Unless you’re a skier, you might not have given much thought to booking a California vacation in December. Despite all of the exciting holiday events, wintertime marks a lull in California’s annual tourism season. Those who don't mind donning their raincoats, however, will be mightily rewarded on a December trip to the Golden State.
Here are 11 phenomenal things to do in California in December:
- Explore Big Cities Like A Boss
- Road Trip Along Scenic Highway 1
- Check Out Monarch Butterflies In Pacific Grove
- Ski, Snowboard, And Snowshoe In Lake Tahoe
- Visit A Delightfully Cool Death Valley
- Refine Your Palate In Napa & Sonoma
- Ski Down Yosemite National Park
- Marvel At The Mighty Redwoods
- Catch A Glimpse Of Gray Whales
- See Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens’ “Festival Of Lights”
- Admire California’s Christmas Decorations
See, you don’t have to be a skiing buff to enjoy winter in California. Let's go over each of these travel ideas in detail to help you make the most of your next December in Cali.
Why you should visit California in December
The obvious reasons people choose to visit California in December are to take advantage of the holiday-themed festivals and winter sports activities. You might be interested to know, however, that a December trip to California is surprisingly affordable.
Let’s be honest, California is not exactly a budget-friendly state. Anywhere you could get a little financial break is a big bonus. Luckily for you, airfare and hotel prices are at their lowest levels during Cali's winter season.
Honestly, the only major attractions that don’t shine during December are the beaches and boardwalks. You might not be able to sunbathe on Huntington, but temps along the California coastline and inland are warm enough for comfortable hiking, biking, and camping expeditions.
Since rainy season doesn’t really kick into high gear till January, so you’ll have less chance of getting doused during your December voyage. Of course, you'll only find snow in California at higher elevations, which is great news for all you winter sports fans.
11 Things to do in California in December and Throughout Wintertime
As you’ll see from the list below, outdoor activities are a major draw during California’s winter season. Whether you want to ski down some slopes, walk around expansive National Parks, or marvel at Christmas light displays, you’ll find something amazing to do on a December vacation in Cali. Let’s go over our picks for the 11 best things to do in California in December.
1. Explore Big Cities Like A Boss
What’s better than visiting a big California city without a busload of tourists? OK, you may run into some crowds as Christmas and New Year’s get closer, but it’s unlikely to be as overwhelming as during the summer. Also, you won’t have to worry about those high priced hotel rooms and even higher summertime temps.
A Cool Trip Through Coachella Valley: Visiting Palm Springs
Of all California's fine cities, Palm Springs is the best city weatherwise in December. The cool temps make it so much easier to appreciate this city’s fascinating art scene and natural desert beauty. There’s also a dazzling Festival of Lights Christmas Parade held every year on Palm Canyon Drive well worth your time.
Delightful December Nights In San Diego
San Diego is another big city that shines in December with average temps between the 40s and 60s F. The center of San Diego’s "Santa season" is Balboa Park, which hosts live entertainers, dynamic light displays, and food vendors during its “December Nights.” Those interested in parades should book their trip during the San Diego Bay Parade of Lights, which features dozens of glittering boats on the bay.
Another nice thing about visiting San Diego is there are so many fantastic free attractions. You could learn all about the 25 best free things to do in San Diego on this post.
Holiday Fever In LA and San Francisco
When discussing major California cities, of course, we can’t neglect Los Angeles and San Francisco. Just be prepared for large crowds if you’re visiting LA during the last two weeks of December, especially if you’re headed to Disneyland. Those visiting San Francisco should pack warm clothes to combat the city’s notoriously chilly winds.
Here’s a quick list of the most popular December events and activities in LA and San Fran complete with official links:
- Pershing Square Holiday Ice Skating Rink
- Events on The Queen Mary
- The Hollywood Christmas Parade
- Marina Del Rey Boat Parade
2. Road Trip Along Scenic Highway 1
Winter is the worst time for swimming in California beaches, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to enjoy a trip along the coast. For those who want to enjoy the Californian coast without dipping a toe into the bone-chilling Pacific, consider a drive on the iconic Highway 1. A word of caution though - check the weather forecast before heading out. It may not snow in these areas but if it's going to rain heavily, you should postpone your trip. Not only will the rain block the magnificent scenery, it could also make the narrow winding road unsafe.
When the weather is fine, you’ll find plenty of memorable cities, towns, and attractions along the route to make your trip extra special. Of course, there are the big cities like San Francisco and San Diego, but don’t neglect all of those “off-the-beaten-path” finds. For instance, take a quick trip to Denmark in the charming town of Solvang. Once you see this town’s windmills, ride in a horse-drawn carriage, and eat authentic Danish cuisine, you’ll be swept away by its bizarre charm. Sure, Solvang is a bit kitschy…but what else are American road trips for?
For the more refined readers out there, a stop at Hearst Castle is in order. Located atop a majestic hillside near Big Sur, this Mediterranean-style estate was once home to wealthy newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Besides checking out impressive architecture, artistic masterpieces, and dining hall, you’ll hear many fascinating tales of Hollywood royalty that once dined here.
These are just two fun ideas for stops on your trip along Highway 1. Of course, spontaneity is key on any successful road trip so be open to the possibilities as you explore this fantastic highway!
3. Check Out Monarch Butterflies In Pacific Grove
Unless you’re into lepidopterology, you probably didn’t know that peak Monarch butterfly migration to California takes place in the winter. For those interested in checking out this massive migration first-hand, plan a trip near the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove. Peak season at this Monterrey-area sanctuary is usually in early winter, which is perfect for December travelers.
After admiring the hundreds of butterflies at this lovely sanctuary, why not spend some more time exploring Monterey? December is an ideal time for spotting gray whales in Monterey Bay (more on that a bit later). A few fun seasonal activities to look out for in the area include the Brighten the Harbor Boat Parade, the Jingle Bell Run, and the Holiday Tree Lighting and Carmel Plaza Party.
4. Ski, Snowboard, And Snowshoe In Lake Tahoe
There’s good reason wintertime fun is so closely associated with South Lake Tahoe. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more pristine area of the state for exceptional skiing, snowshoeing, and snowboarding. Live music fans also love visiting South Lake Tahoe in December to take part in the adrenaline-pumping SnowGlobe Music Festival.
For those experienced skiers looking for more of a challenge, the Sierra Nevada mountains aren’t that far from South Lake Tahoe. With a summit at over 11,000-feet, Mammoth Mountain is California’s tallest peak and the site of the state’s highest premier resort. Just like at South Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Mountain offers plenty of winter sporting, fine dining, and live events to keep you entertained during your stay.
Note: winter is one of the busiest times of year to visit the South Lake Tahoe region. To avoid frustration, be sure to book your hotel room months in advance. Also, check out this blog post on the best things to do in South Lake Tahoe to take full advantage of your time here.
5. Visit A Delightfully Cool Death Valley
The scenery at Death Valley National Park never fails to enchant visitors. The only problem is it’s often way too hot outside to properly appreciate all this park has to offer.
Thankfully, December isn’t too deadly in Death Valley…at least temperature-wise. You might still break a few sweats on your hiking expeditions, but it won’t be nearly as bad as the blazing summertime. Indeed, winter camping in Death Valley is extremely popular in the park’s Furnace Creek Campground.
It’s highly recommended you go on a guided tour with a park ranger to get the most out of your Death Valley experience. If you’re dead set on trekking through Death Valley on your own, however, you should prioritize Badwater Basin, Zabriskie Point, and Artist’s Drive. To find out more about these and other noteworthy things to do in Death Valley, feel free to click the link to this previous post.
6. Refine Your Palate In Napa & Sonoma
Just because harvest season is over doesn’t mean the wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties close down. Sure, you’ll have to contend with brisk winds and wet weather, but you’ll also enjoy fewer crowds, affordable hotel rates, and maybe even a famous Napa rainbow. Plus, what’s cozier than sitting by a fire pit with a glass of vintage wine?
The main attraction in both these counties, obviously, is touring local wineries (even on Christmas day). There are, however, many other wonderful ways to warm up on a December trip to wine country. For instance, you could watch a show at the Green Music Center, take the kids to the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County, or see what’s going on at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. There are also plenty of exquisite restaurants, shopping locales, and cooking classes sure to charm your senses.
Before you leave, be sure to take a ride on the Napa Valley Wine Train—or, as locals call it this time of year, the “Santa Train.” During this special time of year, guests will get to enjoy a warm cup of hot cocoa, sweet cookies, and sing Christmas carols while enjoying remarkable views of Napa Valley.
7. Ski Down Yosemite National Park
Usually, when we think of skiing in California we put too much attention on South Lake Tahoe. Yes, Lake Tahoe is the most popular ski resort in the state, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t phenomenal skiing opportunities elsewhere. For instance, Badger Pass Ski Area in Yosemite National Park is a great place to enjoy winter sports away from Lake Tahoe’s crowds.
During the winter season, the Yosemite Valley and Wawona sections of Yosemite National Park remain open to the public. Temps are usually in the 40s during the daytime and 20s at night, much like South Lake Tahoe. Both downhill and cross-country skiing trails are available to people who visit this park.
Don’t know a thing about skiing? Don’t worry! There are plenty of ski courses and instructors at Badger Pass to help any newbies. There’s also a fun tubing area for those who don’t want to be bothered with all this skiing stuff.
As you could imagine, the roads in Yosemite can be extremely treacherous during the winter season. It’s highly advised you work with an experienced tour company that can safely (and warmly!) transport you around the area. For those who are going to brave Yosemite by car, you must have four-wheel drive and tire chains. Drivers should also remain informed about road closures before making the drive to Badger Pass Ski Area.
8. Marvel At The Mighty Redwoods
Most people who visit Redwood National Park do so in the summer to enjoy the bright sunlight, dry weather, and warm temps. Yeah, summer is pretty great in Redwood…but that doesn’t mean December is all that bad.
As long as you wear a comfortable raincoat, you shouldn’t have an issue navigating Redwood National Park in the winter. In fact, some visitors claim it’s rather comfortable hiking through this National Park during the cooler season.
Want a few tips on visiting Redwood National Park? Look no further than our Redwood National Park Visiting Guide.
9. Catch A Glimpse Of Gray Whales
Interestingly, the peak of Monarch butterfly migration coincides perfectly with another amazing natural phenomenon: whale migration; specifically, gray whales. Typically, gray whales begin their trek southward from Alaska in the fall, which makes December an ideal time to catch a glimpse of them along the California coast.
Although you could technically see gray whales from any coastal area, the best whale-watching tours operate in San Diego Bay and Monterey. Not only do gray whales appear here with greater frequency, but they also tend to get really close to the shore. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of humpback, blue, and/or killer whale in Monterey Bay.
San Francisco Bay is another popular option for people interested in going on a whale-watching tour. Unlike San Diego and Monterey, however, San Francisco usually experiences peak migration between January and April. This doesn’t mean you won’t be able to see whales on a trip in San Francisco in December, but it’s less likely.
10. See Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens’ “Festival Of Lights”
There are plenty of impressive light displays during December, but Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens’ “Festival of Lights” is worthy of special attention. Every year, dedicated workers create dozens of eye-catching decorations throughout this 47-acre coastal garden.
In past years, a few impressive displays at the festival include a pirate ship, a sea monster, and flamingos frolicking around a palm tree. Believe it or not, there’s even been a volcano display with ruby red lava and real smoke at these gardens.
Admission to the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens’ Festival of Lights is usually no more than $10 per adult and free for kids under the age of 16. For more information on the “Festival of Lights,” be sure to visit Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens’ official webpage.
11. Admire California’s Christmas Decorations
No matter where your December travels take you, you’re bound to run across fantastic Christmas decorations in California. One city that really shines in this department is Carmel-by-the-Sea. Located just south of Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea is most famous for its tree lighting in Devendorf Park. Before and after the lighting of the tree, guests at Devendorf Park enjoy live musicians, food vendors, and a visit for good ole’ Saint Nick.
As the state’s capital, you’d expect Sacramento to also put on some pretty dazzling light displays. This is especially true in historic Old Sacramento which hosts its “Theatre of Lights” event almost every night. Come and witness some of your favorite cartoons projected on Old Sacramento’s buildings, munch on local food, and meet Santa Claus...who just flew in from Devendorf, of course!
Lastly, people who don’t mind big crowds will definitely be impressed with Disneyland’s, well, “magical” Christmas decorations. If you are going to visit the House of Mouse in December, then you’d better make sure to book your hotel reservations months in advance. Oh yeah, and you’d better learn all about Fastpasses before visiting, otherwise, you’re not going to get on any rides quickly.
Looking for even more ideas? Don't miss out on our bucket list of 19 best California cities to visit. Almost all of them make fantastic destinations any time of year.