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

A surfer walks along a southern California beach during high surf
Gabe LHeureux / Getty Images

In the winter months, California is the envy of the rest of the United States. While some states may be warmer, like Florida, or have better mountains, like Colorado, there's nowhere else in the country where you can enjoy all of it in one state. The ocean may be cold relative to the summer months, but you'll still find locals flocking to the beach on sunny winter days when temperatures go up. For those who want a real winter experience, the mountains are just a couple of hours away for a snowy retreat.

Since the weather never gets oppressively cold in major cities, you can still find outdoor events happening throughout the winter months, from migrating butterflies to all types of holiday festivities.

California Weather in Winter

Winter temperatures are cool to mild in most of California, except in the high mountains and the far northern part of the state. The major coastal cities hardly ever reach freezing temperatures, and you'll have to climb to higher elevations if you want to see snow. In fact, on a sunny day, it can feel warm enough to put on your bathing suit and lay out on the beach in the middle of January.

Average High and Low Temperatures in California
Destination  December January February
San Diego  64 F / 50 F 65 F / 51 F 66 F / 52 F 
Los Angeles  67 F / 48 F  68 F / 48 F 68 F / 50 F 
Palm Springs  68 F / 46 F  70 F / 48 F  74 F / 50 F
San Francisco  57 F / 46 F  57 F / 46 F  60 F / 49 F 
Death Valley National Park  65 F / 39 F  67 F / 40 F  74 F / 46 F 
Lake Tahoe  42 F / 19 F  42 F / 19 F 44 F / 21 F
Yosemite National Park  48 F / 27 F 48 F / 28 F  53 F / 30 F 

Winter is also California's rainy season, but how you experience that rainfall varies depending on what part of the state you visit. San Francisco is notoriously cloudy and wet, which can also make it feel much colder than it actually is. But in Southern California cities, such as Los Angeles or San Diego, rain showers are more likely to occur in short and powerful bursts with sunshine in between.

Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe are covered in snow throughout the winter, which provides the perfect backdrop for a wintry trip to a cabin. Meanwhile, Death Valley National Park—which is known for being the hottest place on Earth—is actually quite cold in the winter, making it a much more comfortable time to visit as opposed to the summer days of triple-digit temperatures.

What to Pack

What to pack really depends on where you plan to go. If you'll be hitting the slopes around Lake Tahoe, you'll need to bring snow gear, heavy coats, beanies, and a scarf. If you'll be staying around the coast of Southern California, you can get away with some pants, a light jacket, T-shirts, and possibly even a bathing suit.

The style around California is pretty casual, so dress comfortably for whatever activities you plan to do. If you'll just be sightseeing, that means comfortable walking shoes and jeans, with an appropriate jacket or sweater depending on the weather. You'll want to make sure you have at least one water-resistant jacket with you in case it rains, or a compact umbrella to carry around. Even though it's winter, make sure to pack some sunscreen. Whether you're on the beach in Los Angeles or on the reflective snow of the mountains, you'll want to protect your skin from the sun.

Winter Events in California

Mild winter weather allows Californians and visitors to fully take advantage of all kinds of events across the entire state, from New Year's Eve parties to butterfly watching. It doesn't matter what part of the state you'll be visiting, there's surely something going on.

  • New Year's Eve: Across California, celebrate the New Year with pomp and fireworks. The biggest events are in major cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles, but you can find something in almost every part of the state. And on January 1, check out the Rose Parade in Pasadena—although you should arrive the night before if you want a spot to see the parade in person.
  • Snowglobe: Snowglobe is the alpine cousin to the desert music festival of Coachella. Held on the final days of the year in Lake Tahoe, this three-day festival is right next to the slopes of some of California's best ski resorts. Snowglobe is canceled in 2020 but returns December 29–31, 2021.
  • Monarch Butterflies: Winter is the best time to see monarch butterflies during their mating season, which starts in late October and lasts until February. The best places to see them are along the Central Coast between Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara, with the town of Pacific Grove considered to be "Butterfly Town."
  • Julefest: The charming little Danish town of Solvang near Santa Barbara turns into a Scandinavian winter wonderland throughout December during the annual Julefest. Typical hot Danish snacks and a European-style Christmas market make this city even more enchanting than it already is. Julefest in 2020 starts on November 30 and runs until January 3, 2021, although with limited capacity.
  • Chinese New Year: The Lunar New Year is widely celebrated in cities with large populations of Chinese-Americans, especially San Francisco and Los Angeles, each of which has a thriving Chinatown neighborhood. Court good fortune for the upcoming year, eat traditional snacks, and watch a dragon parade to celebrate the New Year, which falls on February 12 in 2021—the year of the ox.

Winter Travel Tips

  • Keep an eye on road closures if you'll be driving across the state. Some roads are always closed in the winter, such as the highways to Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park or Tioga Pass into Yosemite. Highway 1 along the coast is sometimes closed due to mudslides, while Highway 5 entering Los Angeles is sometimes closed due to snow or wind.
  • If you want to experience the wine country around Napa and Sonoma counties, the busy fall harvest season has just ended and wineries often have more time to give more personalized attention.
  • Winter is whale-watching season along many parts of the California coast, so look for cruises that take visitors to see migrating grey whales as they head south.
  • Take extra care when driving in the rain, especially during the first rain after a dry spell when accumulated surface oil makes things even more slippery. Rain tends to come in downpours rather than drizzles, which can also trigger floods and mudslides.