Best Places to Go for Labor Day in California

Crowded Santa Monica Beach in Southern California
Rebecca Emery / Getty Images

Labor Day isn't the end of summer weather in California, but it does mark the end of the summer travel season as families get geared up for the coming school year.

The last big holiday of summer is one of the nicest long weekends of the year. By then, coastal June Gloom is over and most California coastal locations get some of the best weather they will get all year long. Inland, temperatures start to decrease from their scorching summer highs. Mountain passes are free of snow, allowing road trips to Eastern California.

All in all, Labor Day is a perfect time for going to a festival or for a long weekend getaway. But since it's also a hugely popular time for travel, planning ahead and choosing your location wisely are essential to avoid massive crowds.

Great Labor Day Getaways in California

In Palm Springs, Death Valley, and the rest of the California desert, the thermometer is likely to still top out at well more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit on Labor Day weekend, too hot for most to even think about going there.

However, you can still find places to go and you can get a little further away from home if you have three days off. A few places that would make a great Labor Day getaway include:

  • Catalina Island: It's usually a weekend destination but an extra day on Catalina is always welcome, and you don't have to worry about driving home in that awful end-of-holiday weekend traffic—you just take the boat instead.
  • Eureka: It isn't the town with the quirky sheriff and the talking house you saw in the TV show, but Eureka, California, in Humboldt County is a charming little town on the northern coast that's filled with lovely Victorian-style homes.
  • Houseboating: For a fun end-of-summer blowout, grab some friends and rent a houseboat on Lake Shasta or go houseboating on the Sacramento River Delta. It's a fun way to enjoy the end of summer, cruising around, swimming, and having a barbecue on the deck.
  • Mount Lassen: This volcano last blew its top in 1915, but you'll still find plenty of fire and brimstone simmering beneath the surface. And some magnificent scenery all around. Labor Day weekend is the last good time to go before the roads close because of winter snow.
  • Mendocino: Pretty scenery and relaxing surroundings make "Mendo" a nice place to rest up after a busy summer. It's a perfect location for nature lovers who can enjoy hiking, camping, kayaking, and more.
  • East of the Sierras on California Route 395: Before Tioga Pass from Yosemite closes for the winter (which can happen as early as November), take a quick trip over the Sierras to Mono County. Visit Bodie, the mother lode of ghost towns, and any one of the many scenic lakes in the area.
  • Take a Scenic Drive: Scenic road trips abound in California and the only difficult part is choosing which one you want to explore. Drive the Pacific Coast Highway along Big Sur, the Redwood Highway through the eponymous trees, or from San Diego to Palm Springs to experience the beach-to-desert transition, as just a few examples of what awaits you.

Places to Avoid

Some places get so crowded during Labor Day weekend that you might think you would lose your mind coping with the crowds. They include all of the major theme parks, museums, and most beaches. San Francisco and San Diego are both notoriously popular Labor Day destinations, so be sure to book accommodations early if you plan to spend the long weekend in either one (or any other coastal city, for that matter).

If you're an Angeleno, it's actually an excellent time to stay home and explore the city instead of driving somewhere and getting stuck in apocalypse-level traffic getting back home. As a bonus, it might only take 25 minutes to get across town, since the city empties out as everyone leaves for weekend trips.

Labor Day Events in Northern California

Stretching from the San Francisco Bay Area up to the Oregon border, there are Labor Day events happening across the northern half of the state. The warm September weather is a perfect time to enjoy the best of Northern California before winter arrives.

  • Fort Bragg: The Paul Bunyan Days festival is named for the bigger-than-life logger and his giant blue ox. They say it will take you back to the days of the Wild West. Paul Bunyan Days is canceled in 2020.
  • Sonoma County: Taste of Sonoma is a food and wine festival that showcases the county's agriculture and its vintners. The 2020 event will take place virtually, so you can learn all about local wines and the grape harvest from your own living room.
  • Sausalito: The Sausalito Art Festival is a juried show with high-quality artwork and crafts, along with food and wine. It typically runs all three days of the holiday weekend, but the festival is moving to a virtual format for 2020.
  • Apples in the Sierra Foothills: Labor Day weekend marks the opening of most Apple Hill ranches, located in and around Placerville near Sacramento. You can pick your own fruit or buy some to take home.

Labor Day Events in Southern California

Many of the Labor Day events in Southern California are centered around the region's most densely populated areas from Los Angeles to San Diego.

  • Los Angeles: The Taste is one of LA's many delicious festivals, with lots of local celebrity chefs and bartenders on hand.
  • Pomona: The Los Angeles County Fair lasts most of the month, but it starts around Labor Day and is a great way to say goodbye to the summer. The Los Angeles County Fair is canceled in 2020.
  • Hollywood: The Hollywood Bowl season is nearing an end in September, but they still have concerts through Labor Day weekend. The 2020 season at the Hollywood Bowl is canceled.
  • San Pedro: The annual Conquer the Bridge 5-Mile Race will take you running over the Vincent Thomas Bridge. Conquer the Bridge is canceled in 2020.
  • San Diego: The annual U.S. Sand Sculpting Challenge takes place over Labor Day weekend, making it an even more entertaining time to go to the beach. The event is canceled in 2020.

Labor Day on California Highways

Snow seldom happens as early as Labor Day, and all of the California mountain passes should still be open.

The California Highway Patrol always increases their presence during Labor Day weekend, especially on the major highways. On the busiest roads (Interstate Highway 5, US Highway 101), you might see dozens of troopers in a few hundred miles out doing speed checks.

In Southern California, it's common to encounter bumper-to-bumper traffic between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles during any long weekend. And while Southern California is often ridiculed for its traffic jams, the San Francisco Bay Area isn't much better. To avoid the worst of those delays, plan to leave before lunch on Friday, then linger at your destination and return home in the late evening on Monday.

Labor Day weekend is also one of CalTrans highway department's favorite times for road projects, which may include major closures. Navigation apps and GPS often have that information available, but you can also check any specific highways you plan to take before setting off.