The Best Snowy and Sunny Places to Visit in California this Winter

The Best Snowy and Sunny Places to Visit in California this Winter

Whether you’re in it for the snow, or you’re more of a beach bum, there’s really no wrong way to spend winter in California. Here are some of the best places to visit the next time you’re in California for the holidays.

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Snow Capped Trees and a River in Yosemite - Rachel Off Duty

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When most people think of California, the image of sunny beaches and endless palm trees undoubtedly comes to mind. But California is also famous for being one of the few places in the world where you can ski and surf on the same day, if you’re actually crazy enough to do so (kidding… this actually sounds like it’d be really fun if I could stand on a pair of skis). There’s really no wrong way to spend winter in California.

Here are some of the best places to visit, as chosen by myself and other travel bloggers, whether you’re in search of snow or sun!


RELATED: Winter in the Mountains – How to Spend 1 Day in Big Bear, California


The Best Snowy and Sunny Places to Visit in California this Winter

Ski Slope in Yosemite - Rachel Off Duty

If You’re In the Mood for Some California Snow:

1. Yosemite

By Rachel F. – Rachel Off Duty

Snow-Capped Mountain in Yosemite - Rachel Off Duty

A gorgeous destination year-round no doubt, Yosemite completely transforms into a winter wonderland for those willing to visit when it snows. Here, you’ll be greeted with fresh, powdery snow and unbelievable views of the Half Dome like you’ve never seen before. While some national parks close in the winter, Yosemite invites visitors to experience snow-shoeing, skiing, ice skating, and hiking. 

WHERE TO STAY: 

You can rent a heated cabin in the national park for a night. Or, if you’re looking for a bit more traditional comfort, check out Tenya Lodge or any of these nearby Airbnbs

OTHER TIPS: 

  • Pack gaiters and crampons even if you don’t plan on hiking. Getting from point A to point B while visiting the national park can be slick and icy during the winter months.

  • Make sure you take a car with winter tires or chains. You’ll most likely need them in order to drive in and out of the park.

2. Big Bear

By Rachel F. – Rachel Off Duty

Big Bear: Welcome to The Village Sign - Rachel Off Duty
Rachel Off Duty: Woman in a Striped Sweater Sitting on a Rock
Rachel Off Duty: Woman in a coat hiking on a mountain with a view of a lake in Big Bear

Another mountain town well-loved for its skiing, Big Bear is a great choice for winter. It’s famous for two ski properties in particular, Snow Summit and Bear Mountain, both of which are owned and operated by Big Bear Mountain Resort. There are tons of hiking trails in the area as well, and you’ll also find a small downtown area (Big Bear Lake Village) with good restaurants to cozy up in throughout your stay.

WHERE TO STAY:

The best way to enjoy Big Bear and the surrounding areas is by renting a cabin. To make it even more special, book a micro-cabin at the Getaway House (tip: use code OFFDUTY to save $25!). Or, if you want to find a cabin closer to Big Bear Lake, check out these Airbnbs

OTHER TIPS: 

  • If you don’t like skiing, try tubing! Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain, Big Bear Snowplay, and Grizzly Ridge Tube Park are some great options for getting on the slopes. 

  • Want to learn how to ski while in Big Bear? Schedule your lesson at Snow Summit at least two days in advance (if not more) because spots fill up fast.

3. Mammoth Lakes

By Allison B. – She Dreams of Alpine

Mammoth Lakes by Allison - Rachel Off Duty

The mountain town of Mammoth Lakes makes for an absolutely wonderful California winter getaway. Skiers will find themselves in paradise, with the slopes at Mammoth Mountain Resort and June Mountain Resort offering terrain for all levels surrounded by stunning scenery. Experienced backcountry skiers also have plenty of options, including the local favorite Tele Bowls and the unique volcanic geology of the Mono Craters.

If you’re not a big skier, you will still find plenty of things to do in Mammoth Lakes during the winter. You can explore the surrounding area on snowshoes or cross-country skis, or even lace up some ice skates and twirl around the Mammoth Ice Rink. And there are plenty of après ski spots where you can warm up and get cozy with a hot chocolate or a cocktail, like Campo Mammoth, The Yodler, or Mammoth Brewing Co.

WHERE TO STAY: 

If you want to stay right in the heart of Mammoth Village, The Village Lodge is the clear choice. Another charming option is the Cinnamon Bear Inn, which offers a hot breakfast each morning and wine & cheese at night. For Airbnbs in the area, take a look here.

OTHER TIPS: 

  • Mammoth Lakes gets in the festive spirit for Christmas with a weekly parade in December, featuring the town mascot, Woolly the Mammoth.

  • For something a bit unexpected, try a snowcat tour! Snowcats are essentially trucks designed to operate on snow. They’re big, they’re heated, and tours come with charcuterie.

 

4. Lake Tahoe

by Ale Leon – Sea Salt and Fog

South Lake Tahoe by Alenis - Rachel Off Duty

Lake Tahoe is another fantastic place to enjoy winter snow sports in California. Located about four hours east of the San Francisco area near the Nevada border, this gorgeous lake is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and offers amazing skiing and snowboarding opportunities. 

There’s a north and south side to Tahoe. The more popular side is South Lake Tahoe which provides easy access to restaurants, shops, and casinos. The casinos here are small and few in comparison to Vegas, but they’re plenty of fun nevertheless! 

For snow sports, head over to Heavenly, which sits on the highest peak in the area. The Heavenly gondola ride will give you amazing views of the lake, and is easily accessed from the middle of town. While you’ll want to spend most of your time at Heavenly, throughout the area, there’s plenty of other hills for sledding. 

Drive Highway 50 to Nevada to get amazing views of the lake, and even direct lake access. The Zephyr Cove Marina offers direct access to the lake with a sandy shore that’s worth checking out!  

WHERE TO STAY: 

The Grand Residences by Marriott are amazing. They’re located right by the Heavenly gondola, making it super convenient to get to and from the mountain. Check for listings on Airbnb and you might be able to find a better deal!

OTHER TIPS: 

  • If you’re staying in South Lake Tahoe, Heavenly will be the closest ski resort. Rent your skiing gear at the Heavenly village and get there early – this place is popular! 

  • Add plenty of layers to your California packing list. It’s obviously cold in Lake Tahoe in the winter, but you’ll get warm after skiing or snowboarding all day. Dressing in layers is key to enjoying your time on the slopes. 

5. Joshua Tree

by Joanna K. – Lose the Map

Joshua Tree by Joanna - Rachel Off Duty

Located just two hours east of Los Angeles, Joshua Tree is a desert haven for those who love to lose themselves in nature. A favorite spot for hikers and climbers, this national park is named for its huge collection of yucca palms, otherwise known as Joshua Trees.

In the winter, you can actually sometimes find this beautiful desert destination covered in snow! Though the weather may be inconsistent, you can always count on Joshua Tree to deliver great hiking views. Find a secret oasis on the Fortynine Palms Oasis trail, come upon the ruins of an old mining operation on the Wall Street Mill trail, or explore the Cholla Cactus Garden. 

A great place to relax after a long day of hiking is at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a quirky, cozy saloon-like music bar located just outside the national park. Famous bands and celebrities from LA often pop by here to hang out or even play a set! You can also head to Palm Springs, which is just a short 30-minute drive away.

WHERE TO STAY: 

The park itself contains mostly campgrounds. Because of this, most visitors stay in a Palm Springs hotel and explore from there. Visit the quirky Monkey Tree Hotel or the boutique El Morocco Inn & Spa. Or, for something closer, look at Airbnbs in Yucca Valley or Twentynine Palms

OTHER TIPS

  • In winter, bring plenty of layers and be prepared for massive temperature changes from day to night (sometimes over 30 degrees F). Also, bring heavy duty hiking shoes if there’s snow on the ground.

  • Sunscreen is also always a must as the sun can be pretty strong in these areas. Make sure to always carry a water bottle with you when you go on hikes or walks to avoid getting dehydrated.


RELATED: My Review of The Getaway House: A Tiny Cabin For Urban Dwellers


If You’re In the Mood for Some California Sun:

1. Santa Barbara

By Rachel F. – Rachel Off Duty

Rachel Off Duty: Downtown Santa Barbara on a Sunny Day

Santa Barbara is a quintessential laidback California beach town. Here, you can enjoy cool, Mediterranean climates pretty much year-round, and because of this, the area surrounding Santa Barbara produces some incredible wine. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot grapes thrive here. Don’t miss an afternoon exploring downtown Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, a wine trail where you can literally go door to door sampling local pours from boutique tasting rooms and breweries, just steps from the beach.

WHERE TO STAY: 

The Hotel Californian and The Hotel Indigo will put you right within a stone’s throw of the water, as well as Santa Barbara’s famous Funk Zone. On the flip side, The Kimpton Goodland, located just 15 minutes away in Goleta, is incredibly charming and will give you all the coastal California ambiance, even if you’re a little further from the ocean itself. You can also search Airbnbs here

OTHER TIPS:

  • While you’re in town, visit the Old Mission Santa Barbara, the town’s most famous historical and cultural landmark. This establishment was first built in the 1700s during Spanish settlement throughout the state.

  • If you’re into nature and wildlife, spend a day visiting Channel Islands National Park, just offshore from the Santa Barbara / Ventura area. It’ll take you about an hour and a half minimum to get to any of these islands, but the ferry ride itself is bound to have some wildlife wonders in store! The winter months mean prime-time for whale watching, and this is one of the best places to do it.

2. Solvang

By Rachel F. – Rachel Off Duty

Rachel Off Duty: Solvang Architecture and Windmills

Not far from Santa Barbara, Solvang feels worlds away – literally. Solvang is a Danish-style town that was founded over 100 years ago by a group of Danes. Because of this, Solvang’s streets are a tribute to Danish architecture, art, and cuisine. There are even windmills! Like Santa Barbara, Solvang is located in the wine region of Santa Ynez Valley, so you’ll find tasting rooms and nearby wineries to explore here as well. One of the best times of year to visit is in December, when the town gets festive and holds parades and other events leading up to Christmas. 

WHERE TO STAY: 

For refined, mid-century modern accommodation in the heart of Solvang, head straight to The Landsby. Find Airbnbs in Solvang here.

OTHER TIPS:

  • There are more than 120 wineries and tasting rooms in the immediate area, so pace yourself! Santa Ynez Valley is a great place for getting acquainted with some of California’s most notable wines.

  • During the holidays, be sure to check out Solvang’s annual Julefest. Solvang is consistently ranked as one of the top Christmassy towns in the entire country because of festivities like these!

3. Carmel-By-The-Sea

By Dhara N. – Roadtripping California

Carmel Fairytale Cottage by Vasu - Rachel Off Duty

Carmel-by-the-Sea, on the central California coast, makes for a fabulous winter getaway. While the water will be too cold for wading or swimming, you will be able to walk on the pristine beach in the sun. And winter sunsets here are dramatic!

Wandering the European-inspired village is one of the top things to do in Carmel. Browse art galleries and one-of-a-kind shops. Here, you can also enjoy wine tastings –there are over a dozen tasting rooms in the little village. Savor California cuisine at one of many eateries in the area, like Stationaery and Grasings. Then, peek into the past with a visit to the museum at the historic Carmel Mission.

Just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, enjoy the beautiful walking trails in Point Lobos State Reserve, or do the super scenic Big Sur drive, with its spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and rugged coastline. There are many hiking trails in and around Big Sur if you want to get active during your vacation.

In the next-door city of Monterey, tour the world-famous Monterey Aquarium, or go on an exciting whale-watching tour. Monterey has some of the best whale watching on the planet.

WHERE TO STAY

Check out Tradewinds Carmel or Hofsas House Hotel. For Airbnbs in Carmel, see here.

OTHER TIPS: 

  • Bring layers! Although Carmel doesn’t really get winter cold, you’ll be glad you brought a cover-up on the chillier days.

  • Carmel-by-the-Sea has been rated among the Top 10 U.S. cities for “Best Destination for Shopaholics”. So definitely stop into the boutiques and stores for one-of-a-kind souvenirs!

4. Palm Springs

By Alyssa G.

Botanical Gardens by Alyssa - Rachel Off Duty

January is the perfect time to flee the cold and explore the desert. Palm Springs in the winter is perfection – the oppressive heat of the summer is replaced by cool, temperate days that are perfect for exploring

The Thursday Night Farmers Market in Downtown Palm Springs is the best way to end the week and to start the weekend! The palm trees and mountains form a stunning backdrop for the desert sunset; enjoy it while perusing handmade goods, jewelry, and sampling dried fruit, nuts, and chocolate. Keep an ear out for great entertainment, and don’t miss all the phenomenal food vendors!

Escape the desert sun by visiting the Morten Botanical Garden or the Palm Springs Art Museum.

Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head to Tac/Quila. The sangria flight and churro ice cream sandwich are a must! Brunch is also a really big deal in Palm Springs – head to Cheekys and Wilma and Frieda.

WHERE TO STAY: 

Riviera Palm Springs (soon to be Margaritaville Resort Palm Springs) is a great choice. If you’re able to splurge though, head to Parker Palm Springs. For Airbnbs, go here.

OTHER TIPS

  • As mentioned earlier, Palm Springs is very close to Joshua Tree National Park. If you’re in the area, definitely plan to spend at least 1 day visiting the park. It’s particularly beautiful in the winter – especially if it snows!

  • For a hike unlike anything you might have seen before, check out Indian Canyons, a sacred nature preserve and true desert oasis, just minutes outside of downtown Palm Springs.

5. San Diego

By Rachel F. – Rachel Off Duty

Cliff by the Sea in San Diego - Rachel Of Duty

It’s hard to compete with San Diego any time of year, but especially so in the winter months. While the rest of the country begins to put on its winter layers, San Diego continues to enjoy beach days, relatively effortless weather, and a laidback, west coast pace. Downtown San Diego is a great place to call home base during a winter trip, especially if you love tree lightings, parades, block parties, and nightlife. On the flip side, for a more chilled out change of pace, head to La Jolla and spend your winter days lounging around on the beach. It doesn’t get much better than that!

WHERE TO STAY: 

If you’d like to be walking-distance from the water and right in the middle of La Jolla all at once, look no further than La Valencia Hotel, a Spanish-style accommodation with ocean views. Or, if downtown San Diego is more your scene, head to The Pendry San Diego. Additionally, check out San Diego Airbnbs here!

OTHER TIPS

  • If ice skating by the ocean sounds like paradise to you, pay a visit to Coronado! The famous Hotel del Coronado hosts an annual Skating by the Sea event that allows you to ice skate in front of their beachfront location, right next to the sand, under the stars.

  • Depending on when you’re in town, you might be able to check out Balboa Park’s December Nights –just one of San Diego’s countless free holiday celebrations.

Where in California will you go this winter? Let me know below!

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The Best Snowy and Sunny Places to Visit in California this Winter - Rachel Off Duty
The Best Snowy and Sunny Places to Visit in California this Winter - Rachel Off Duty

Hey there! I’m Rachel, a travel writer and a full-time advertising / marketing expert. In 2019, I traveled more than 25 times while working 9 to 5, and since then I’ve committed myself to living a more adventurous life, even if it means bringing my laptop along for the ride.

Are you hungry to travel more, but overwhelmed with how to juggle work and play? You’ve come to the right place!

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16 Responses

  1. I love California so much! All of these spots look amazing to visit during winter. I am definitely eying Yosemite for my next trip there. 🙂

  2. After living in So Cal for 18 years I’ve had a chance to visit all of these except Palm Springs (drove past dozens of times, just never got there). 🙂 I wholeheartedly agree that they’re all amazing. My dream is to get to Yosemite in the winter. It’s a truly magical place in any season. Thanks for sharing this great list.

    1. Yes! Sleeping in a heated tent in the middle of the national park is one of the best winter highlights of my life. Absolutely unforgettable.

  3. Oh my I wouldnt have associated California with snow and my impression is the beaches and the sun. What gorgeous shots of the winter landscape and such a well compiled post Rachel. Loved going through this one!

    1. there’s definitely some gorgeous snow here! just need to go inland and up into the mountains 🙂 thank you for taking the time to read the roundup, and for the kind comment!

    1. winter in california is the best. you can drive to snow in just a couple hours, and be back to the beach in the same day (if you wanted to). truly unique in that regard!

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The Best Snowy and Sunny Places to Visit in California this Winter