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

Setting sun on Half Dome in winter at Yosemite National Park
Setting sun on Half Dome in winter at Yosemite National Park.


Mitch Diamond/Getty Images 

You can do everything in California in December from surfing on a SoCal beach to snow skiing in the mountains.

And even though there will be snow in the mountains, you can visit Yosemite National Park and Sequoia-Kings Canyon in the winter. Both parks are open except during snowstorms, but parts of each park will be closed until spring.

You can also use the guide to California in the winter to get more insights into the season in general.

California Weather in December

The weather in California varies depending on what part of the state you're visiting. In general, coastal areas are comfortable in December, and the deserts are warmer, but not as blisteringly hot as in the summer.

In the mountains, you'll probably find snow, and most of the high mountain passes will be closed. That includes Sonora Pass (State Route 108) and Monitor Pass (State Route 89). After that happens, the only way to get from the coast to eastern California locations such as Mammoth, Bodie, or Mono Lake will be through Lake Tahoe or Bakersfield.

Lake Tahoe will be cold in December with its lows well below freezing at night and barely reaching the 40s during the day.

Yosemite Valley sometimes reaches the 70s during the day and the 50s at night. Higher elevations will be much colder, and there may be snow. Tioga Pass between Yosemite and the Eastern Sierras is always closed by December, and it won't re-open until well after the spring thaw.

You can get details of the highs and lows around the state in December (and all year round) by consulting these guides to some average highs, lows, and more weather considerations in some popular tourist destinations, such as San DiegoLos AngelesDisneylandDeath ValleyPalm SpringsSan FranciscoYosemite, and Lake Tahoe.

California's rainy season changes every year. Sometimes, winter storms dump tons of water and snow on the state and in other years, it's barely a sprinkle. Just in case your vacation plans are getting rained on, have these guides handy: what to do on a rainy day in San Diego, activities for rainy days in San Francisco, and what to when it rains in Los Angeles.

What to Pack

Your packing list will vary depending on where you go and what you're doing. These are a few things to keep in mind.

By December, water and air temperatures at the beach limit most people to oceanside strolls. The beach areas are always colder than inland, and they get even chillier when the sun goes down.

If you plan to spend time outdoors camping or hiking, pack light layers to stay warm and covered. In case it's colder than expected, take a couple of extras.

No matter where your plans take you, pack plenty of sunscreen. Even if the sun isn't shining, its UV rays can reflect off water and snow, and you'll still end up with a sunburn.

December Events in California

Christmas is December's big holiday in California. Use these guides to discover all the things you can do and events you can attend.

The end of the month is also the end of the year. Use the guide to New Year's Eve in California to find out about all the big celebrations (and some fun but small ones).

Most of the December events in California are related to Christmas or New Year's Eve and are listed in the guides above, but there are a few others.

  • Inns of Distinction Tour, Carmel: An excellent opportunity to visit several of Carmel's most charming little inns and sample local cuisine.
  • Mavericks Invitational Surfing Contest: It's a surfing competition that attracts top surfers, and it can happen anytime between November and March, as soon as the waves are big enough. 

Things to Do in California in December

You can do a lot of things in California all year round, but these are a few that are especially fun in December:

December Travel Tips

  • Most of the high mountain passes are closed in the winter, limiting the number of routes you can take from the coast to California's eastern border. If your trip includes both parts of the state, I-80 west from San Francisco and east-west highways south of Bakersfield are the best options.
  • Typically, you can find the best airfare deals for this time in early October.
  • If you want to visit Death Valley in December, make hotel or campground reservations in September. As long as you pay attention to cancellation policies, there's little risk if you change your mind later.
  • You also need to plan ahead if you want to go to a big, ticketed New Year's Eve party.
  • If you want to go camping at a California state park in December, make your reservations six months ahead of time in June. Use these handy tips for doing it right.
  • You will be able to safely drive in most parts of the state without fear of hazardous road conditions. If you plan to travel anywhere above sea level, you should know the requirements for snow chains. They apply to personal and rented vehicles.
  • If you're planning to camp at Yosemite next December, make your reservations six months ahead of time in June. You can do that online or by phone at 877-444-6777 or 518-885-3639 from outside the U.S. and Canada. Get an overview and more options here.