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

Spring time flowers on Twin Peaks in San Francisco , California

RoschetzkyIstockPhoto / Getty Images

Stretching from Mexico all the way up to the Pacific Northwest, California is a state of many climates, a year-round destination with hot deserts, beaches, chilly forests, and skiable mountain resorts. Come May, the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve will be finishing up its peak poppy blooming season, Death Valley will be warming up to near-unbearable temperatures, and parts of Yosemite National Park might still be under snow. The best California region to visit depends on the type of vacation you long for. Regardless, May is a great time to explore California because the weather and crowds are generally mild throughout the state.

Weather in May

California weather varies greatly depending on which part of the state you're visiting. Lake Tahoe can get as cold as 37 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) whereas Death Valley can reach temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius).

The Pacific Ocean warms up rapidly during spring, but many people would still find it too cold to swim in. Ocean temperatures range from the 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) in the north to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius) or slightly higher in the south. Along the coast, the weather phenomenon known as June Gloom, which shrouds the coast in chilly fog and mist, can start in May. It happens so often, in fact, that many have dubbed it "May Gray."

Cities in the south may allow for T-shirts and shorts while more northern destinations will doubtless still be chilly.

Destination Average High Average Low
San Diego 69 F (21 C) 60 F (16 C)
Los Angeles 74 F (23 C) 58 F (14 C)
Disneyland 75 F (24 C) 58 F (14 C)
Death Valley National Park 100 F (38 C) 72 F (22 C)
Palm Springs 95 F (35 C) 64 F (18 C)
San Francisco 64 F (18 C) 51 F (11 C)
Yosemite National Park 73 F (23 C) 44 F (7 C)
Lake Tahoe 63 F (17 C) 37 F (3 C)

What to Pack

Your packing list will vary depending on where you go and what you plan to do. Keep in mind that water and air temperatures at the beach will limit most people to oceanside strolls, so unless you're staying at a Palm Springs resort with a pool (or otherwise visiting a mountain hot spring, because there are plenty), you can leave the swimsuit at home. The coast is generally cooler than inland areas, so bring layers.

If you plan to do any camping or hiking, pack plenty of warm layers and potentially even a rain jacket. Believe it or not, some California destinations—like around Mount Shasta—can be quite wet during spring. But regardless of where you go, always bring sunscreen. Even if the sun isn't shining, its UV rays can reflect off of water and snow, resulting in pesky off-season sunburns aplenty.

Hot Air Balloons in Temecula, CA
Karol Franks / Getty Images

May Events in California

Being so close to the Mexico border, Southern California—especially San Diego—is especially festive on Cinco de Mayo. Margarita specials and guacamole abound at every cantina in town. Be prepared for people to flock to the beach cities for the long Memorial Day weekend, but otherwise, the crowds should be light. May is peak season for the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, which is best seen away from cities (head to Joshua Tree or Lake Shasta), and also for whale watching. Humpbacks and orcas are most commonly seen this time of year.

  • Bay to Breakers Race: More than 30,000 runners dress in their most outrageous costumes for this San Francisco footrace each third Saturday of May.
  • Sonoma Speed Festival: It's normally NASCAR on the track at this raceway in Sonoma County, but once a year the vintage classics take over.
  • BottleRock Napa Valley: Music, food, and wine collide for this Wine Country extravaganza, which sometimes lands on Memorial Day weekend.
  • Amgen Tour of California Bicycle Race: California's eight-day version of the Tour de France attracts some big-name riders.
  • Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee: The jumping amphibians at this old-fashioned county fair are reportedly what inspired author Mark Twain's first published work.
  • Temecula Valley Balloon Festival: This Southern California hot air balloon festival happens in late May or early June.
  • Wings of Freedom Tour: The Collings Foundation’s annual vintage aircraft tour visits more than a dozen California cities throughout April and May. You can see a restored B-17, B-24, or P-51 take a flight or even get a little flight training yourself.
  • Mule Days: The city of Bishop holds this annual equestrian event that focuses on the heritage and talents of the mule.
  • Lightning in a Bottle: Also known as LIB, this summer campout festival in Bradley features music, art, yoga, and education on wellness and sustainability.
  • Los Angeles Conservancy's Last Remaining Seats: This series of screenings held in some of Downtown LA's most iconic old movie palaces—many of which are not normally open to the public—starts at the end of May and runs through June. Tickets go on sale in early- to mid-April and almost always sell out.
Jacaranda trees in Los Angeles
Chris Eason / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

May Travel Tips

  • If you plan to attend a summer concert or go camping at Yosemite next fall, May is the time to make those reservations. Beware of winter road closures that last through May in the northern part of the state.
  • In Kings Canyon National Park, the road to Cedar Grove generally opens in late April. Visitor services in this area of the park, however, are not available until late May.
  • If you want to attend the BottleRock music festival in Napa Valley, start looking for a hotel room in January. Otherwise, you may be sleeping in your car or paying more than $300 a night for your lodging.
  • If you plan to camp at Yosemite between May 15 and June 14, you must book your stay in January.
  • If you plan to camp at a California state park in May, make your reservations six months ahead of time.
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