Whether you want to spot animals out at sea, see Disneyland all dressed up for Christmas, sip wine in Sonoma County or simply just avoid the heat and the crowds, here’s a list of the best things to do in California in December.
California is the perfect destination in December. The weather across the USA is getting colder and the temperatures are dropping… but in California, you can escape the cold and have a perfect vacation in the middle of winter!
P.S. Of course, these are all perfect places to visit in California during winter as well. California is one of the best winter destinations in the USA, so don’t just come for December, come any time during the winter!
1. Spot Seals at La Jolla Beach, San Diego
Believe it or not, you can still go swimming (or paddleboarding) in December in California! And one of the best places to do that is La Jolla Beach in San Diego. Just don a wetsuit (or simply avoid the water by staying on your paddleboard!) and head out to sea!
Check out this tour that provides kayaks and a guide to show you all the wildlife in the area!
La Jolla is famous for its seals and it’s even more magical to see them up close from the ocean.
However, if the water is too cold for you, they are perfectly visible from the beach as well. You can watch as seals play and even sometimes fight with each other.
Check out this post for more things to do in San Diego.
You can also choose to bring snorkel gear and dive through some of the caves in this area while searching for fish! You might even spot a small shark or sting-ray if you snorkel closer to the beach.
Recommended by Me! (Dayna from Happily Ever Travels) (:
2. Go Wine Tasting in Sonoma County, Wine Country
If you’re looking for something to do in winter in California, wine tasting in Sonoma County is a fantastic idea. The temperatures in December are cooler than you’ll find the rest of the year, but generally still quite pleasant.
While it can be rainy from time to time, that’s just a better excuse to curl up with a delicious glass of Pinot noir or old vine Zin, the two red varietals for which Sonoma is best known!
Many wineries have both outside tasting areas and indoor ones, so you can wine taste on the patio or terrace area if you have a nice warm afternoon — not uncommon in Sonoma County — or indoors next to a cozy fire if the weather is damp and rainy.
Or, have the best of both worlds at Ram’s Gate winery in Sonoma, which has an outdoor fireplace so you can still relax outside with some lovely heat to keep you warm!
Lambert Bridge in Healdsburg is also ultra-cozy in winter, with a stone fireplace and decorated with loads of fairy lights to create a beautiful and festive atmosphere.
Insider tip: While winter weather may have you thinking of red wines, don’t miss Sonoma’s fantastic whites! Sonoma Chardonnay is full-bodied but a bit zesty and is exactly what you want on a sunny but chilly winter day out on the patio.
Recommended by Allison Green at California Crossroads
3. Whale-Watch at Channel Islands National Park
One of the best places to visit in California in December is Channel Islands National Park. This gem of a park is located off the California coast and is an easy day trip from Oxnard or Ventura (or anywhere that you can get a private transfer from).
While the peak season of Channel Islands National Park is summer through fall, it is definitely a great place to visit in December because the crowds are minimal but the nature is still epic.
Winter is renowned for having the best sunsets and nothing is a better option than to go hiking through one of the five islands and ending your day at a campsite witnessing the sun going down over the horizon.
In addition, many animals are breeding during the winter months and you may get a chance to capture some of the seals pupping.
In addition, winter is the best time to go whale watching for gray whales. While humpback and blue whales make their appearance during the summer months, the gray whales come around during the winter and it is a fantastic winter activity in the Channel Islands.
There are many fantastic places to visit in California during December, but adding Channel Islands National Park to your itinerary will leave you inspired and rejuvenated.
All over California, you can go whale-watching in December, which is an unforgettable experience you won’t want to miss!
4. Brave Death Valley National Park in Good Weather
December is the perfect time to visit Death Valley National Park, the hottest and driest national park in the country. Because the weather is relatively pleasant, you can get out of your vehicle and enjoy most of the exciting things to do in Death Valley if you visit in December.
Located in Southern California, Death Valley National Park features stunning desert vistas, epic hikes, and scenic drives. Although the park is huge, you should be able to see most major sights in the park in one or two days, and the park is about a 5-hour drive from Los Angeles.
One of the most popular scenic overlooks in the park is Zabriskie Point. From the viewing area, you can see the fantastic badlands on all sides.
Another must-visit spot is the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, one of the few areas in the park where you will see sand. Walk on the salt flats at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, and drive to see the colors in the rock at Artist’s Palette.
If you enjoy hiking, you will find trails of all lengths and difficulty levels at Death Valley National Park. You can even climb to the top of Telescope Peak, the tallest point in the park! But you can also do easier hikes through the beautiful canyons in the park.
Daytime temperatures tend to hover in the 70s in December, and nights are cold. Bring layers if you plan to be out early or late in the day, and bring sun protection.
And bring your camera, because you will find lots of Instagrammable spots in the park!
Recommended by Dhara from Roadtripping California
5. See Christmas Lights at the Global Winter Wonderland in San Diego
I am sure when you think of Christmas, San Diego is not one of the first places to come to mind. Although San Diego is a popular family destination, it is also one of the best places to celebrate Christmas without cold weather. You get the best of both worlds, warm weather, and the Christmas spirit.
How cool would it be to travel the world in one night? Well, you can, at the Winter Wonderland in Las Vegas. You can see the Taj Mahal, Leaning Tower of Pizza, Eiffel Tower, White House, the Mayan Ruins, Buckingham Palace, and the North Pole all in one night.
You will be blown away by all of the lights and the movement of the characters to Christmas carols. It’s like taking a leisurely walk around the world while drinking warm apple cider.
If you think this place is just all lights, there is more for you to enjoy. There is an interactive maze, be careful the dinosaurs might move when you least expect it.
There are also fun shows for you to enjoy. Like any fun carnival, there are also rides for kids and thrillseekers alike.
Overall, if you are looking for the holiday spirit in California, the Global Winter Wonderland will not disappoint.
Recommended by Itz a Family Thing
6. Visit Magical Winter-Themed Disneyland Resort
What’s more magical than Disneyland? Surely Disneyland at Christmas! No one does the holiday season quite like Disney with the most incredible bespoke decorations springing up seemingly overnight at both of the theme parks.
At the main park, you can enjoy a Christmas parade and specific holiday fireworks but my favorite part has to be the spectacular Christmas lights on the It’s a Small World ride! It’s a child’s (and an Instagrammers) dream.
Even the haunted mansion gets a festive tweak! At the California Adventure Park, things are equally festive but the parade here celebrates all different festivals throughout the world with a fantastic cultural touch.
You can also meet Elsa and Anna and even Santa in the California Adventure Park! Disney snacks are so famous that there are whole websites and fan sites set up to fawn over them.
December is when the bakers and creators at Disney really let their imaginations go wild. Come to the park hungry and snack often!
Disneyland has started a phased reopening at the time of writing and hopes to have its full Christmas schedule up and running in time for the festive season.
Recommended by Around the World at the Weekend
7. Hike Around Beautiful Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park in December is one of the best times to visit! From June to September it is quite hot during the day and there is very little shade. December to May is the best time of year to visit.
There are plenty of things to see and do in Joshua Tree, but hiking is one thing you definitely shouldn’t miss out on! There are so many beautiful hikes you can do in this park and most of them are short and are considered easy-to-moderate hikes.
Also, if you’re looking to find some of the famous yucca trees, hiking is your best option!
Hidden Valley Trail is one of the more popular hikes you can do while in Joshua Tree. The trail is about a 1-mile round trip and a fairly easy hike with a well-defined trail.
Along the hike, you will be surrounded by boulders and areas to explore. Make sure to bring plenty of water and a sun hat as there is little to no shade on this trail and the sun does get quite fierce in the park.
Skull Rock Nature Trail is another very popular hike in the park. This hike is less than two miles in and out and fairly easy as you follow a paved road for part of the way.
Skull Rock is the endpoint and a cool rock formation that looks like a skull. This is definitely a photo-worthy spot to visit!
Another way to get around Joshua Tree is by doing a jeep tour or driving tour, which are super fun. I did one of these in Dubai and it’s one of the best ways to see the desert!
There are some amazing places to stay near Joshua Tree and this area is known for its star-gazing as there is no light pollution.
Recommended by Nicole Labarge from American SW Obsessed
8. Relax in Palm Springs
Palm Springs is the perfect destination to visit in December! The temperature is a comfortable 70 degrees and the sun is always shining.
One of the first things you should do in Palm Spring is to visit Morten’s Botanical Garden and stroll through the beautiful cactus gardens and native plants.
The gardens are seriously Instagram-worthy so be sure to take lots of pictures! Admission is $5 for adults. Palm Springs is also known for its unique houses with midcentury architecture.
You can even take a self-guided tour through some of the more famous spots! Or tour around the famous houses in the area, like the one owned by Frank Sinatra!
The desert town of Palm Springs is an easy getaway destination for many (check out these insane Airbnbs there!), so there are several must-see high-end hotels there that are worth checking out including the Ace Hotel, Parker, and The Saguaro – famous for their colorful design!
The Sands Hotel & Spa features a gorgeous pool to lounge at and a sleek modern 60s-themed restaurant called The Pink Cabana that showcases an incredible bar. Tourists come to Palm Springs to relax, so there is no shortage of great food, bars, and coffee shops.
Palm Canyon Drive is the center of the city and the main hub to grab a bite to eat at places like Koffi and La Bonita’s.
Before leaving the city, be sure to take a ride on the aerial tramway which provides sweeping views of the desert oasis!
Recommended by Erin McLaughlin from The Gal On The Go
9. Go Skiing in Lake Tahoe
With the seasonal winter chill overtaking the Golden State, it is the perfect time for a December adventure to Lake Tahoe.
The Lake’s picturesque shores are at their best when the trees are flocked with a dusting of fresh snow, and the mountains are primed for some snowsport action.
Lake Tahoe is the perfect winter destination for those that are looking to carve up the slopes at California’s best ski resorts. The Tahoe Basin is home to 15 world-class ski and snowboard facilities, including Palisades, which was the home of the 1960 Winter Olympics.
The upper elevations get an average of 400 inches of fresh powder each year while still getting over 300 days of sunshine.
Even if you prefer not to ski or snowboard, the lake and surrounding mountains are the perfect playgrounds for other winter activities. There are opportunities to snowshoe on some of Tahoe’s most beautiful trails, or you can do some ice skating at the Heavenly Village ice rink in South Lake Tahoe.
If you are traveling with your family, there are countless options for tubing and sledding with your kids at snowparks surrounding the lake.
Lake Tahoe is also the perfect location where you can get in the holiday spirit with a hot cup of cocoa while watching the snow come down.
Renting a cabin on the west shore of Lake Tahoe will make you feel connected to nature and provide you with a snowy retreat for your December getaway.
Recommended by Gabriel Glasier of Chef Travel Guide
10. Spot Snowy Half Dome in Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park turns into a Californian winter wonderland in December. Lucky visitors will get snow on the valley floor when the conditions are right, and there will definitely be snow in the surrounding mountains all winter.
Seeing these mountain icons covered in snow is a unique experience, especially with Yosemite’s park favorite, Half Dome.
Half Dome, towering 5,000 feet over the valley floor, can be seen from all over the park. Its unique half-domed shape also appears to have an image on the face of the mountain, making it fun to photograph in a different light. The best views of Half Dome happen in the evening, as the sun sets on the mountain.
There are many fun things to do in Yosemite Valley, including seeing Yosemite Falls, bike riding, and exploring the various hiking trails, but in the wintertime, the activities may be limited due to snow.
Some of the hiking trails, for example, become less accessible when covered in deep snow, and certain roads may be closed due to weather conditions. Always be sure to check the expected road closures before driving to Yosemite in the wintertime.
December in Yosemite Valley is considered off-season, so there will be much fewer crowds in the park at this time. Insider tip: book your stay at the Yosemite Lodge inside the park instead of staying outside the park.
You will save hours of driving in and out each day, and waking up to winter in Yosemite Valley is an experience that can’t be missed.
Recommended by Olivia from the Girl With Blue Sails
11. Visit San Francisco in the Off-Season
December is a great time to visit San Francisco, California. You will have a higher chance of rain than in the summertime, but temperatures will usually be in the mid to high 50s. So warmer and less precipitation than most of the United States. The key is to layer your clothing which is a must year-round.
Traveling in the off-season can yield great hotel deals. Consider staying in a central location like Union Square or Nob Hill. You’ll also have a better chance at landing some of the most sought-after restaurant reservations.
As one of America’s best foodie cities, top tables fill up 1-2 months ahead of time. Once you know your San Francisco itinerary, make your dinner plans!
The majority of the days will still be sunny enough to enjoy all of the major sights by walking or taking the famous cable cars. Some of the best views of the city are from the Municipal Pier at the Aquatic Cove. You can see Coit Tower, Ghirardelli Square, Alcatraz, and even the Golden Gate Bridge.
Eat your way through Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach, and the oldest Chinatown in the U.S. Foodies should continue on to the Ferry Building for local artisan food products, wine shops, and eateries.
Recommended by Denise from Chef Denise
12. Visit a Vineyard in Napa Valley
Napa Valley should be on the top of your list any time of year, but December is an especially great time to visit wine country.
The month of December offers an average high in the upper fifties, but you can often get lucky and see upper sixties in the middle of the day as well. You can always visit for a day trip, as it is one of the best things to do when visiting San Francisco, but a long weekend is definitely ideal.
Visiting in December means several things: smaller crowds, easier ability to get reservations for tastings and meals, lower hotel room prices, and more money-saving options. Also, there will be beautiful holiday lights strung throughout the rolling hills and quaint towns.
Of course, you must visit a vineyard for a wine tasting, enjoy some of the culinary masterpieces located all throughout the valley, and have a spa day getting a massage, but there is so much more this area has to offer.
The Napa wine train is a bucket list activity, with gourmet food, local wine, and a luxury level of service, there’s no other way to travel through the valley that sounds this incredible.
But the month of December means an even more special experience. The wine train offers train rides with Santa, which is fun for kids and adults alike!
Have a memorable getaway with girlfriends, or bring the whole family along for a holiday season you’ll never forget in Napa Valley!
Recommended by Tori from Tori Pines Travels
13. Visit Popular Tourist Attractions in Sunny San Diego
While the rest of America is cooped up inside their homes to escape the shivering December, San Diego brings people out on the street with pleasant weather and exciting events.
You can enjoy the city’s beautiful beaches, the best restaurants in San Diego, etc., while still having the regular holiday season fun.
The Balboa Park in Central San Diego attracts tourists with fantastic Christmas celebrations. It’s held on the first weekend of December.
Beautiful Christmas lights decorate the place while seasonal food, music, and excellent performances entertain the crowd. The festival is completed with handicraft stalls.
San Diego Bay’s parade of lights is another event you must attend if visiting the city in the holiday season. More than 80 boats are decked up in lights and other holiday decorations.
The parade starts from Shelter Island and ends at Ferry Landing. The night sea glows magically with all these lights, creating an unforgettable memory for every attendee. The La Jolla Christmas Parade is another famous event.
Locals form different groups showcasing their talent and participate in this parade. You can see a slew of vintage cars, equestrians, children dressed in themes, and band performances. The local’s parade starts at Girard Avenue and Kline Street and ends near the beach.
Apart from these winter beach activities, you can also try regular winter activities here. Ice skating by the sea is a famous San Diego tradition.
Hotel Del Coronado presents it among its other holiday special events. All in all, San Diego is full of exciting adventures in December to make your stay worthwhile.
Recommended by Ruma Dey Baidya from The Holiday Story
14. See the Metal Sculptures in Galleta Meadows
The sleepy little town of Borrego Springs is surrounded by California’s largest State Park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which is the main attraction in the area.
But what some might not know is that Borrego Springs also has this one-of-a-kind attraction that you won’t see anywhere else in the world – the Galleta Meadows Metal Sculptures.
Just a quick 2-hour road trip from San Diego (or 3 hours from Los Angeles), Borrego Springs is a must-visit desert escape that is perfect for wintertime.
Sure, you could visit all year long, if you don’t mind temperatures in the 100s during the summer. During December you can expect 70s and sunshine, which is perfect for this outdoor activity.
There are 26 metal sculptures to see in Borrego Springs, which are mostly scattered along Borrego Springs Road. It’s completely free to visit the sculptures and all you need to do is literally drive (or bike) to each one.
Bike Borrego offers e-bikes, which is a great way to see the sculptures! If you drive your car, just be careful when you park since some of the areas can be quite sandy.
Most of the sculptures have dirt parking spaces nearby; otherwise, you can park on the side of the road.
Recommended by Heather Saez at That OC Girl
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Dayna Brockbank is a travel and language-learning blogger who has lived around the world but has now settled in Nice, France. She speaks 3 languages at varying levels of fluency: Spanish, Italian, and French, and graduated with a Bachelor’s in Spanish Education. She and her husband focus on making travel part of life by living cheaply and traveling on a budget.