What is the best time to visit California? It is impossible to give a short answer because the climate in California is subject to change depending on the area. Let’s start with some statistics. 14,504 ft / – 282 ft: these two values represent the maximum and minimum altitude above sea level in the state. The first refers to the height of Mount Whitney, located in the Sierra Nevada, which is the “backbone” of California. The second value refers to the altitude of the salt desert in Badwater Basin, a depressed area in Death Valley, just 75 miles east of Mt. Whitney (as the crow flies).
These numbers serve to show how much the Californian landscape can vary even at short distances and how, consequently, temperatures are not consistent throughout California. Just think of the difference, for example, between the Mediterranean climate of Los Angeles and the temperate, mild and windy climate of San Francisco Bay! In this article, we want to give you some specific advice on when to go to the Golden State, provide information regarding the climate of California, and particularly focus on the areas most frequented by travelers:
- The coast from San Francisco to San Diego through Los Angeles
- National parks and lakes located in the mountain range of the Sierra Nevada (Yosemite, Sequoia, Lake Tahoe)
- The desert area of Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Park
- The parks of Northern California: Redwood National Park and Lassen Volcanic National Park
California Coast Climate
If you were to draw a straight line between San Francisco and San Diego, the distance would be 460 miles. These are two of the three most visited cities on the coast during trips to California. The third, but not least, is Los Angeles, which is ideally located between San Francisco and San Diego, although geographically speaking it is much closer to San Diego. Here is a short description of the different climates:
San Francisco Climate
Out of the three cities, San Francisco is the farthest north and it also has the most “capricious” climate. As I wrote in my in-depth post about San Francisco’s climate – which I invite you to read – temperatures can also vary considerably in the course of a day. You will no doubt have seen some photos of the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in fog in the bay, especially during the summer months. This is the most significant characteristic of San Francisco’s climate, and the city is known to also be windy because of the cold ocean currents. In conclusion, San Francisco’s cool temperate climate gives rise to moderately warm windy summers, cold to mild winters, and variable springs.
Los Angeles Climate
Los Angeles is a completely different story. The City of Angels, famous for its beaches, from Malibu to Long Beach, has an atypical Mediterranean climate, with hot to very hot summers, mild and not very rainy winters and short sunny and warm springs. Because of the desert winds (Santa Ana winds) that blow during all of the seasons, intense hot days can occur even during the winter months, but this is not the only way in which the climate changes in Los Angeles. Since Los Angeles is a very large and geographically diverse city, temperatures can change significantly from one district to another. In addition, in some locations in the immediate surroundings of the city, the climate changes drastically (Palm Springs) and you need to be prepared for major temperature differences. For all these reasons, we decided to expand on the subject by writing a detailed article about the climate of Los Angeles.
San Diego Climate
San Diego is the ideal city to spend some time on the beach sunbathing, even more so than Los Angeles. Compared to San Francisco, San Diego’s climate is even more favorable for beach life, even if the ocean waters are always a bit cooler than what you may be used to. San Diego’s climate is mild almost all year round, but it is warmer during the summer months, the period when there is also the highest amount of rainfall, which is very scarce during the winter. Even in December you can find temperatures around 68°, while the annual highest average temperature rarely rises above 91°, so as you can see, you can plan a visit to San Diego almost anytime of year.
California Desert Climate
As I mentioned, those who leave Los Angeles heading east towards Palm Springs – after passing the mountains that shield Los Angeles – must be ready for a radical change in temperature. We have entered the desert area of California! Here you will find Joshua Tree National Park, a national park that stretches between the Mojave and Colorado deserts. In the summer, temperatures are very high and you need to prepare well for the visit. To the north, right on the border with Nevada and to the east of the Sierra Nevada, lies Death Valley, one of the hottest places on the planet. In Death Valley, in the summer, temperatures are dangerously high. The recommended months to visit Death Valley are November, February, and March. I talked about this and much more in my article about the climate and temperatures in Death Valley.
The Parks and Lakes of the Sierra Nevada
Tours of the West Coast or, more specifically, of California, usually include either Yosemite National Park or Sequoia National Park, two beautiful parks in the Sierra Nevada.
In the summer, the weather is warm and sunny in Yosemite, making it ideal for a visit, but it is still necessary to make some clarifications about Yosemite’s climate during the other seasons. It is a valley surrounded by beautiful mountains and granite peaks, so the temperature can vary according to the altitude. In the highest and medium-high peaks, the climate is mountainous, while in the valley the climate is milder. However, this does not mean that in the winter there is heavy snowfall in all areas of the park. The greatest inconvenience you will face when visiting Yosemite in the winter is the closure of Tioga Road until later spring, which prevents you from crossing the mountain range to the east to be able to go to Death Valley or Las Vegas. Here is an article on how to organize a visit to Yosemite in the winter.
You will run into a similar situation in Sequoia National Park, which also has variable altitudes. One must prepare adequately for the mountain climate and bring the right clothing, both in the winter and in the summer (in the case of high altitude hikes), although in the summer, temperatures are pleasant and the heat never unbearable. During the winter, snowstorms can cause CA-198, the road from Sequoia to the adjacent Kings Canyon, to close. I should also mention the beautiful Lake Tahoe. Because it is located in the northern region of Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe is a destination that is not typically included in classic tours. The lake is located at an altitude of almost 6,235 ft and is akin to an alpine lake. During the summer you can enjoy warm sunny days, while in the winter you can go skiing on the peaks around the lake.
Northern California Climate
You may be interested to know more about the area of California north of San Francisco, especially with regard to two national parks that are somewhat decentralized but very fascinating. The first, Redwood National Park is characterized by impressive trees whose surroundings were also used to shoot some scenes of Star Wars in California, and the other park is Lassen Volcanic National Park, a park of volcanoes, coniferous forests, hot springs, and crystal clear lakes.
- Redwood National Park has variable temperatures, so it is advisable to dress in layers in order to be prepared for any change in the weather. In the sections of the park closer to the coast, the climate is humid and foggy in the summer and particularly cold in winter. As you move inland, the climate becomes milder and the days are warm and sunny. The climate is temperate oceanic, as is the entire coast north of San Francisco.
- Lassen Volcanic National Park is located north of the Sacramento Valley and at the southern end of Cascade Peaks, which includes the park’s most important active volcanic peak, Lassen Peak. Here, too, temperatures vary depending on altitude. Below 7500 ft, there are hot and humid summers and foggy winters with cool and cold days. Above 7500 ft, the climate is mountainous and winter temperatures are cold and summer temperatures are cool. From December to March, there is heavy snowfall and as a result, Lassen National Park Highway is closed during the winter.
When is the Best Time to Go to California?
By the end of this article, you’ll have understood that it’s difficult to give an unequivocal answer to this question, but in general, the best period to visit California is in the summertime. In some cases you’ll have to be mindful when you visit places with higher temperatures (especially in the deserts), but they are inconveniences that it’s easier to avoid than the winter ones (in the national parks of Sierra Nevada and beyond). If you really can’t go to California in the summer, but if you have no choice but to go during the winter, here’s an example of a winter tour of California.
Another good time to visit California can be late spring, when the climate is generally milder and temperatures allow you to visit both desert and mid-altitude areas. However, one factor that may complicate the plans is that the date in which Tioga Road reopens changes from year to year and forces those going east to circumvent the mountains from the south via a long and somewhat boring road. If Tioga Road is closed, it is often advisable to exclude Yosemite National Park from the itinerary and visit Sequoia National Park instead. In conclusion, by taking the necessary precautions, California is a state that can be visited in all seasons.