In February, California's winter starts winding down. It's a good month to celebrate Chinese New Year and plan a romantic California weekend getaway for Valentine's Day. The coastal cities enjoy some of the clearest skies they will have all year long, and the major tourist attractions are delightfully uncrowded.
The one place to avoid is Palm Springs, which has a dirty little secret no one in town likes to talk about: The Coachella Valley is prone to windstorms in February, which can blow so much dust around that you may feel like you’re being sandblasted. And even worse, roads can be closed because of the blowing sand.
California Weather in February
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 desert temperatures are at their most comfortable.
In the mountains, you'll find snow, and most of the high mountain passes will be closed. Lake Tahoe starts to warm up in February, but that still means lows in the teens at night and a little above freezing during the day
Yosemite Valley will be in the 50s during the day and the 30s at night. At higher elevations will be much colder and there may be snow. Tioga Pass between Yosemite and the Eastern Sierras always closes before February, 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 February (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 Diego, Los Angeles, Disneyland, Death Valley, Palm Springs, San Francisco, Yosemite, and Lake Tahoe.
Rain is likely but not a certainty. It might put a damper on your travel plans, but none of us can control what Mother Nature does. Just in case your vacation plans are at the mercy of the weather, here are some ideas for things to do on a rainy day in California:
If you plan to travel anywhere above sea level, you should know the requirements for snow chains. They apply to personal and rented vehicles—and the guide has some ideas about what to do if you need them for your rented vehicle.
What to Pack
In a state with as much geographic diversity as California, your packing list will vary depending on where you go and what you're doing. These are a few things to keep in mind.
In February, 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, and 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.
Things to Do in California in February
Go Whale Watching: February is the month to see gray whales and fin whales in California.
See the Elephant Seals at Ano Nuevo State Reserve: Male elephant seals fight for dominance while newborn babies grow at an astounding rate, making the elephant seal birthing and breeding season an unforgettable spectacle. You can also see the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas near Hearst Castle.
Watch Monarch Butterflies: The orange-and-black monarch butterflies spend their winters in the trees around town, sleeping in big clumps to keep warm. When they wake up in the morning and start flying, it's a sight you might think happens only in the movies.
Tour the Blossom Trail, Fresno: Much of the country's stone fruit (peaches, apricots, nectarines, and their relatives) grows in California central valley near Fresno. Take a drive you won't soon forget through miles of orchards filled with pink and white blooms, on the blossom trail.
February Events in California
- Chinese New Year Parade, San Francisco: Chinese New Year is a lunar holiday that occurs in late January or early February. San Francisco holds the most extravagant celebration of it in the state, or maybe in the entire U.S.—and the big parade is always on the weekend (and occasionally doesn't happen until early March).
- The Edwardian Ball: Is the perfect thing to do if you and your honey like to get dressed up in costumes and go to a fun party.
- Cinequest Film Festival, San Jose: Cinequest is the first big film festival after the Academy Awards and one of the best film fests in the state. They host an impressive number of movies and get some excellent guests, too. It starts in February and usually extends into early March.
- Modernism Week, Palm Springs: The annual mid-century extravaganza includes a few tours that get you inside some of Palm Springs' modernist icons. See all the things to do while at modernism week in this guide (besides going to the official events).
- Date Festival, Indio: You wouldn't believe all the kinds of dates they grow and display during this county fair. And the events are fun, too—including big-name headliner music acts performing on stage.
- Mavericks Invitational Surf Contest: The world's top surfers head for Half Moon Bay anytime between November and March, as soon as the waves are big enough.
February Travel Tips
February may seem like the perfect time to go to Palm Springs, but timing can be tricky. The Date Festival, Modernism Week and the Presidents Day long weekend sometimes happen all at once, driving hotel prices toward the stratosphere
If you want to camp at a California state park in February, make your reservations six months ahead of time in August. The system is complicated, and it's hard to get it right, but everything you need to know about California State Park camping reservations is here.
You don't have to reserve ahead for the Fresno Blossom Trail, but you do need to be prepared to go when the conditions are right. Start checking in early February for peak bloom time.
If you want to go to Modernism Week in Palm Springs, make hotel reservations far ahead of time and be ready to snag those hard-to-get tour tickets the second they go on sale.