Summer may be over, but the craving to travel across America is still strong. Many people write to me asking for tips on how to plan a winter road trip to California. The most recent request came from a friend who wants to take a tour in the Golden State around December-January (in other words, during the Christmas holidays).
This request and the various other requests that preceded it inspired us to share this itinerary, in the hope that it will provide useful ideas for anyone who wants to go on a winter vacation in California.
Obviously, the choice of the stops on the trip must take into account that during the winter, there is a much higher chance of snow and inclement weather. The weather conditions can be a determining factor that can affect your ability to visit the parks in California, where snowfall often causes roads to be blocked or closed for months and months. None of the main parks close, but many of them, precisely because of the climate in California, become more inconvenient to explore and several areas remain inaccessible.
As a result, in this route, I have put more emphasis on the parks of the desert areas, which, in addition to not being subject to unpredictable weather, are particularly fascinating even during the low season (and sometimes even easier to visit and to enjoy than in the summertime).
The itinerary can be done in 14 days, but you can still easily customize it. Please use the comments section to write tips, suggestions, or variations.
- Stop 1: Settle into San Francisco
- Halfway Stop 1: Let’s Have a Glass of California Wine
- Stop 2: Enjoy Visiting Los Angeles
- Halfway Stop 2: Go to the Wild West
- Stop 3: Snow in Death Valley
- Stop 4: The Extravagance of Las Vegas
- Halfway Stop 3: Cross the Mojave National Preserve
- Stop 5: Discover an Oasis… and a Ghostly Desert!
- Stop 6: Straight to San Diego
Stop 1: Settle into San Francisco
Once you have arrived in San Francisco and have adjusted to the time zone in California, it’s time to explore this fascinating city. Bear in mind that it can be chilly in San Francisco. You’ll find plenty of information about it on the website. I’ll just point out some useful resources:
- Tips on where to stay in San Francisco
- Guide to what to do in San Francisco
- The climate of San Francisco
- The section of the website dedicated to San Francisco
- Our city guide includes all the articles published about San Francisco
At the end of the visit, you could need to rent a car (please tell me you didn’t already rent a car upon arrival, did you? You’re not thinking of driving around San Francisco by car, are you?) and drive south towards the City of Angels.
There are many roads from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The most famous is certainly Highway 1, which allows you to drive along the entire coast, but since it takes more than 8 hours to complete this drive, it does not fit this itinerary. In addition, the road is often closed for seasonal maintenance.
The shortest route (5 hours 30 minutes) would be via I-5 (South, of course), but this is not the road you will take either…
Halfway Stop 1: Let’s Have a Glass of California Wine
We suggest that you take US-101, which is not the fastest route (about 6 hours 20 minutes), but certainly no less important. This is a very old road (dating back to 1926) as well as the longest highway in California!
But the reason why we selected it is certainly not because of its historical significance. In fact, the real secret of every good road trip is always choosing the right stops and in this case, we chose to stop halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, in Paso Robles, a pretty city that dates back to the Far West that has become an important food and wine hub.
In short, we have included this stop to taste the excellent California wines, specifically, wines from San Luis Obispo County, which, according to many experts, are comparable to the more renowned wines of Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley. The area is full of family-run wineries and in some cases, (for example, at the Vinoteca) you can taste artisanal cheeses (check the hours of operation first).
Other wineries that may be interesting to visit include Dark Star Cellars, Linne Calodo, and Zenaida Cellars. After treating yourself to good wine, it’s time to set off again. You still have just over 3 hours to go to get to Los Angeles.
Stop 2: Enjoy Visiting Los Angeles
When you get to Los Angeles, you must prepare for your visit. And it’s not an easy thing to do! We are talking about a huge metropolis and visiting it without a precise program could ruin your experience. The main attractions are, Santa Monica, Hollywood, and theme parks such as Universal Studios and Disneyland, but if you want to plan your itinerary well, I recommend that you read our article on things to do in Los Angeles, in addition to all the other posts about Los Angeles.
For recommendations on accommodations, check out our tips on where to find a hotel in Los Angeles.
Halfway Stop 2: Go to the Wild West
Our next destination is Death Valley, which can be reached in 4 hours and 30 minutes. But why not make an intermediate stop to get some rest and enjoy a history lesson?
At the halfway point, you will arrive in Calico Ghost Town, a replica of an Old West mining town, which can be fun to explore. You can find all the information you need to visit Calico in the article we wrote about it (click on Calico Ghost Town to view the article).
Stop 3: Snow in Death Valley
You have finally arrived in Death Valley, one of the most fascinating and remarkable national parks. You can visit most of Death Valley in one day, and the winter, which is definitely milder than the summer, so its easier to enjoy the visit of the whole area. Among other things, you will have the opportunity to admire some snowy peaks, which is impossible during the other seasons.
The park is immense, but there are at least 7 wonders that you must include in your visit. Read our guide to help you plan your visit to Death Valley. Also, make sure you look at our suggestions for finding a hotel in Death Valley.
Stop 4: The Extravagance of Las Vegas
In just over 2 hours, you will arrive in Las Vegas, one of the most unique cities you can visit in the USA. All the main attractions are concentrated in the Las Vegas Strip, the famous street lined with bizarre hotels, endless casinos, and all the nightlife you could want (maybe too much!).
For more information about Sin City, I refer you to the section of our website dedicated to Las Vegas, and I particularly recommend you read about the free attractions in the city and tips on accommodations, to help you decide whether you choose a theme hotel or a luxury hotel.
Spend the night in Las Vegas and get ready to leave in the morning. It’s time to get back to California!
Halfway Stop 3: Cross the Mojave National Preserve
The next stop is Palm Springs, which is a 4-hour drive from Las Vegas. Along the way, it just so happens that you will cross the Mojave National Preserve, a nature reserve that is a mosaic of desert landscapes, with undulating sand dunes, volcanic ash cones, and Joshua trees (it resembles a cross between a cactus and a tree). And if you’re lucky, you might even find some snow on the mountains.
The Mojave National Preserve deserves a longer visit, but it may still be interesting to at least stop by at Kelso Depot, located south of Baker (the city that is famous for having the world’s tallest thermometer). It is a historic building (originally a station) that houses a museum and then you can get right back on the road.
Stop 5: Discover an Oasis… and a Ghostly Desert!
The next stop is Palm Springs, the luxurious oasis in the middle of the California desert, one of the cities with the highest concentration of swimming pools and golf courses in the United States, characterized by low adobe buildings and palm trees everywhere!
Take a look at our guide to visit this charming city and also take the time to take a little trip about 40 minutes away to explore Joshua Tree National Park, a park with a hauntingly beautiful landscape, and Pioneertown ghost town. Here you will find a huge desert with clusters of rock and Joshua trees.
Stop 6: Straight to San Diego
You have finally arrived at the last stop, San Diego, a city with incredible beaches and a pleasant climate. Among the attractions of this city are the parks: Legoland, SeaWorld, Wild Animal Park, and the famous San Diego Zoo. For more information on city parks, check out our article on what to do in San Diego. For an overnight stay, you’ll find some recommended accommodations here.
We’ve reached the end of our winter tour in California, and unfortunately, it’s time to get back on the plane. Below you will find an interactive map so that you can study the route, the roads to take, and the distances between the stops. Enjoy your trip!