January in California means snow in the mountains. In Southern California, the coral trees bloom, topping their muscular-looking trunks and bare branches with clusters of red-orange flowers. In wine country, the tasting rooms are as empty as the shelves at Walmart at the end of Black Friday. At Disneyland, the decorations come down, and the crowds all but evaporate.
After the New Year's holiday, the ski areas are the only parts of California that are at their busiest. Everywhere else, you find fewer tourists than almost any other time of the year.
The only downside to visiting California in January is that it might rain or even storm. You can read more about that below.
California Weather in January
California weather varies depending on what part of the state you're visiting. Coastal areas are moderate to cool 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 and Mammoth Mountain will be cold in January with lows in the teens at night and struggling to get above freezing during the day.
Yosemite Valley will be much warmer in the 70s during the day and the 50s at night. At higher elevations, it will be much colder and snowy. Tioga Pass between Yosemite and the Eastern Sierras always closes before January, 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 January (and all year round) by consulting these guides to some average highs, lows, and more weather considerations in some popular tourist destinations: San Diego, Los Angeles, Disneyland, Death Valley, Palm Springs, San Francisco, Yosemite, and Lake Tahoe.
What to Pack
In a state with California's geographic diversity, 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 January, 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 go camping or hiking, pack light layers to stay warm and covered, and in case it's colder than predicted, take extras.
Just because it's winter, don't leave the sunscreen at home. Even when the sun isn't shining, its UV rays reflect off water and snow, and you'll still end up with a sunburn.
Things to Do in California in January
January is one of the best times of the year to see California wildlife doing things you wouldn't have imagined possible.
- Monarch Butterflies: The orange-and-black butterflies spend their winters in the trees around Pacific Grove and Santa Cruz, sleeping in big clumps to keep warm. When they wake up and start flying, it's a sight you might think happens only in the movies.
- Elephant Seals: In January, elephant seals create an unforgettable spectacle on a couple of California beaches. You can see them at Año Nuevo north of Santa Cruz. If you're in the southern part of the state, get an even closer look at them at Piedras Blancas near Hearst Castle.
- Whale Watching: January is the month to see gray whales and fin whales along the California coast.
- Quadrantid Meteor Showers: This burst of celestial fireworks happens in early January. The best places to see them are far away from city lights and where there are few trees: Anza-Borrego State Park, Joshua Tree, Death Valley, or Lake Shasta are excellent choices.
January Events in California
Below is a selected list of events to check out during the month.
- Tournament of Roses Parade, Pasadena: It's held on January 1 (except when January 1 is a Sunday, then it's on January 2), and it's an over-the-top parade that you won't soon forget. You can also enjoy events and activities before parade day and view the floats up close afterward. To get all the details, use the guide to planning your Rose Parade experience.
- Chinese New Year Parade, San Francisco: Chinese New Year is a lunar holiday that occurs in late January or in February. No matter what the actual date for the first day of the new year, the big parade — which is one of the largest lighted night parades in the country — is always on the weekend and occasionally doesn't happen until early March.
- Edwardian Ball, San Francisco: The Edwardian Ball is a two-evening event with an Edward Gorey theme, and some say it's far more fun than those rowdy parties at the end of October. In fact, it's worth going just to see all the great costumes everyone else comes up with.
- Mavericks Big Wave Surf Competition: The event attracts the world's top surfers, but it has no fixed date and depends on waves getting big enough.
January Travel Tips
- If you plan to travel anywhere above sea level in California in January, you should know the requirements for snow chains. They apply to personal and rented vehicles.
- The high mountain passes close in the winter, limiting the 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.
- Grandstand tickets for next year's Rose Parade go on sale in January, and the best seats will go fast. You can get your tickets at Sharp Seating. If you want to park your RV near the parade route, get busy making reservations in January before they're all filled up, too.
- Rose Bowl Game football game tickets also go on sale on January 1 for the following year. If you want to go, you'll need to be ready on that day and no later, using the strategies in the Rose Bowl game guide.
- As soon as restaurants are announced for Los Angeles Restaurant Week, start choosing them and making reservations.
- If you want to go camping at a California state park in January, make your reservations six months ahead of time. Use this guide to find out how to make reservations before they are gone.