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

What's Special in California During the Winter

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

Winter in California can be warm and sunny. On those days, it can be the state's most appealing season. It's also the rainy season, which means snow season in the mountains. Meanwhile, the desert cools off from its unbearable summer temperatures. All in all, it makes winter a great time to go places in California.

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

Setting sun on Half Dome in winter at Yosemite National Park

Roads That Close Every Winter

Yosemite's Tioga Pass closes with the first snowfall after November 1, no matter how many inches fall. Check current conditions on the Yosemite website.

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

Roads That May Close in the Winter

You can check the status of any highway at the CalTrans website. Just enter the highway number into their search box.

Sonora Pass and most other high-elevation routes across the mountains close because of snow. If you want 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.

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.

Interstate Highway 5 sometimes closes at the Tejon Pass north of Los Angeles because of snow and the wind.

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.

Winter is also California's rainy season, which runs roughly from November through March. If you have heard the old song that says it never rains in Southern California, you'll also know the next line: "it pours, man, it pours."

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.

What to Pack

In a single day, you could ski at Lake Tahoe in the morning and watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean in the evening. The desert will be warm. The mountains will be cold. Winter is the rainy season, but it only rains once a while. It's all too much to provide packing specifics.

The only thing to do ahead of time is to know that you might need anything from snow gear to shorts and then check the forecast a few days before your trip to find out what you should take.

Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas near San Simeon, California
Danita Delimont / Getty Images

Things to Do in California in the Winter

Lake Tahoe is beautiful in the winter, with snow-capped mountains surrounding the blue lake. Skiing is popular, but you can also find more things to do at Lake Tahoe.

Death Valley finally cools off enough that you can enjoy the world's hottest place without feeling like you're standing inside a giant pizza oven. Here's how you can take a trip to Death Valley.

Palm Springs also cools off but stays warm enough to make it a favorite winter destination. Use this guide to plan a winter trip to Palm Springs:

Monarch butterflies spend the 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.

Whale Watching in the winter is all about the gray whale migration as swim from their feeding grounds in Alaska to Mexico for birthing and mating. To get a look at all the places to go whale watching, check the Calfornia whale watching guide.

Elephant Seals come ashore in the winter for mating and birthing. North of Santa Cruz, you can see them at Ano Nuevo State Reserve. You can also see them off CA Highway 1 north of Hearst Castle at Piedras Blancas.

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.

Mammoth Mountain is an area that insiders have known about for years. Recently there's a new hotel in town, the Westin Monache Resort and you can get regular flights to Mammoth from San Jose, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

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 plan an off-season visit using this guide to Yosemite in Winter.

Fireworks are set off in San Francisco streets to celebrate Lunar New Year
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Winter Holidays in California

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.

Winter Travel Tips: California Driving in Winter

Ski Season Traffic: During ski season, it seems like every single California resident heads for the mountains on Friday night and goes home on Sunday afternoon, creating traffic jams. If you want to see the snow but aren't planning to ski, try to plan your trip for other days of the week.

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. To find out the rules about them and what to do if you have a rental car use the California snow chain guide.

Fog: November through February, dense fog can be a driving hazard in the Central Valley on Interstate Highway 5 and U.S. Highway 99. It forms on cold, clear, windless nights and can cut visibility to as little as a few feet, making driving difficult and dangerous.

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