Thinking of visiting California? Here’s why December is a great time to go.

Given its position in the northern hemisphere, you might have ruled out visiting the United States in the winter. But did you know that December is one of the best times to visit California?

Far from the icy temperatures of New York or the rainy streets of Portland, California in December is a sunny bubble of wildlife sightings, beautiful beaches and incredible travel experiences.

Having spent two winters in California, I think it’s the perfect time for visiting the Golden State.

Some of the most unique things to do in California are only possible at this time. And, some of the most popular things to do there are just better, cheaper and easier at this time of year.

Here’s why you should plan your trip to California in December, and what to expect while you’re there.

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When to travel to California USA
 


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Is December a good time to visit California?

Its sunny weather isn’t the only reason to escape to California in the winter months, but it’s definitely a bonus.

California has some of the best weather in the whole of the USA, making it an ideal place to visit at any time of year.

California weather in December

Even though December is one of the coolest months in California, it’s still mild enough to enjoy. Plus, rainy season doesn’t usually kick in until January, meaning you can enjoy California’s beautiful outdoors.

Given the size of the state, temperatures can vary a lot. In San Diego and Los Angeles, you can expect December temperatures between 10°C and 19°C.

Further north, cities like San Francisco are usually a few degrees colder, while ski towns can hit below zero.

This diversity in climate is one of the things that makes California so special – and also why it’s one of the best places in the US to visit in December.

You can enjoy everything from camping and skiing to city exploring in December in California – or a mix of everything!

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RELATED READ: Why you should visit Portland in February.


5 More reasons to visit California in December

Still not convinced? Here are five very good reasons to travel California in December beyond the milder weather:

1 – It’s less busy

December is off season for California tourism. During the other months of the year – especially in the summer – California is one of the busiest travel hotspots in the USA.

In December, however, the crowds are minimal (by California standards, anyway!).

That means you can enjoy shorter queues, emptier streets and a more immersive travel experience.

 

2 – It’s a great time for photography

With the shorter days and fairly dry weather, December is a great time for travel photography in California.

Sunrise usually falls around 6:30-7AM and sunset around 5PM, meaning you can still enjoy a full night’s sleep and a full day of exploring. Not only that but the beaches and popular spots are much quieter, too.

If you’re a fan of street photography, the higher ratio of locals vs tourists in December will also be a bonus.


California beach in December
Areas that would be crowded in the summer are empty in the winter.

3 – It’s more affordable

With fewer crowds and therefore less demand, California hotel prices are at their most affordable in December.

Note that I said affordable – California is far from cheap, but December has the best prices of all.

4 – You can enjoy multiple trips in one

With so many different locations and climates, California is one of the most varied states in the US.

It’s no surprise, really, given its gigantic size and north-south spread. Don’t let the distances put you off, though.

In one trip to California, you can enjoy everything from skiing to surfing, with something to suit every travel style.

 

5 – It’s the best time for spotting California wildlife

While I wouldn’t say California is the best place to enjoy ecotourism in the United States, it’s not far behind.

December is undoubtedly the best time to enjoy the state’s best ethical wildlife encounters. At this time of year, the west coast’s famous elephant seals are beginning to come ashore to give birth – meaning you might see pups! – while gray whales, orca and dolphins are all migrating past the coast.

You can book whale watching tours all along the California coast in December. Some popular spots include San Diego, Newport Beach and Monterey.

Further up the California coast, thousands of monarch butterflies gather in the town of Pacific Grove.


An elephant seal in California USA
December is the best time to see baby elephant seals (and they’re much cuter than the funny looking adults)

What to do in California in December

With the mild weather meaning you won’t be stuck indoors, there are lots of things to do in California in December.

Here are some of the best ways to soak up this sunny state in the cooler months.

Take a road trip

California is one of my favourite road trip destinations in the world. From the epic Imperial Sand Dunes to the Redwoods in northern California, there’s so much to see!

In the summer months, the California roads can get busy. But, in December, they’re reasonably quiet – making it the perfect time to plan a California road trip.

This is especially true for the Pacific Coast Highway, which gets busy even in the late winter thanks to Chinese New Year.

 

Explore the cities

Like the rest of the state, California’s cities see an influx of tourists in the warmer months.

With fewer local travellers around, December is a great time to explore the bigger cities. San Francisco and LA are particularly quiet and affordable at this time of year, while San Diego pretty much guarantees some winter sun.


Mission Beach in San Diego California USA
San Diego: sunny even in December!

Enjoy the wildlife

You won’t have to go far to see some awesome wildlife in California.

Most of the wildlife in California can be found along the coast. So, if wildlife is your reason for visiting, try to plan a route that stays near the sea.

Go skiing

Did you know that California is home to a number of ski resorts?

While Colorado and Utah may be home to the more famous hills, California offers some steady competition.

Check out this list of ski resorts in California to see just how many there are and find one that fits your trip.

 

Photograph the national parks

The National Parks in California get crazy busy in the summer months, but they tend to be quiet in winter.

The lower number of visitors combined with the moodier weather makes December a perfect time to take some epic landscapes photos.

Once you’re finished, you can also enjoy a peaceful hike on one of the many trails.

Attend a festival

California loves a good festival – even in the winter.

In December , California hosts some of its most unique festivals of all. There are the Christmas events that you’d expect, such as San Diego’s Balboa Park December Nights and the Christmas Boat Parade in Newport Beach.

However, in true California style, there’s also an annual cannabis festival and a sustainability-focused SnowGlobe Music festival at Lake Tahoe.


How long does ESTA take USA visa for California
Joshua Tree National Park: One of my favourite spots in California.

 

Places to visit in California in December

You can visit pretty much all of California in December.

However, if you’re looking for a unique winter getaway, these are my favourite places to visit during the winter months.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is one of the most popular national parks in all of California. Once you see the otherworldly trees that grow here, you’ll probably understand why!

Since it’s in the middle of the desert, Joshua Tree is much better to visit in the cooler months. Just keep in mind that it can get pretty chilly at night.

If you’re camping, make sure you have a warm enough sleeping bag to keep you warm.

Alternatively, there are lots of cute Airbnb cabins in Joshua Tree – perfect for a cosy winter night!

If you’re rather stay in a hotel, check out the totally unique Sacred Sands guest house. There’s nothing like taking a dip in a warm outdoor bath with views into the park.

TRAVEL TIP

If you’re heading east, consider venturing into Arizona, too.

December is a great time to enjoy Arizona’s best hiking trails, such as Havasu Falls.

Disneyland

Disney may not be everybody’s cup of tea but this one is the original ‘happiest place on Earth’.

During December, Disney puts on even more of a show with Christmas specials such as parades, shows and other performances.

If you’re travelling to California with kids (or big kids!) Disneyland is a must-visit.

 

San Francisco

One of the most expensive places in all of California, San Francisco is a great place to visit in December.

You avoid the massive influx of tourists that happens with Chinese New Year and get to enjoy a more authentic taste of the city.

It will be a little on the chilly side, but that only makes the local clam chowder taste better. Plus, you won’t have to worry about crowds!


San Francisco California USA
San Francisco is moodier but just as beautiful in December

Lake Tahoe

Home to seven ski resorts, Lake Tahoe is a great place to head for some winter sport action in California.

If you’re not into skiing – or are travelling with someone who isn’t – then it’s still a great place to enjoy a cosy winter escape with incredible views.

Since it straddles the Nevada border, Lake Tahoe is also the perfect stop if you’re planning to visit Vegas, too.

 

Redwood National and State Parks

California is famous for its redwood trees – aka the tallest trees in the world.

You don’t have to be a nature lover to enjoy these incredible trees because they’re absolutely breath-taking.

During December, the roads are much quieter, so you can spend time photographing the area without interruption.

It’s also a great time to visit because you can retreat to a cosy cabin afterwards. This cosy cabin has all the charm of a tiny home and wouldn’t be out of place in Oregon.


Red Wood National Forest California USA
Driving in Redwood National and State Parks should be on everyone’s USA bucket list!

Practical tips for visiting California in December

Now you know what to expect from a December trip to California, here are a few more things to know before you go.

You might need a visa

Unless you’re a US resident or from an ESTA country, you will probably need a visa to enter California.

Visa applications can take a while to process, so make sure you leave plenty of time to apply.

 

Driving in California

Driving is pretty much the only way to get around in the US. If you’re not American, you’ll probably need an international driving permit to hire a car there.

Airport queues can be long and cars can run out quickly around Christmastime, so it’s best to book your rental car before you arrive.

Click here to check prices and availability for your trip.


READ NEXT: How to get to Havasu Falls, America’s coolest waterfall.


Make sure your travel insurance is adequate

Health care in the United States is some of the most expensive in the world. You never want to end up sick while travelling, but that’s especially true in the US.

Make sure you have adequate travel insurance – adequate being the crucial word! – before visiting California.

I use and recommend World Nomads because they cover activities and scenarios that other insurers won’t.  Click here to get a free, 30-second quote.


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