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

Woman drinking wine, Mountain Vineyard, Napa Valley, California

 

Martin Sundberg / Getty Images 

September is one of the best months to visit California. The coastal fog that lingers throughout the summer finally retreats, temperatures in the south moderate, grapes in the wine-growing region ripen for harvest, and the tourist crowds begin to fizzle out, which means better deals on travel and accommodation.

On California highways in September, especially in the Central Valley, be on the lookout for truckloads of bright-red tomatoes headed for the canning plant and loads of garlic shedding its paper-thin skin along the highway going to Gilroy. Dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes also show up at farmers markets and on restaurant menus, just one of the foodie joys of fall in this crop-rich region. What's more, some parts of the state (such as Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Park) finally become tolerable and one of the state's most elaborate county fairs gets underway.

California Weather in September

The weather differs depending on which part of California you're in. California generally begins to cool down in September, but with the state stretching from the border of Mexico to the Pacific Northwest, encompassing desert, high-altitude mountains, and much of the western coastline, temperatures vary drastically.

  • San Diego: 77 F (25 C) / 66 F (19 C)
  • Los Angeles: 83 F (28 C) / 65 F (18 C)
  • Palm Springs: 102 F (39 C) / 72 F (22 C)
  • San Francisco: 71 F (22 C) / 56 F (13 C)
  • Yosemite National Park: 84 F (29 C) / 50 (10 C)
  • Death Valley National Park: 107 F (42 C) / 76 F (24 C)
  • Lake Tahoe: 74 F (23 C) / 46 F (8 C)

In general, with only about 5 millimeters of rain expected over the course of the whole month, you can expect your September visit to be relatively dry.

What to Pack

Your packing list will depend on which part of California you plan to visit and what kind of activities you'll be doing there. Swimming is possible (albeit rather chilly) in September in the southern coastal cities, whereas a trip to the mountains in Tahoe may require a coat. Keep in mind that the beaches are always cooler than inland areas, and they get even chillier when the sun goes down. Bring light layers if you plan to spend time near the ocean or heavier layers if your destination is Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, Big Bear Lake, or Mount Shasta. Those headed for Death Valley, Palm Springs, or Joshua Tree National Park will get away with summer clothes.

Any side trips from California's main cities will likely warrant hiking attire, as the state is home to some of the best trails and natural spaces in the country. Pack comfortable sneakers or hiking boots, a day pack, and light layers for national park visits, and possibly even camping gear if you're keen to spend a night in the wilderness. Wherever you go, SPF will be a necessity. Don't skimp on the sunscreen just because summer is coming to a close.

September Events in California

With Labor Day festivities kicking off the month and statewide Halloween celebrations ending it, September is one of the most action-packed times to visit California.

  • Labor Day: The first weekend of September is synonymous with barbecues, beach parties, and three-day trips to California's national parks and resort cities. Labor Day unofficially marks the end of the summer tourist season, and Californians celebrate with an annual U.S. Sand Sculpting Challenge in San Diego, the Paul Bunyan Days festival in Fort Bragg, and the Sausalito Art Festival near San Francisco.
  • Los Angeles County Fair: Los Angeles is home to one of the state's biggest and most elaborate county fairs, featuring your average carnival rides, games, fried food stalls, livestock displays, and more in Pomona. The fair has been canceled in 2020.
  • Monterey Jazz Festival: Monterey's annual jazz celebration kicks off mid-month with a lineup of visiting musicians. It's almost always a sellout, so purchase your tickets at least two weeks in advance. The 2020 event will take place virtually on YouTube.
  • Autumn Moon Festival: San Francisco's Chinatown neighborhood celebrates the full moon with Chinese traditions and rituals like lion dancing, puppets, costumed artisans, and other cultural displays. The event has been canceled in 2020.
  • Grape Harvest Festival: Lodi, California, hosts this family-oriented festival every September to celebrate the grape harvest. Kids are entertained by carnival-like activities while adults may indulge in wine tasting, competitive art and craft exhibits, and entertainment across six stages. The 2020 Grape Harvest Festival has been canceled.
  • International Dragon Boat Festival: Oakland welcomes about 60,000 spectators to its annual Northern California International Dragon Boat Festival, where traditional dragon boats race on Lake Merritt to the beat of Chinese drums. Admission is free. 2020's event has been canceled.
  • Sausalito Floating Homes Tour: One of Sausalito's most famous features is its band of colorful houseboats, which you can see during the city's annual Floating Homes Tour. The event has been paused in 2020, but this one-day-only tour typically allows visitors to get a rare up-close glimpse of the iconic homes.
  • Maritime Festival: The Ocean Institute in Dana Point puts on an annual Maritime Festival—formerly known as the Tall Ships Festival—to honor its famous tall-masted sailing ships. During the festival, there are live demonstrations, expert talks, tours, "mermaid" encounters for the kids, live music, and more. It's been canceled in 2020.
  • Surf City SurfDog Competition: Dog owners from around the world bring their pups to hang ten at this annual Huntington Beach surfing competition, a one-of-a-kind event where the dogs are the contestants. 2020's "comPETition" will take place virtually.
  • Halloween Time at Disneyland Resort: Leading up to Halloween, you'll find rides transformed into holiday themes, seasonal foods, and spooky decorations all around Disneyland in Anaheim. Even better is the annual after-hours Halloween Party, a rare occasion in which the adults (not just the kids) arrive in costume.
  • California Wine Month: The entire month of September is one big celebration of California wine, mostly (and most famously) hailing from Napa and Sonoma, but also the vineyards in Southern and Central California.
  • Whale Watching: September is one of the best times to catch a glimpse of blue whales, humpbacks, and minke whales as they migrate from Alaska to Baja California in Mexico.

September Travel Tips

  • Don't wait until the last minute to purchase tickets to the Monterey Jazz Festival. Arena seating and single-day tickets go on sale in July and they often sell out by late August.
  • If you want to go camping at a California state park in September, make your reservations six months ahead of time.
  • If you're planning to camp at Yosemite National Park in September, the deadline to book a site is May 15. You can make your reservation online or by phone at 877-444-6777.
  • Many of the famous mountain passes start closing in September, or after the first snowfall. These include Tioga Pass in Yosemite, Donner Pass near Truckee, and Sherman Pass in the Sequoia National Forest. Look up road conditions of high-altitude destinations before you attempt a road trip as many places require snow chains starting in September.
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