Visiting California in the Winter: What to Expect

What's Special in California During the Winter

USA, California, Manhattan Beach, Illuminated pier at dusk during Christmas time
tiffanynguyen / Getty Images

 Winter in California can be warm and sunny. On those days, it can be the state's most appealing season.

California also gets its most colorful sunsets in the winter, especially in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

California's Winter Weather: Does It Snow in California?

Winter temperatures are cool to mild in most of California, except in the high mountains and in the far northern part of the state.

But winter is also California's rainy season, which runs roughly from November through March. Don't believe the old song that says it never rains in Southern California. The next line is "it pours, man, it pours." If you happen to visit during a winter rainstorm, it can turn to snow in the mountains, which can close roads and trigger requirements for snow chains for safe driving.

But don't fret about the rain. It seldom lasts long and there are plenty of things to do when it rains in San Francisco. You can also find places to go on a rainy day in Los Angeles or get some ideas for visiting San Diego on a rainy day.

Places and Activities at Their Best in Winter

    Enjoying the Winter Snow in California

    Most Californians prefer to visit snow rather than live in it, but several of the state's ski slopes are within an easy drive of its major cities. The annual Ski Magazine top ski resorts list always includes several in California, and you'll find no shortage of places to ski and snowboard.

    California's up-and-coming ski area is Mammoth Mountain, one that insiders have known about for years. An investment group bought controlling interest in the resort in 2005, pledging to turn it into a world-class ski destination. So far, there's a new hotel, the Westin Monache Resort and regular flights from San Jose, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The rest of the resort area is struggling through the transition, but the snow and terrain haven't changed: they're often rated the best in the western United States.

    Ski resorts are so close to the Southern California cities that you can surf and ski on the same day. Find out where they all are in this SoCal ski and snowboarding guide.

    Snow doesn't last long in the Yosemite Valley, but if you can get there right after a snowstorm, it's never prettier, and you can use the guide to Yosemite in Winter to plan an off-season visit.

    Mother Nature in Winter

    Monarch butterflies winter along California's central coast. From November through March, coastal eucalyptus groves turn into "monarch butterfly hotels" and the morning air fills with flashes of orange and brown wings. Use the guide to monarch butterflies in California to find out where to see them.

    Go Whale Watching - Butterflies aren't the only animals migrating. Winter is also the time for the gray whale migration as swim from their feeding grounds in Alaska to Mexico for birthing and mating. Most coastal cities have whale watching tours that take you out to watch them swim by. To get a look at all the places you can go whale watching, check the Calfornia whale watching guide.

    Mating Season for Elephant Seals: Did you think sex on the beach was either illegal or a cute name for a mixed drink? It is both, but in this case, it's also elephant seal mating and birthing time in California. Use the guide to Ano Nuevo State Reserve north of Santa Cruz to find out how to see them. You can also use this guide get an idea of what you can see at Piedras Blancas, just off CA Hwy 1 north of Hearst Castle.

    Driving in Winter

    Ski Season Traffic: With the start of ski season, it seems like every single resident of California heads for the mountains, creating traffic jams on Friday night and Sunday afternoon. If you just want to see the snowy mountains but aren't planning to ski, avoid I-80 between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in the San Francisco Bay Area and highways going toward the Southern California ski slopes during those times.

    Rain: If Californians ever learn how to drive in the rain, they forget it during the six to nine dry months of the year. Take extra care, especially during the season's first rain, when accumulated surface oil makes things even slippery. Rain tends to come in downpours rather than drizzles, which can also trigger floods and mudslides.

    Snow: Any time it's raining at lower elevations it's usually snowing at upper ones. If you plan to drive to the mountains or Lake Tahoe from San Francisco, check the CalTrans website to see if chains are required. If you don't have snow chains, you need to know the rules about them. Get all the rules and find out how to handle rental cars and snow chains in the California snow chain guide.

    Fog: November through February, dense "tule" fog can be a driving hazard in the Central Valley on I-5 and US Hwy 99. It forms on cold, clear, windless nights and can cut visibility to as little as a few feet, making driving difficult and dangerous.

    Roads That Close (or May Close) Every Winter

    You can check the status of any highway at the CalTrans website. Just enter the highway number into their search box. They also have an app, but it doesn't seem to quite as up-to-date as the website is. 

    Yosemite's Tioga Pass closes with the first snowfall after November 1, no matter how many inches fall. Sonora Pass and most other high-elevation routes across the mountains close, too. To drive from the coast to eastern California locations such as Mammoth, Bodie, or Mono Lake in winter, you'll have to go through Lake Tahoe or Bakersfield.

    The road to lower Kings Canyon in Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park closes mid-November to mid-April, no matter what the weather.

    California Highway One is especially susceptible to mudslides, and big ones can close parts of it for weeks or months during rainy winters. If that happens, use this guide to find ways to work around it.

    I-5 at the Tejon Pass north of Los Angeles sometimes closes because of snow and the wind. It's best to know about this before you set out; otherwise, the detours can be time-consuming. 

    Holidays in Winter

    Christmas in California may be short on snow, but not on imagination. California has some unique Christmas traditions, including parades with boats instead of floats, lighted walks in zoos and gardens, gala Christmas pageants and surfing Santas. You can find them all in the guide to visiting California at Christmas.

    Chinese New Year is a lunar holiday whose exact dates change every year, but it usually occurs in late January or early February. Check the guide to San Francisco's Chinese New Year celebration, which is one of the biggest in the country.

    Celebrate Valentine's Day (February 14) with one of these romantic weekend getaways.

    If you're looking for more detailed about visiting California in the winter, you can check these monthly guide to California in DecemberJanuary, and February.