This year, I have loved highlighting my favorite spring break destinations in California, California summer getaways, and best fall trips in the Golden State. And now it is finally time to tackle the fourth and final season – winter travel in California!
Whether you are looking to embrace the cold and head for a snow-covered mountain ski retreat or escape it somewhere subtropical, California offers a variety of travel destinations that work well for families. Here are my top family-friendly winter destinations in California:
Editor’s Note December 2020: Note that much of California is under a short term stay-at-home order at the moment that restricts leisure travel and may make renting hotels or other lodging more difficult or impossible in some locations. Check out my complete guide to how the stay-at-home order affects California travel to find out what restrictions may be in place at your destination of choice.
Best Winter Destinations in California
1. Lake Tahoe
With over a dozen ski resorts, Lake Tahoe is simply THE place to ski in California. The ski resorts range from the luxurious scenes of Squaw and Northstar to the tiniest of ski hills perfect for teaching a younger kid to ski on the cheap.
Choose between North Lake or South Lake, as the lake area is vast and road conditions can be challenging when winter weather hits. Can’t decide which resort is best for your family? Check out my complete comparison guide to every Lake Tahoe ski resort. For visitors not within driving distance, the Reno, Nevada airport is your best bet for easy access, although Sacramento can work well too.
For more Tahoe information, check out these related posts:
- Tips for driving to Lake Tahoe in winter
- First timer’s guide to Lake Tahoe
- How the 2020-2021 Ski Season will Operate Differently
2. Palm Springs
Snowbirds looking to escape winter in California have long been flocking to sunny Palm Springs. And families should join that migration!
Palm Springs boasts average high temperatures of about 70 degrees even in the dead of winter. The area offers a multitude of activities for travelers with kids, from the Living Desert zoo to the coolest aviation museum my family has ever visited (and we’ve visited a lot). Get more ideas for your winter family getaway in my post on what to do in Palm Springs with kids.
3. Mammoth Mountain
Mammoth is home to California’s highest ski peak so it probably goes without saying that it is another fantastic ski and snow destination. Mammoth is not far from Yosemite, but winter road closures make it a bit of a challenge for Northern Californians to reach directly. As a result, it is more commonly visited by Southern California locals. Out of staters can fly directly into the Mammoth Yosemite airport on Alaska or United’s regional partners.
4. San Diego
San Diego has made my list for many seasons of the year because it is truly blessed with weather that works just about any time. And there is just so much in the greater San Diego area for families to do!
Both Legoland California and Sea World have holiday decorations and special events in December and early January worth a visit to get into the holiday spirit. The winter months (December through April) are also peak whale watching season in San Diego. Families can also enjoy a little beach time on nearby Coronado Island.
5. Death Valley
Winter is one of the best times of year to visit Death Valley National Park. Not only is it not unbearably hot, but crowds are actually reasonable as well. Late fall, winter, and early spring are the only time of years where visitors are allowed to hike all day long so you can really make the most of your time during a visit. Otherwise, hiking is limited to early morning only due to the dangers of heat. The light in Death Valley is also breathtakingly beautiful during winter months, making for some of the best family photo opps.
6. Napa & Sonoma
Like many popular California travel destinations, Napa and Sonoma wine country can sometimes suffer from being a bit too popular. The regions are teeming with weekend tourists during spring, summer, and early fall months.
Winter in wine country is much quieter, offering a chance to experience the small town charms that the area used to offer year round before it was “discovered.” You still need to pack a jacket as you won’t exactly find warm temperatures there, but the area is rarely frigid. (And after the devastating 2017 and 2020 fires, Napa and Sonoma need your business more than ever.)
7. Mount Shasta
A snow-covered destination often overshadowed by the big names of Tahoe and Mammoth is Mount Shasta. Conveniently located along I-5 about an hour north of Redding, it has the advantage of offering a much less harrowing travel route when winter weather strikes.
Skiers and boarders will enjoy Mount Shasta Ski Park, a mid-size ski area that is a significantly cheaper option than Tahoe and Mammoth for teaching kids to ski. There’s also snowshoeing trails, cross-country skiing, sledding, and tubing.
8. Santa Barbara
Mild temperatures make the coastal town of Santa Barbara another good fit for families in winter. Kids will love the beaches, the world-class zoo, and the chance to see ocean life up close at the Museum of Natural History’s Sea Center. You can even squeeze in a bit of history on a trip by paying a visit to the well-known Santa Barbara Mission.
9. Monterey & Pacific Grove
You won’t exactly find warmth on the Monterey peninsula, but the chill is more than made up for by the seasonal offerings of the area in winter. Pacific Grove is the winter resting place of thousands of migrating monarch butterflies, offering a rare chance to spot them up close. And another migration is happening out at sea – the whales!
If it gets too chilly, you can always retreat to the world class Monterey Bay Aquarium which is entirely indoors and is worthy of at least a half day visit. Don’t miss my guide to Monterey with kids for more information and ideas for family trips in the area.
10. Yosemite National Park
Last but certainly not least is one of my family’s favorite national parks, Yosemite. While we adore Yosemite, we do not adore the overcrowding that happens in the summer months.
Winter offers a totally different national park experience with lower crowds as well. Ski lovers can hit the slopes at Badger Pass Ski Area. The resort offers snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and tubing. (Editor’s Note Decemeber 2020: Badger Pass is closed for the 2020-2021 ski season.) Hikers can usually still find opportunities to explore the Valley on foot, even in the snow. And if you want a less active vacation, nothing beats curling up by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa at the iconic Ahwahnee Hotel.
California’s Best Destinations in Every Season
Don’t miss my travel guides for every season in California:
- Best Spring Break Destinations in California for Families
- Best Summer Destinations in California for Families
- Best Fall Destinations in California for Families
- Best Winter Destinations in California for Families – YOU ARE HERE
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