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

Monarch Butterflies in Pismo Beach, California
Danita Delimont/Getty Images

How can you tell it's January in California? There's snow in the mountains. In Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California, the only clue may be that the coral trees are blooming, 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

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 will be cold in January with its 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 will be much colder and there may be snow. 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, such as San DiegoLos AngelesDisneylandDeath ValleyPalm SpringsSan FranciscoYosemite, 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 in LA, in San Diego, and in San Francisco.

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.

By January, 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, bring 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 January

January is one of the best times of the year to see California wildlife doing things you wouldn't have imagined possible. Or to kick back and watch a meteor shower in a place with dark skies.

  • 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, male elephant seals fight for dominance while the newborn seal pups grow at an astounding rate, making for an unforgettable spectacle on a couple of California beaches. You can see them at Año Nuevo north of Santa Cruz and take a docent-led tour. 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 astronomical fireworks happens in early January. The best places to see them are far away from city lights and where there are few trees: Joshua Tree, Death Valley, or Lake Shasta are excellent choices.

January Events in California

You'll still find annual events that are well worth your time, though. Below is a selected list of things 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. With events and activities before it starts and a float viewing afterward, use this guide to plan your Rose Parade experience.
  • Chinese New Year Parade, San Francisco: Chinese New Year is a lunar holiday that occurs in late January through February. San Francisco holds the most extravagant celebration of it in the state, maybe in the entire U.S. 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: It attracts the world's top surfers, and it can happen at any time, between November and March, as soon as the waves are big enough.

January Travel Tips

  • If you plan to travel anywhere above sea level, you should know the requirements for snow chains. They apply to personal and rented vehicles.
  • 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.
  • 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, you'd better get busy making reservations in January before they're all filled up, too.
  • Rose Bowl Game football game tickets also go on sale January 1 for the following year. If you want to go, you'll need to be ready on that day and no later. All the ins and outs and strategies are in the Rose Bowl game guide
  • As soon as restaurants are announced for Los Angeles Restaurant Week, start choosing them and making reservations. Use the guide to Los Angeles Restaurant Week to get oriented.
  • If you want to go camping at a California state park in January, make your reservations six months ahead of time. That means the previous July. Use this guide to find out how to make those reservations before they are gone.
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