With so many sunny ad campaigns, it’s understandable why many people believe California has no seasons. Yes, the weather in the 31st state is pretty phenomenal, but that doesn’t mean you can visit any time anywhere in the state and expect picture-perfect conditions. California is a huge state with extremely different geological and climatic conditions by region. Having visited California several times, and traveled across its amazing vistas, I have some tips to share on the best time to visit California.
Ultimately, the best time to visit California will depend on what attractions you’re interested in. Although the Golden State is a great year-round destination, there are significant seasonal differences travelers should know about. Here’s a quick cheat sheet listing when we recommend visiting some of CA’s most popular attractions:
November-Feb: Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, and Lake Tahoe.
March-April: Pinnacles National Park, State Parks in Southern CA, and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
May-June: Yosemite National Park, Sequoia and Kings National Park, and Big Sur.
July-August: Lassen National Park, Big Sur, Lake Tahoe, and Sierra Nevada mountain tops.
September-October: Napa Valley and Northern California.
Year-round: San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Monterrey, and Redwood National Park.
If you’re interested in learning more about when to visit California, then this is the post for you. Below, we’ll detail how the different seasons affect travel in California’s many regions. This post will also go over a few tips on when to visit some of California’s hottest draws like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and, of course, Disneyland!
A Seasonal Guide To California Travel
You May Get Wet: Wintertime In CA
No matter where you go during the winter season, you’ll probably encounter rain in California. And when we say, “it rains,” we really mean, “it pours.” There’s a lot of meteorological truth to that old Albert Hammond song. Unless you’re in higher elevations, however, you won’t see any snow in Cali.
Officially, California’s rainy season lasts between November – March and passing showers can be quite intense. Do yourself a favor and plan at least one “rain day” to avoid frustration on your wintertime journey. Also, be sure to pack plenty of rain gear, umbrellas, and jackets just to be on the safe side.
Winter Sports In South Lake Tahoe
Two of the hottest destinations during the cold season are South Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada mountains. People from all around the world flock to this region of the state to enjoy exceptional winter-related activities like skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing. There are also many fantastic festive celebrations held here during the holiday season.
Just keep in mind winter marks the height of the tourism season in South Lake Tahoe. If you want to take advantage of Lake Tahoe’s snow and scenery, be sure to book your hotel reservations well in advance. For more info on visiting South Lake Tahoe, feel free to check out this previous post.
The Cool Desert Breeze: An Advantage Of Winter Season
Besides taking part in snow-related sports, winter is the best time of year to visit California’s incredible desert areas like Coachella Valley and Death Valley National Park. With temps fluctuating between 40°F – 70°F depending on the time of day, you’ll feel surprisingly comfortable exploring these awe-inspiring areas.
The Green Season: Spring & CA’s National Parks
California might as well be called “The Green State” during spring. Unsurprisingly, this mild season is the best time of year to visit most of California’s scenic national parks.
During the spring you’ll find most of the major hiking trails clear and ready for tourists. Visitors will also be treated to gorgeous budding flora at any park they visit. Plus, since you won’t have to face the intense summer heat, you’ll feel refreshed on your hiking, biking, or camping treks, especially in parks like Pinnacles, Redwood, or Sequoia & Kings. There is one park, however, that outshines them all during the springtime.
Where To Catch The Waterfalls
Spring is extra special in the historic Yosemite National Park due to its waterfalls. Thanks to the melting snow on California’s mountaintops, Yosemite’s waterfalls reach their optimal strength between the months of May – June. Besides the famed Yosemite Falls, be sure to check out Sentinel Falls and Ribbon Falls on your springtime visit.
Flower lovers visiting Yosemite will also have the opportunity to see blooming California poppies, redbuds, and dogwood. You will have to wait till later in the season, however, to see Yosemite’s wildflowers in full bloom.
For extra tips on visiting Yosemite National Park in the springtime, be sure to check out the National Park Service’s official webpage before your trip.
For year-round waterfalls in California, you should check out Big Sur. Here's a quick link to our post about the most stunning Big Sur Waterfalls you should visit.
Blooming All Over: Springtime Beauty From The Bay To Big Sur
Still interested in seeing springtime flowers? Consider a trip to Big Sur. Unlike Yosemite, wildflowers start blooming in Big Sur as early as February and run through the month of June. As an added bonus, visitors to Big Sur could catch a glimpse of migrating gray whales, powerful waterfalls, or newborn sea otters. By the way, you could find a list of Big Sur’s most stunning waterfalls on this blog post.
The Bay Area is another great place to check out spring wildflowers. Visitors in the area should take advantage of the clear skies and mild springtime temps because they won’t stick around once summer begins. A couple of the best trails in the Bay Area include Edgewood County Park & Natural Preserve and Chimney Rock Trail at Point Reyes.
Unlike the Bay Area, the Southern California coast is not highly regarded during the springtime. Often SoCal faces overcast skies (aka the “June gloom”) until summer rolls around.
Surf, Sand, And Summertime
Please don’t travel to California’s interior during the summertime. If you do, you’ll have to contend with oppressive heat and blazing sunlight. For a more comfortable summertime trip, consider staying in the north, climbing to higher elevations, or visiting the beaches. We once drove from Los Angeles to Monterey in July. Once we got to the valley, temperatures shot up into the 100's. It was pretty amazing to watch the car's thermometer drop as we got back to the coastal area. By the time we reached Monterey, it was in the 50's! All in one way of driving through California, and with hardly any elevation change!
Oh yeah, and you should mentally prepare yourself to deal with huge crowds and high price tags on a summertime sojourn. Thanks in large part to school break, summer is the busiest time of the year to visit California.
Where To Go Besides The Big Beaches
The big beaches like Huntington, Malibu, and Santa Monica are obvious summertime draws, but what if you’re looking for something a bit different on your trip? Well, those headed north might want to consider beautiful Big Sur. First off, the summertime weather in Big Sur is extremely comfortable with highs around the 70s. Secondly, summer is the best time of year to catch a glimpse of blue, humpback, and killer whales. Thirdly, Big Sur hosts many fantastic family-friendly summertime activities like hiking tours and scouting expeditions.
For those interested in taking an excursion to a national park, consider visiting parks in the north like Lassen and Redwoods. You won’t face extreme temperatures on your hikes through these parks. You could also learn about six great state parks near Big Sur by reading through this article.
Read more in our guides -
Lastly, outdoorsy tourists might want to consider visiting Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada mountains during the summer. Lake Tahoe boasts clear skies, beautiful scenery, and temps in the 70s during this popular time of the year. Whether you’re into hiking, paddleboarding, kayaking, or swimming, you’ll find a way to enjoy yourself in this pristine region. Just be sure to book your Lake Tahoe hotel months in advance.
Autumn: California’s Best Season?
Many tourists consider autumn the best all-around time to visit California. And we can’t blame them. Some of the benefits of autumn in Cali include cooler temps, no risk of precipitation, receding fog, and fewer tourist crowds. Oh yeah, and there’s the impressive changing of the leaves to check out.
While California doesn’t have as colorful leaves as in the Northeast, there are a few spots in the north that have dazzling scenic displays. The most popular areas for those interested in the changing of the leaves are in Yosemite National Park and around Sacramento.
Harvesting In Wine Country
For most people in California, however, autumn means one thing: wine.
There’s a ton of activity going on in Central California wineries during the fall harvesting season…and that means dozens of fun festivals for wine fans! Many wine-related events are held throughout autumn, but the official “California Wine Month” takes place every September.
Anyone interested in visiting Napa Valley during this busy time of the year should check out their official tourism webpage to better plan their visit.
Summer In Fall? The Bay Area’s Bizarre Weather
Fall is also a wonderful time to visit the Bay Area due to what’s known as the “Indian Summer.” As the fog recedes, cities like San Francisco experience summer-like sunny weather with temps well in the 70s throughout the fall.
Since most tourists aren’t aware of this phenomenon, summer remains San Francisco’s most crowded season. Visitors to the Bay Area during autumn, however, will have the benefit of fine weather, lower prices, and fewer tourist crowds.
Additional Tips On When To Visit California
When To Visit Disneyland
If you’re traveling with kids to SoCal, chances are you’ll stop at the “Happiest Place on Earth.” Roughly 18 million people visit Disneyland every year, making it one of the world’s most popular theme parks. When you choose to visit Disneyland will determine just how many of these Mickey-attired tourists you’ll bump into.
Generally, Disneyland is most crowded when the kids are out of school. For the best chance of avoiding long lines, don’t travel during summer, spring, Thanksgiving, or Christmas breaks. Weekdays during the early spring and autumn usually enjoy mild weather, low tourists, and reduced rates at hotels.
Of course, traveling during the busier times of the year also has benefits. Disneyland often accommodates summertime guests by lengthening park hours and scheduling more parades. Also, you’ll get to see all the incredible wintertime festivities during the holiday season.
Ultimately, it all depends on what you want out of your Disney experience. Just be sure to book your room as early as possible, especially if you want to travel during peak season. You could also check out Disneyland’s official website to learn more about hotels, special events, and FastPasses.
Anyone traveling to the House of Mouse might also want to visit this previous post on the best things to do in Anaheim (besides Disneyland).
When To Visit Los Angeles
Like Anaheim, Los Angeles experiences peak tourism and sweltering heat during the summer months. Anyone traveling to LA in the summer should prepare for high hotel prices, uncomfortable smog, and long lines at the top tourist destinations.
For a more manageable trip to LA, it’s a good idea to visit the city during the fall or spring. Both of these seasons experience fewer crowds, less smog, and comfortably warm temperatures.
The major reason most people don’t recommend visiting LA in the winter is because of heavy rain. There are, however, a few advantages to a wintertime LA trip. First off, hotel and airfare are at their lowest levels. Tourists from the colder states will also appreciate LA’s average wintertime temps in the 60s. Lastly, winter is the best time if you’re interested in award ceremonies like the Oscars, Golden Globes, or the Grammys.
Not sure where to stay while in the City of Angels? No worries. We’ve got you covered with this blog post on LA’s best neighborhoods.
When To Visit San Francisco
Unlike Anaheim and Los Angeles, San Francisco has a unique weather pattern all tourists need to be aware of. Countless visitors make the mistake of booking their San Fran vacation during the summer and are disappointed by the city’s infamous fog.
Believe it or not, summertime is one of the worst seasons to visit San Francisco. Travelers will soon discover that summer in SF isn’t all sunshine and roses. Indeed, it can be downright chilly due to the thick blankets of fog and the harsh sea breezes. Not only is the weather less than ideal, but summer in San Fran also marks peak tourism season. This means you’ll have to contend with higher airfare, higher hotel prices, and more tourists at all the city’s attractions.
It’s far better to book a San Francisco trip during the autumn to experience fewer crowds and gorgeous summer-like weather. With average temps in the 70s and mostly sunny days, the autumn is actually the warmest time of the year.
Spring in San Francisco is slightly better than summer, but it’s not as nice as the fall. Although there’s no fog to contend with, average springtime temps rarely get above the 60s. You might also have to deal with some lingering precipitation.
While SF’s winter season is excellent for tourists on the hunt for deals, it’s not so great if you’re in the mood for a warm California vacation. Temps rarely get above the mid-50s, and the rain often makes it feel downright frigid.
Stay Vigilant During Wildfire Season
Traditionally, California’s brush fire season starts in the summer months and ends around September. With the recent increase in devastating wildfires, local firefighters encourage visitors to remain vigilant of wildfires no matter what time of year you visit.
By now everyone has seen the horrifying images of the 2017 and 2018 wildfires, most of which took place in Northern California. Wherever you are in California, however, you need to know the evacuation routes in case a wildfire erupts in your area.
One of the best things you could do before your trip to California is to download the Cal Fire app. Available on both iOS and Android devices, this statewide app will supply you with the most up-to-date wildfire reports. You could also view this interactive map of current brush fires put together by the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection.
A Quick List Of CA Festivals
California is home to hundreds of internationally acclaimed festivals year-round. If you want to take part in the festive fun, then you kind of have to know when to visit.
Here are some of the most popular California festivals to keep on your radar. If none of these events piques your interest, you could always visit the California Travel & Tourism Commission’s website for a more thorough events calendar.
January – The Rose Parade in Pasadena
March – BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells
April – Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco
April – Coachella Music Festival in Indio
July – California State Fair in Sacramento
July – Comic-Con International in San Diego
July and August – Vans U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach
August – Latin Food Fest in San Diego
September – Harvest Table in Napa Valley
December – Hollywood Christmas Parade in Los Angeles
The Best Time To Visit CA: It’s Up To You!
By now you should have a good idea of when to plan your California adventure. As you could see, each season has its advantages and disadvantages depending on where you are in the Golden State. Although autumn is the best all-around season, make sure to research the specific weather patterns of whatever region you’re interested in before visiting.