberries from around Watsonville or Oxnard and stone fruits (peaches, plums, apricots and the like) from the central valley. Check the Farmers' Market Guide to find a place to buy them.
  • Summer is a great time to dine outdoors, but if you're anywhere near the coast, bring a jacket. It can cool off faster (and get colder) than you might expect.
  • While the claim that Mark Twain once said: "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco" isn't true, the sentiment is. Bring plenty of warm layers to San Francisco's Fourth of July fireworks (up to 3 or 4 sweatshirts deep), or you'll wish you did.
  • Wildflower blooms continue into early summer in higher elevations. In some years, you'll find them blooming all summer along roadsides in Yosemite and Sequoia.
  • On the other hand, Death Valley has a well-earned reputation as one of the hottest places on earth, with its highest recorded temperature 134°F and annual highs more than 120°F.
  • It happens so often there's a name for it: June gloom. In early summer, the cloudy "marine layer" hangs around over the coast all day long. It can happen even as far south as San Diego. In some years, it continues into July. Up on the north coast, it starts in July and can spill into August.
  • Beaches in Orange and San Diego Counties are susceptible to so-called "red tides" when red-colored algae grow so fast that they "bloom," coloring the water in the process. It's unsightly for sure, and it's safer to avoid swimming while they're happening.
  • Summer weather is usually dry and pleasant. Check the average temperatures and rainfall

Places at Their Best in Summer

    Mother Nature in Summer

    Summer is the time when California's agricultural abundance is most evident. Everywhere you travel, you'll see fields full of every imaginable crop. Caravans of produce-filled trucks fill the highways. White ones almost overflowing with bright, red tomatoes look especially colorful.

    During spring and summer, two to six nights after the full and new moons and right after high tide, thousands of small grunion fish come ashore on southern California beaches. In about 30 seconds, the female digs a small hole lays her eggs and the male fertilizes them. The result is a summer evening's fishy version of an X-Rated movie, and thousands of people come to watch at beaches around San Diego and Los Angeles.

    Nesting season for herons and egrets continues through early July. Our guide covers the best places to see them.

    Driving in Summer

    Highways are generally open in summer except for repairs and improvement projects. To be sure your route is clear, check highway status before you go. Two of California's most scenic highways are open only in the summer:

    • Tioga Pass through Yosemite may open anytime after April 15, depending on when they can clear the snow off the road. The drive through Tioga Pass is the most direct route to the fascinating area east of the Sierras that includes the ghost town of Bodie and the world's oldest living things - the Bristlecone Pines.
    • Sequoia National Park is open year-round, but the road into Kings Canyon opens in early summer. This spectacular drive into the heart of a glacier-carved canyon is well worth planning a visit when it's open.

    Holidays and Festivals in Summer

    Summer in California is the time for festivals and concerts. Almost every weekend, someone is celebrating a food or wine festival.

    Outstanding in the Field: Bringing the dinner table to the farm, this traveling event invites diners to enjoy and celebrate food, with the people who produce it, right at the source.

    Outdoor theatre performances and outdoor concerts are some of the best things to do on a summer evening. And California is the home of lots of big music festivals. To get the inside scoop on when they happen, where and how to attend, use the Guide to California's Most Travel-Worthy Music Festivals.

    Father's Day is the third Sunday in June. We've got some great Father's Day ideas for ways to have fun with him.

    Fourth of July is the zenith of summer celebration. Locales from Lake Tahoe to San Diego set off pyrotechnic extravaganzas. Use our guide to find the one that best suits you.

    Labor Day marks the end of summer, the last chance for a fun getaway with an extra day to do it. Check some of these great Labor Day ideas.