You’ll see some of the most beautiful and diverse landscapes in the world at California National Parks in the winter. During this time, the parks are less crowded, allowing you to fully absorb the majestic beauty of these natural landscapes without any distractions.
When looking for US National Park vacation ideas, winter might not seem like a good time to go. But winter in California means you have two options: experience snowy landscapes at National Parks in the north or moderate temperatures in the southern deserts.
There are nine US National Parks in California which is more than any other state. Depending on the location of the National Park, you can enjoy a variety of outdoor activities from snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the north to hiking and biking in the south!
We love planning winter vacations to US National Parks to avoid the crowds. Yes, there may be unpredictable weather conditions and colder temperatures. But if you have the right clothing and gear to match the weather, then it’s easier to enjoy those outdoor activities!
Use our US National Park Packing List to make sure you have the right clothing and gear for visiting in the winter! Grab your free printable packing checklist by clicking the image below!
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Tips For Visiting California National Parks
When planning a trip to California during the winter months, make sure a National Park or two are on the list! Due to the varied climates and weather around the state, visiting National Parks in California in the winter can be different depending on the location.
If you’re wondering “Does it snow in California?” The answer is yes, especially if you’re heading to the northern National Parks, be prepared with insulated winter clothing and layers for the cold and snowy conditions. For the southern parks you’ll want waterproof clothing and hiking shoes in case of rain.
No matter where you’re traveling, it’s always good to have winter road trip supplies to help with safety, comfort, entertainment and eating while driving to your destination. Check road conditions before driving high elevation roads.
We recommend the Guide Along App to hear fun behind-the scenes stories and local tips that play automatically as you drive around the California National Parks. It’s like having a Ranger in the car with you!
USA AUDIO TOURS (GuideAlong)
“Download the app to your phone – no cell or wifi service needed. Based on your GPS location, the app takes you on a guided tour of the area and points out all the interesting features and stops. It’s like having a guide in the car with you.”
California National Parks in the Winter
California is a terrific vacation destination any time of year. Winter isn’t the most popular time to travel, but we hope this list of things to see, do, and photograph will change your mind about that!
We asked our travel friends to share their tips and experiences for visiting the California National Parks during the winter months of December, January, and February.
Channel Islands National Park in the Winter
Winter is the low season at Channel Islands National Park because island conditions can be rough. Air and water temperatures will be cold this time year! It’s also the rainy season.
This park is a string of 8 islands off of the Southern California coast. The two most popular and easily accessible islands in this National Park are Santa Cruz Island and Anacapa Island.
To get to any of the islands you must take a ferry with Island Packers. There is no fee to enter Channel Islands National Park as it is included in your ferry ticket cost.
Depending on the day, the ferry ride to get to the islands will be nice with sunny skies. Or you could experience big swells from windy or rainy conditions! Weather could definitely impact your trip in the winter.
Channel Islands Lodging & Tours
Death Valley National Park in the Winter
Death Valley is one of the only national parks where, arguably, the best season to visit is the wintertime! This US Southwest National Park famously holds the world record for the hottest air temperature (134°F!).
But in the wintertime, the weather is perfect for exploring the park’s desert, sand dunes, and badlands, with highs in the mid- to high-60s and lows in the lower 40s. Plus, even though it’s a great time to visit the park, it’s usually quiet on its trails.
There’s plenty of things to do in Death Valley in the wintertime. For example, head to Badwater Basin, the park’s iconic salt flats which stretch on for nearly 200 square miles. Here, you can visit the lowest point in North America (282 feet below sea level!) and walk on the otherworldly geometric patterns of salt blanketing the earth.
For an incredible way to end your day, head to Dante’s View on the top of a mountain peak. From here, you can see Badwater Basin over 5,000 feet below, the Black Mountains, and on a clear day, even Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States.
It’s not every day that you can spot both the lowest point and the highest point in the lower 48 at one time! (Recommended by Jess, Uprooted Traveler)
Death Valley Lodging & Tours
Joshua Tree National Park in the Winter
Winter is a great time to visit Joshua Tree National Park. Even if you only have time for a day trip to Joshua Tree, you’ll find it makes a great stop on a California road trip or a day trip in and of itself.
With highs in the 60s and lows in the 40s, bring layers with you so that you can add and subtract as needed. Visit the Cholla Cactus Garden either in the morning or evening when the sun is lower in the sky to watch them light up. Then do the hike to Arch Rock once the temperature warms up. It’s a short and easy hike with lots of great rock formations along the way.
Drive along Queen Valley Road if the roads are dry and along Park Boulevard to the West Entrance Station to see the Joshua Trees the park is famous for all around you. Stop to see Skull Rock and take the hike to Barker Dam too if you have the time.
Visiting Joshua Tree in the winter means you’ll get to enjoy the cooler weather but still be warm enough to enjoy the great outdoors. (Recommended by Christine, Live Love Run Travel)
Joshua Tree National Park Lodging & Tours
- Hotels Near Joshua Tree National Park
- Vacation Rentals Near Joshua Tree National Park
- Joshua Tree NP Tours
Lassen Volcanic National Park in the Winter
Lassen National Park is one of the best under-the-radar national parks to spend a winter weekend in California. Often overshadowed by more famous parks to the south, Lassen is far less crowded but no less magical, especially in the winter.
Snow blankets the volcanic peaks and cold weather activities are in full swing: come to experience ranger led snowshoe walks, see the alpine glow on Lassen Peak at Manzanita Lake, hike snow covered volcanoes at Chaos Crags Trail, view hydrothermal activity and go sledding at Sulfur Works, and learn about the history of the area at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is located in northeast California and can be reached by car in less than three hours from Sacramento or within four hours from San Francisco, making it the perfect spot for a long weekend in the mountains.
Campgrounds in the southern part of the park are open year round for those coming in with a warm enough sleeping environment, but for the rest of us a cozy cabin is in order. These can be found in the nearby towns of Mineral, Mill Creek, Chester, and Shingletown. (Recommended by Jamie, A Family Atlas)
Lassen Volcanic National Park Lodging
Pinnacles National Park in the Winter
Visiting Pinnacles National Park in winter provides a quieter and cooler experience compared to the bustling summer months. With daytime temperatures around 50-60°F, it’s perfect for activities like hiking the diverse trails, observing wildlife like California condors, and capturing the unique landscapes through photography.
Pinnacles National Park has talus caves formed by massive boulders wedged into narrow canyons. The Bear Gulch Cave hike is the most unique and popular trail in Pinnacles National Park and takes you past Tallus caves to the Bear Gulch reservoir. Remember to dress in layers and bring sturdy footwear for hiking.
The Balconies Cave Trail takes you through another Tallus cave. Seeing these caves is a unique experience and can be particularly intriguing in the cooler months.
The park’s campground offers a more peaceful camping experience in winter, but be prepared for chilly nights. Stargazing is another activity to enjoy on clear nights if camping in the park. Check the park’s schedule for any ranger-led programs or guided hikes that may be available during your visit. These programs can provide valuable insights into the park’s geology, history, and wildlife. (Recommended by Anu, Destination Checkoff)
Where to Stay Near Pinnacles National Park
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in the Winter
Located in the southern Sierra Nevada east of Visalia, California you’ll find Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. Combined, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park is an impressive 1,353 square miles and home to the world’s oldest known sequoia and largest trees.
In the winter be prepared to drive snowy mountain roads. Check alerts and conditions before heading into the park. Chains could be required at any time this time of year, especially in the higher elevations!
Make sure you always check the weather forecast ahead of schedule to make sure you’re entering the park prepared with the right equipment.
There are plenty of hikes which are suitable for beginners to the most advanced and experienced hikers. Hike through Zumwalt Meadow and ascend to Cedar Grove – nature’s canvas awaits and you have to stop for some pictures.
And if you’re after a bit of an adventure, why not try using ski and snowshoe trails in Giant Forest and Grant Grove? The perfect trip!
Make sure you stop by the Kings Canyon Visitor Centre or the Foothills Visitor Center to learn more about this incredible national park. The Giant Forest Museum is also excellent! (Recommended by Adriana, Wanderlicious)
Sequoia & Kings Canyon Lodging
Redwood National Park in the Winter
Visiting Redwood National Park in the winter is one of the most peaceful and serene times in the park! Due to its temperate climate, it gets chilly in the park but rarely dips below 40 degrees Ft.
Three campgrounds in the park are open year-round, which means if you’re brave enough, you can stay overnight and be close to everything! Those campsites are Jedidiah Smith, Elk Prairie, and Gold Bluffs.
Popular Redwood hikes like Tall Tree Grove, Lady Bird Johnson Grove, and Stout Grove Trail all have less crowds, bringing a more serene and peaceful forest experience.
Exploring National Park scenic drives are also a great winter activity in the Redwoods – The Avenue of Giants and Bald Hill provide lots of opportunities for photos!
Note that attractions closer to the coast, like Fern Canyon, become unpredictable and sometimes inaccessible in the winter, due to the high water levels and flooded out roads. If you have questions about whether a location is open in the park, call ahead to double check the conditions! (Recommended by Emily, TheMandagies)
Redwood National Park Lodging
Yosemite National Park in the Winter
Yosemite is for sure one of the best places in California to visit in winter. If you are looking for somewhere with a high likelihood of snow, Yosemite National Park is a safe bet.
Yosemite transforms into a magical white wonderland between December – February, making it one of the most romantic places in the USA to visit at this time of year.
Winter temperatures in Yosemite range from highs in the 50s to lows in the 30s so rug up and remember to bring your winter woollies with you!
Note: To drive in the National Park while it’s snowing you will need a 4WD or AWD vehicle with snow tires or chains.
While some sections of the park are closed in winter (everything in the park’s eastern side will be closed as Tioga Pass Road is inaccessible a few miles past the Crane Flat intersection) there are still plenty of fun activities to do in Yosemite in winter.
Most trails off the Yosemite Valley are accessible in winter and you can go snowshoeing which is a “must do” winter activity in Yosemite. Some of our favorite winter trails in Yosemite include Mist Trail (sometimes partially closed), the Valley Floor loop and the Mirror Lake Loop trail which is ideal for snowshoeing. (Recommended by: Bett, Couple Travel The World)
Yosemite National Park Lodging and Tours
- Hotels Near Yosemite National Park
- Vacation Rentals Near Yosemite National Park
- Tours Near Yosemite National Park
Shasta Trinity National Forest in the Winter
As a bonus winter vacation destination, Shasta Trinity National Forest is California’s largest national forest encompassing 2.2 million acres of unspoiled nature. During the winter, this already spectacular outdoor destination turns into a winter wonderland.
You will find a wide range of things to do in Shasta Trinity National Forest in the winter, including snowshoeing, skiing, snowmobiling, ice skating, and sledding.
As the snow descends on the region, many of the hikes will only be accessible by snowshoeing, but the blanket of snow adds a new layer of beauty and adventure to the region. Some of the best trails include Heart Lake, McCloud Waterfall, and Hedge Creek Falls.
Mt Shasta ski park offers incredible downhill skiing with terrain for all levels of skiers. Alternatively, the Mt. Shasta Nordic Center offers 15 miles of trails for cross country skiing for all ages and abilities. (Recommended by Adam & Sophie, We Dream of Travel)
California Bucket List
To help make your trip planning easier, we’ve compiled this comprehensive list of must-do activities that belong on every California Bucket List: things to see, do and taste all around the state! Grab the free download by clicking the graphic below!