Northern California offers a spectacular array of activities to enjoy in January to kickstart the new year. There are all kinds of fun things to do in Northern California in January to explore all the must-see destinations.
We’ve put together a list of California vacation ideas for visiting the northern part of the state in January. You can enjoy locations that provide a winter wonderland of snow as well as more moderate areas near the beach.
Be sure to wear your layers, pack a thermos of hot chocolate, and get ready for a January full of California’s winter adventures!
There’s something for everyone in Northern California in January: You can hit the slopes at Lake Tahoe, known for its world-class ski resorts. If skiing isn’t your thing, how about a peaceful, scenic drive along the Pacific Coast Highway? The whale-watching in Monterey is top-notch this time of year.
For all the wine enthusiasts, winter is a great time to visit Napa Valley without the crowds. If you’re into hiking, make sure to hit the trails in Yosemite for dazzling winter views.
Grab this free California Bucket List Packet for even more things to see, do and eat all around the state! Simply click the graphic below to get a ton of vacation ideas for visiting California!
This site contains affiliate links which means WE may receive commissions for purchases made through these links. We only provide links to products we actually use and/or wholeheartedly recommend! As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. Read the full Disclosure Policy.
Northern California January Weather
January in Northern California can be a bit of a mixed bag, but it’s all part of the adventure. You’ll find snow in the higher elevations, especially if you’re hitting the ski resorts in Tahoe.
Along the Northern California coast, the climate is milder but still cool with daytime temperatures usually in the 50s degrees Fahrenheit. The inland valleys, including Napa, can get a little nippy with temperatures dipping into the 40s.
We recommend you check the weather for the place you’ll be visiting so you’re prepared with the right clothing and gear for the activities you will do.
Bring your winter gear for the mountains and a good windbreaker for the coast. The rain can be hit or miss, but don’t let that dampen your spirit because little drizzle adds to the dramatic winter landscapes.
Here’s a list ideas for things to do when planning your January vacation to Northern California! Check out our list of Southern California vacation ideas if your vacation plans include visiting this part of the state as well!
Ano Nuevo in January: Elephant Seals
From mid-December to the end of March you can take a Guided Walk to see elephant seals in their natural habitat. The Ano Nuevo Coast Natural Preserve offers daily walks for individuals, families, or groups.
We recommend you get an online reservation if you want to do this popular Elephant Seal Walk, especially for weekends and holidays. Children age 17 and under require one adult chaperone for each 10 children. Each guided walk is limited to 15 people, including chaperones.
The trail is a 3-4 mile hike to reach the point where you can see the elephant seals. It’s considered a moderate hike with varied terrain including sand dunes. Guided walks are 2 1/2 hours from start to finish, and operate rain or shine.
In January the weather can be very cold and windy, even on sunny days. Rain is frequent and the trail may be muddy with small puddles. Pack hooded rain gear, a warm jacket, layered clothing, sturdy walking shoes, and water. Cameras are permitted and binoculars are helpful!
Where To Stay Near Santa Cruz
Big Sur in January: Waterfalls and King Tides
January is a great time to visit Big Sur and its rugged stretch of California’s central coast between Carmel and San Simeon. It’s known for winding turns, seaside cliffs, and views of the often-misty coastline that will leave you breathless.
Expect daytime highs in the mid-50s to low-60s in January. Winter is the rainy season so pack your rain gear and make sure you have rain protection for your camera gear as well!
Photographers love the gushing waterfalls that are fed by winter rains this time of year. The King Tides are also popular to capture the water crashing on the rocks that sprays up to seven feet high!
The King Tides are followed by extraordinarily low tides, often referred to as minus tides. This is a great time to explore the rock formations and reefs brimming with underwater creatures that are usually hidden beneath the waves.
Where To Stay Near Big Sur
Lake Tahoe in January: Eagles & Agriculture
Take a day trip down the mountain east of Lake Tahoe for a fun break from winter sports activities. The annual Eagles & Agriculture event takes place in Carson Valley toward the end of January. Bald eagles and other birds of prey are drawn to the area during the winter calving season.
Nature lovers and photographers can see bald eagles, golden eagles, hawks, falcons, owls and other birds at the various ranches in the area. You can also join the popular Owl Prowl, a wildlife photography class, or the Falconers Dinner where guests can get close to a variety of raptors.
Where To Stay Near Lake Tahoe
Lassen Volcanic National Park in January: Snow Activities
From November through May you can enjoy winter activities at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Since the majority of the park is snow-covered, oversnow travel is required to explore the area.
Southwest Area in the winter: the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center is the only location that offers services in the winter (restrooms, drinking water, free WiFi, park store, gift shop, and limited food option). You’ll find the steepest slopes for sledding here. Snowshoe or cross-country ski to the Sulphur Works hydrothermal area, 2 miles round-trip.
Manzanita Lake Area in the winter: there are no park services available in the winter, but the Loomis Plaza does offer 24-hour restrooms with water. The slopes are more gentle in this area making it a great spot for easier snowshoeing and skiing.
Lassen Volcanic National Park Lodging
Mammoth Lakes in January: Hot Springs
There are three primitive hot springs in Mammoth Lakes that provide a unique winter experience. Enjoy the beauty of snow-covered landscapes from a natural hot tub without the crowds!
The three springs are located off Benton Crossing Road. Since the road is closed in the winter months, you’ll need to hike or snowshoe about a mile down a flat trail.
Hilltop Hot Spring is the closest to the road and the most popular due to the short walk. Crab Cooker Hot Spring is a mile from the parking area and provides the best view of the mountains. Willy’s Hot Spring is heart-shaped and located in the opposite direction from Crab Cooker.
Where To Stay Near Mammoth Lakes
Muir Woods in January: See the Redwoods
One of the most popular places to see Redwoods in the San Francisco Bay Area is Muir Woods National Monument. This destination gets busy, so you’ll need to reserve a parking pass in advance, but it’s worth the effort.
January is a great time to explore the forest and take in all its beauty without having to navigate through large crowds. The weather will be cooler and rainy with January being the wettest month of the year. Be prepared with layers and a raincoat!
The Muir Woods has been protected since 1908, leaving these beautiful redwood groves intact. You can hike at your own pace, choosing from a variety of options ranging from 30 minutes to 1.5 hours.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
Monterey in January: Whale Watching
Whale watching at Point Lobos State National Reserve in Monterey is as good as it gets! There is no need to get on a boat to spot the whales. You can see them from the shore at this state park by Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Orcas stop here year-round, but December to May is optimal viewing season to see orcas and gray whales at Point Lobos. This California State Park is also home to sea lions, harbor seals, and elephant seals.
Moss Landing is another top spot to see 7,000 whales swim by in the waters around Monterey Bay. The whale-watching tours add a unique experience to see whales and other marine wildlife.
Here are a few more places for whale watching in California in January: Half Moon Bay, Salt Point State Park, Bodega Bay, and West Cliff Drive!
Where To Stay Near Monterey
Napa Valley in January: Winter in the Wineries
No trip to Northern California would be complete without a visit to the Napa Valley. Wine enthusiasts will love tasting a variety of the best wines in the country. In the winter you can participate in the Winter in the Wineries event that runs December and January.
When you buy a Passport to the event, guests receive complimentary wine tastings at participating wineries in Calistoga, Lake County, Pope Valley, and St. Helena! With 19 wineries featured, that’s over $900 in wine tastings for $75!
Where To Stay Near Napa Valley
Santa Cruz in January: Monarch Butterflies
Monarch butterflies spend winter along the California coast between Mendocino County and San Diego. The best time to see these butterflies is from mid-October to late January.
Pacific Grove is nicknamed “Butterfly Town, USA”. The best place to go during butterfly season is Pacific Grove Monarch Grove Sanctuary. Another good spot to go is Natural Bridges State Beach where you can join a guided tour on weekends.
Be sure to check the weather forecast because butterflies won’t fly if the temperature is less than 57 degrees F. They also don’t fly on cloudy days. When the weather conditions are ideal, they will start flying between noon and 3 pm when it’s the warmest part of the day.
Where To Stay Near Santa Cruz
Yosemite National Park in January
The winter season brings a unique beauty to Yosemite National Park. The iconic landmarks like Half Dome and El Capitan take on a whole new level of beauty when surrounded by the winter landscape. Yosemite is a fabulous California National Park to visit in the winter if you enjoy landscape photography.
There are several winter activities to do at Yosemite like a guided snowshoe hike, ice skating, or sledding. They can be booked directly through Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite.
The January weather at Yosemite will be cold and snowy. Be sure to pack warm winter clothes, including thermal layers, an insulated jacket, and insulated boots. Don’t forget your gloves, beanie, and scarf to keep those extremities toasty.
Yosemite National Park Lodging and Tours