Summer in California: Weather, What to Pack, and What to See

What's Special in California During the Summer

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

If you plan to go to California in the summer, you'll find it colored gold. After the winter rains end, the hillside grasses turn golden, their color intensifying in the 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.

Summer is peak vacation season all over the state. You'll find all the major attractions packed with people and well-known hiking trails may be busier than the city sidewalks.

Summer is the time to enjoy locally grown fruits and vegetables. Especially delicious are strawberries from around Watsonville or Oxnard and stone fruits (peaches, plums, apricots and the like) from the central valley. To find a place to buy them check the farmers' market guide.

Summer is also 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.

California Beaches in Summer

California beaches are best in summer, and these are the best California beaches to visit or try these top places for a California beach vacation. If you expect every one of those beaches to be sun-drenched and looking like a scene from Baywatch, you may be surprised.

California's summer coastal weather pattern has its own nickname: 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 "No Sky July." In northern California, it can start as early as "May Gray," extending into "No Sky July" and can last into "Fogust." To find out more and what to do when it happens, see the guide to June Gloom in California.

Beaches in Orange and San Diego Counties are also susceptible to so-called "red tides" in the summer 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. Find out everything you need to know about red tides here

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.

California Weather in Summer

California's summer weather is usually dry and pleasant, but Southern California can get unbearably hot at times.

The deserts get even hotter, forcing residents into air-conditioned comfort and keeping tourists away. Death Valley has a well-earned reputation as one of the hottest places on earth, making it a place you may want to avoid. Its highest recorded temperature was 134°F and summer highs top 120°F.

You can get details of the highs and lows around the state by consulting the guides to the average highs, lows, and more weather facts in these popular tourist destinations: San DiegoLos AngelesDisneylandDeath ValleyPalm SpringsSan FranciscoYosemite, and Lake Tahoe.

What to Pack

In a single day, you could be in conditions that vary by 20 degrees or more. The desert will be too hot to think about. The mountains will be cool. It may be hot in the cities, but San Francisco may be foggy. And it's always cooler at the coast than it is inland.

You can check the average temperatures using the links above, but the only thing to do about all that variation is to know that you might need almost anything except a parka and earmuffs. The only reliable way to plan your packing is to check the forecast for a few of your destinations a few days before your trip.

Where to Go in California in the Summer

Two of California's most scenic highways are open only in the summer and either of them would make a great road trip:

  • 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.
  • Any of the seven California routes that will make you swoon (or more than one linked together) would make a perfect summer weekend trip.

These places are also at their best in summer, or only open then:

Things to Do in California in the Summer

  • Wildflower blooms continue into early summer at higher elevations. In some years, you'll find them blooming all summer along roadsides in Yosemite and Sequoia.
  • Nesting season for herons and egrets continues through early July. Use this guide to find the best places to see them.
  • The Perseid meteor showers occur in mid-August, with as many as 60 meteors per hour streaking through the summer night sky. Big Sur, Mendocino, and locations along Scenic Highway 395 are some of the best places to see it. Check the exact dates for this year's spectacular show in the sky.

Summer Events in California

Summer Travel Tips

If you're looking for more details 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 them out in the guides to California in SpringCalifornia in Fall, and California in Winter.

The claim that Mark Twain once said: "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco" isn't true, but the sentiment is and many visitors who think otherwise end up wishing they had taken plenty of warm layers to San Francisco's Fourth of July fireworks show.

Highways are generally open in summer except for repairs and improvement projects. To be sure your route is clear before you go, check highway status.