After the winter rains end, California's 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.
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.
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 at 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 "No Sky July". Up on the north coast, it can start as early as "May Gray", extending into "No Sky July" and can spill into "Fogust". To find out more and what causes June Gloom, check out this guide.
- 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. Find out everything you need to know about red tides here.
- Summer weather is usually dry and pleasant. Check the average temperatures and rainfall
Places at Their Best in Summer
- The Sacramento River Delta is very popular for boating and water sports.
- Subject to the cautions above, California beaches are best in summer.
- Lake Tahoe is often thought of as a winter destination, but there's more for everyone to do there in summer.
- Some theme parks are open only in summer, and they all have longer hours and more going on.
- Summer is the obvious best season for a beach vacation.
- Yosemite High Sierra Camps and Sequoia High Sierra Camp are open only in summer. Plan ahead to get into the lottery for the Yosemite camp.
- Find the best places for a summer getaway, with fun events and plenty of sunshine.
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. 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. Death Valley, 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.
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. For ways to have fun with good ol' Dad, we've got some great Father's Day ideas.
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.