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

Spring time flowers on Twin Peaks in San Francisco , California

RoschetzkyIstockPhoto / Getty Images

People ask lots of questions about visiting California in May. They want to know is California hot in May? Can you swim in California in May? or What is the average temperature in California in May? In fact, those questions are impossible to answer for a state that covers 163,696 square miles, with elevations that run from 282 feet below sea level to 14,505 feet above it.

This guide can give you some insights into things that happen in California in May. It also provides links to resources that can provide more precise answers to those questions based on location.

May's Big Holidays

Cinco de Mayo: May 5 isn't Mexico's independence day, but it does mark an important battle when an ill-equipped Mexican army held off a French invasion. You'll find celebrations in Los AngelesSan Diego, and San Francisco.

Mother's Day is the second Sunday in May. If you're looking for something special for Mom's big day, we've got some great ideas that are better than the same, old, tired Mother's Day Brunch.

Memorial Day in California: Even though school isn't quite out yet, Memorial Day kicks off the summer vacation season on the last Monday of the month. It's the time that many seasonal attractions start staying open all week. It's also a three-day weekend for many people.

California Weather in May

California weather varies — a lot — depending on what part of the state you're visiting. In general, coastal areas will be comfortable in May, but the deserts will start to become unbearably hot. In the mountains, snow will be mostly melted.

The Pacific Ocean warms rapidly in spring along much of the California coast, but it won't be as warm as a bathtub. Ocean temperatures range from the mid-50s in the north to the low 60s in Southern California.

At the beaches, the weather phenomenon known as June Gloom which shrouds the coast is chilly fog and mist can start in May. That happens often enough that people have a name for it, too: May Gray.

You can get details of the highs and lows around the state in May (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.

What to Pack

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 May, water and air temperatures at the beach will 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 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.

May Events in California

Hot Air Balloons in Temecula, CA
Karol Franks/Getty Images
  • Bay to Breakers Race, San Francisco: It's an event that attracts more than 30,000 runners. And even more, spectators show up just to see all the folks in costumes (or in no clothing at all)
  • Vintage Classic Car Race, Sonoma County: Normally, it's NASCAR on the track at this raceway in Sonoma County, but once a year the vintage classics take over. It's a casual event that features some fun cars to watch.
  • Bottle Rock Music Festival: The music, food and wine event happens in late May and sometimes lands on Memorial Day Weekend.
  • Amgen Tour of California Bicycle Race: California's version of the famous French bicycle race, the Tour de France, attracts some big-name riders.
  • Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee, Angels Camp is an old-fashioned county fair that also features the jumping amphibians which inspired author Mark Twain's first published work.
  • Temecula Valley Balloon FestivalThis hot air balloon festival happens in late May or early June.
  • Wings of Freedom Tour: Collins Foundation’s annual vintage aircraft tour visits more than a dozen California locations in April and May. You can see a restored B-17, B-24, P-51 and others, take a flight or even get a little flight training yourself.
  • Mule Days: The town of Bishop holds this fun equestrian event focuses on the heritage and talents of the mule.
  • Lightning in a Bottle: Known as LIB, it is a summer campout festival in Bradley features music, art, yoga, and education on wellness and sustainability.

These are a few other travel-worthy things that happen in California in May.

May Travel Tips

Chris Eason/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

If you want to go to a summer concert, camp at Yosemite next September and October or make state park camping reservations for next December, get busy this month.

  • In Kings Canyon National Park, the road to Cedar Grove generally opens shortly before the beginning of May.
  • If you want to attend the Bottle Rock 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.
  • Los Angeles Conservancy's Last Remaining Seats series starts at the end of May and runs through June. It's a fun series of screenings, held in some of downtown LA's most gorgeous old movie palaces, places not normally open to the public. Tickets go on sale on April 11 at 10 a.m. PDT and it's always a sell-out. 
  • If you're planning to camp at Yosemite between May 15 and June 14, be ready at 7 a.m. Pacific Time on January 15 to make your reservations online. For June 15 through July 14, be prepared on February 15. It can all get a little complicated but don't fret. Use the guide to making Yosemite camping reservations to find out everything you need to know.
  • If you want to go camping at a California state park in May, make your reservations six months ahead of time in November. To untangle their overly complicated and confusing system, use this guide on how to make camping reservations at California state parks.
Was this page helpful?