Enormous California, with its booming economy, bounty of nature, agriculture and vibrant cities could be a country unto itself.
There’s a season for everything, as the song goes, so whether you come for the sun, surf, skiing or culture, here’s a guide to the best times to visit the Golden State.
June to August is the best time for beaches and festivals
California is about 800 miles long – the UK could fit inside California one and half times over! – so the state’s weather varies immensely from north to south.
During summer, from San Diego to Santa Barbara, the nearly continuous ribbon of beaches is thronged and the Pacific is warm. In the SoCal desert, June through August is notoriously hot, while the San Francisco Bay Area can be famously chilly because of its summer fog. Regardless, travelers roam in droves while school is out, and this is when you can expect the busiest beaches, the most expensive hotel rooms and the biggest crowds.
For the entire month of June, California celebrates LGBTIQ+ pride, especially in San Francisco, which sets the global standard.
California’s campgrounds, beaches and theme parks hit peak popularity, especially on the July 4 holiday – summer’s biggest travel weekend. The California State Fair brings pie-eating contests, craft-beer competitions, championship hogs, carnival rides and much more to Sacramento later in July.
Also in late July, Comic-Con – the nation’s biggest annual convention of comic-book fans, hardcore pop-culture collectors and sci-fi and anime devotees, affectionately known as “Nerd Prom” – brings out-of-this-world costumed madness to San Diego.
San Francisco’s Summer of Love roots underpin the Outside Lands music and comedy bacchanalia that takes over Golden Gate Park in August.
April to May and September to October are the best times for outdoor activities
In the spring, as wildflower season peaks in the high desert, the southern desert bursts into song at Coachella Music Festival, and San Francisco twinkles with international celebrities as the nation’s oldest film festival lights up with star-studded US premieres of hundreds of films from around the globe, usually during two weeks in April.
Early autumn is also a spectacular time. In wine country, vineyards erupt in an ocean of golden orange and magenta hues, from Sonoma and Napa to Paso Robles. On the Northern California coast, summertime fog retreats and balmy days become the norm. Fall is also when the Central Coast starts to warm up and the heat in SoCal finally breaks. Fall festivals include the storied Monterey Jazz Festival and many wine-country harvest festivals.
With students back in their seats at school, “shoulder season” is prime time for visiting California’s 10 national parks or exploring the beaches. And in the Sierras, early winter storms in November can blanket the mountains in snow, giving winter sports fans an early start to the ski season. Shoulder season also offers lower hotel prices, and accommodation availability goes up statewide.
November to March is the best time to avoid the crowds
Winter in California is famously mild (especially in the south), but you can still find killer powder on the peaks and whale watching on the coast. Winter – particularly December and January – is a prime time to spot whales offshore as they migrate south to their seasonal home in Baja California. Accommodation rates will be lowest along the coast, and this is a perfect opportunity to visit California’s deserts.
January is the wettest month in California, and a slow time for coastal travel – but this is when mountain ski resorts and Southern California deserts hit their stride. The famous New Year’s parade held before the Tournament of Roses college football game draws more than 700,000 spectators to the LA suburb of Pasadena.
As spring approaches, California sunshine breaks through the drizzle, skiers hit the slopes in T-shirts and wildflowers begin to bloom. And the cooler temps in the desert make it a great time to hike in Joshua Tree and Death Valley.
Winter is also the season to see thousands of monarch butterflies warming up in California groves and find colonies of elephant seals nursing pups in Central Coast dunes. Meanwhile, after wintering in South America, the swallows return to Mission San Juan Capistrano in Orange County around March 19 – and the historic mission town celebrates its Spanish and Mexican heritage all month long.