Dreaming of California in December and sunny beaches to escape the dreary weather? Or you might be dying to hit the slopes. Either way, the best places to visit in California in December offer something for everyone.
Beach aficionados can see tons of sunny days. It’s not out of the question to spend Christmas Day on the beach. On the other hand, December snowfall sends everyone up to the mountains for winter fun.
Below you’ll find the best Christmas towns in California, the warmest places in December in California, the prettiest beaches, the top California National Parks to visit in December, the most awesome places to go skiing in California and more.
Take a California Winter Vacation in one of the most beautiful states in the USA.
California Weather in December
California is a state that people love to visit all year round because of its great weather. But what California weather can you expect in December?
The weather at Southern California beaches is still sunny and warm, although it might be a little cooler than other months.
While there’s a chance of rain, December only sees an average of 2 inches and California has been experiencing a drought.
In the mountains, the weather is perfect for skiing. Some years get a lot of snowfall but most resorts, especially the ones in Southern California help Mother Nature with some manmade snow. By December, all the ski resorts are open.
Northern California in December has cooler and rainier weather. San Francisco can get quite chilly when the wind whips through the city.
A California winter trip will have a mix of weather but it’ll be a delight if you are coming from colder parts of the US.
Best Places to Visit in California in December
Whether you’re planning a California December road trip or trying to figure out the best place to visit in California in December, this list is sure to have something you’ll love. In December, California is full of sun and festive fun!
Palm Springs in December
Palm Springs is the west coast’s destination for snowbirds looking to avoid dreadful winters. It’s close proximity to Southern California’s biggest cities makes it a top weekend getaway in December.
While the weather gets cooler in winter, you can usually count on lots of beautiful sunny days that are perfect for being active. Hike 2 mile Andreas Canyon Trail or play golf at Indian Wells, a desert favorite.
Make sure to hop on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. In minutes, you’ll be wisked up to the top of the San Jacinto Mountains, where there is likely to be snow.
You’ll also get amazing views of the desert valley on the way up and down.
If you want to see something you can only find in California, take a San Andreas Fault Jeep tour. In addition to witnessing all the incredible geology with a knowledgeable guide, you’ll do a little off roading, hiking and learn about the Indigenous people who used to live in this area. The tour sells out so book early if you want to go.
Palm Canyon Drive is always a fun place to go shopping or go out to eat. Don’t miss delicious Eight4Nine.
If you venture outside of Palm Springs, one of the top shopping areas in Palm Desert is El Paseo. Filled with designer shops and restaurants galore. December 1st is the the Holiday El Paseo Cruise nights with cool classic cars.
In the Coachella Valley at the Empire Polo Club drive through the holiday light installation called Magic of Lights. Or see WildLights at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, consistently recognized in the Top 10 Best Zoo Lights by USA Today.
Hotel: Korakia Pensione a peaceful hotel with a chic, understated, artistic vibe. It’s close to everything and guests rave about the comfortable beds. Or choose from the 12 Best Boutique Hotels in Palm Springs.
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Los Angeles in December
You can often expect beautiful beach days when the holiday decorations are up in Los Angeles, California in December.
In the city of Angels, the holidays boast incredible light displays around town like the Enchanted Forest of Light at Descanso Gardens.
The LA Zoo is also transformed into a winter wonderland with hundreds of thousands of lights for LA Zoo Lights.
More than 25,000 people show up to check out Marina Del Rey’s Annual Boat Parade. In addition to boats decorated with thousands of lights, there’s a fireworks finale.
Or on land, the Hollywood Christmas Parade is a long standing tradition that features floats, bands, and celebrities. And you should definitely take a studio tour to see where they film all those movies and shows you watch.
Shopping areas like Third Street Promenade are filled with holiday lights. During Christmas, The Grove has an enormous tree, Santa’s workshop, and a lot of holiday decorations. It’s pretty much guaranteed to get you into the Christmas spirit.
In downtown Los Angeles, there are a few outdoor skating opportunities. LA Kings Hockey Ice at LA Live or the Ice Rink in Pershing Square are fun either day or night. December in Los Angeles will warm you up with holiday spirit.
HOTEL: Santa Monica Proper Hotel is a hidden gem with a great rooftop pool and bar area. Best of all, it’s walking distance to Third Street Promenade, the Santa Monica Pier, the beach and the Metro to get to Downtown Los Angeles.
Joshua Tree National Park in December
Joshua Tree is an eclectic town with a unique national park attached. December is a great time to visit because the visitor count goes way down, the weather is terrific and it’s a completely different experience that anywhere else in California. Chilly mornings give way to beautiful days in the 60s and 70s.
The perfect Joshua Tree weekend in December includes hiking, rock climbing, star gazing, driving through the gorgeous area filled with Joshua trees and staying in a cool Airbnb.
Joshua Tree National Park is well known for bouldering and rock climbing. Whether you are new to the sport or an aficionado, you’ll be in heaven climbing Intersection Rock or Big Moe.
Even if that’s not your thing, you may find yourself climbing up easy rocks like a kid to see the stunning views.
Bring your jacket because you’ll stay out longer than you expect and many days end with unbelievable stargazing.
Lots of people camp inside the park so they can get the full experience. Other stay in a boho chic Airbnb that will make your Instagram friends jealous.
In town, eat at a delicious restaurant or stroll through the farmer’s market on the weekend. Our Joshua Tree Travel Guide will give you all the best things to do, where to stay, eat and everything you need to know for a great trip.
See if you qualify to get an America the Beautiful National Park Pass for Free or learn how to get the most value from one.
Solvang in December
Solvang, the self proclaimed Danish Capital of America, is a quaint town, founded in 1911, with traditional Danish buildings and windmills. This terrific holiday destination is located just 35 miles north of Santa Barbara.
Mostly Solvang is known for its pastries and location near the Santa Ynez wine region but in December, Solvang has an enchanted Christmas celebration called Julefest. It all kicks off with a tree lighting ceremony and a Julefest holiday parade.
On the weekends, there are pictures with Santa, dancers, carolers, an artisanal night market and nightly music with a 10 minute light show every hour.
There is also a Nisse Scavenger Hunt for little Scandinavian Christmas gnomes.
The town is best explored on foot to check out all the lights, decorated Christmas trees and festive holiday storefront window displays. You can shop for nutcrackers, Christmas ornaments, authentic German beer steins and cuckoo clocks.
At night the town is illuminated with holiday lights including Solvang park with a beautiful gazebo.
Year round, Solvang’s unique position in the middle of the Santa Ynez Valley is what makes it a real getaway, especially for food and wine lovers. You can take a really fun Santa Ynez Valley biking and wine tasting tour too!
Make reservations to visit Firestone Vineyard, Shoestring Winery and Lincourt Vineyards to sample Central California wines. Head to a local ranch to ride horses, bikes, golf or indulge in spa services.
If you are looking for the perfect Christmassy town in December in California, you’ve found it!
Hotel: The Landsby is located right in town so you can walk to everything. The rooms are spacious with tasteful modern Scandinavian decor.
San Diego in December
Escape dreary weather and get some California sun in San Diego. It’s one of the best warm places in California in December.
Filled with mostly perfect days in the 50s-60s. the weather is ideal for surfing, golf, hiking, walking along the beach and sightseeing.
You may even catch the migration of grey whales from Alaska to Mexico on a whale watching cruise which starts happening around mid December.
San Diego has so many unique areas to visit. Our top activity is beach hopping the prettiest Southern California beaches. Even if it’s too chilly to sunbathe, surf’s always up and you’ll see a lot of incredible sunsets.
At the beginning of the month Balboa Park hosts the ever popular December Nights. San Diegans come together to celebrate the holidays with incredible food, holiday music and performances throughout the park.
Get some tamales and margaritas to celebrate the season in Old Town. Not only is it a great place to learn about the history of California, it’s all decked out for Christmas.
Take the Hop-on-Hop-Off Trolley to see all the festive sights around the city.
The annual San Diego Bay Parade of Lights boat parade takes place on December 10th and 17th at 5pm. The kids will enjoy holiday events at Legoland and Hotel Del Coronado.
Hotel: La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla (shown above) is an iconic California favorite.
Paso Robles in December
Paso Robles is one of the best Christmas towns in California. You’ll feel like you’re living in a Hallmark movie! Every year, the holidays come alive with twinkling lights, holiday-themed events, and plenty of festive cheer.
Santa and Mrs. Claus join in as revelers make their way down Vine Street in a procession of illuminated floats at the annual Christmas light parade.
There’s also a huge annual block party at the Vine Street Victorian Showcase. See the famous Vine Street Victorian houses all light up between 8th and 21st streets.
There’s lot of activity with group caroling. illuminated floats, and live music.
One of the coolest things to do in Paso Robles is walk through the Sensorio Field of Lights. It’s a light installation that covers rolling hills in beautiful illuminated colors.
And for a great Christmas gift to yourself, take a full or half day Paso Robles Wine Adventure tour. With over 200 wineries in the area that offer Zinfandels, Bordeaux, and Cabernet Sauvignons, there’s sure to be something to please even the most discerning palate.
Speaking of palates, Paso Robles is chock full of amazing restaurants. We had a delicious tacos at Fish Gaucho.
For craft cocktails head to the Alchemist’s Garden. The Backyard is an outdoor beer garden with food and they had a fun band at night.
If you love a good hot springs opportunity, check out the natural Franklin Hot Springs and River Oaks Hot Springs Spa for a more private experience.
So whether you’re looking for a fun-filled holiday event or a unique gift for that special someone, Paso Robles is the perfect place to celebrate Christmas!
Hotel: Allegretto Vineyard Resort Paso Robles is the perfect Tuscan styled, vineyard resort. It’s only a 5 minutes from Downtown Paso Robles but you’ll feel a world away with spacious rooms, comfy beds, and a gorgeous vine filled property with a pool.
Death Valley in December
You definitely want to visit “the hottest place on Earth” in the winter. December temperatures are in 60’s – 70’s with mostly clear skies. It’s a great time to do some hiking and see the surprisingly diverse landscape of Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley also happens to be a Dark Sky park so expect some incredible stargazing and astrophotography opportunities.
There are so many great things to do in Death Valley, the we wrote a whole post about it. Start with sunrise at Zabriskie Point. Badwater Basin salt flats are a beautiful, must see spot, that’s the lowest point in America.
With 100 foot sand dunes, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are not the biggest sand dunes but there is plenty of area to climb and it’s a great workout. The Golden Canyon hike has amazing colorful rock formations.
Play a round of Golf at 214 feet below sea level at Furnace Creek Golf Course, the world’s lowest elevation golf course. Or explore Death Valley on a horse back ride at Furnace Creek Stables.
Hotel: The Inn at Death Valley is one of the most interesting and historic places to stay that has hosted guests like Clark Gable and Marlon Brando. It also happens to be the nicest and their recent expansion added 22 new casitas that are perfect for families or having more space.
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Lake Tahoe in December
Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America. It’s a favorite California destination year round but it reigns supreme in December. This fun summer playground turns into a winter paradise, getting about 75 inches of snow per year.
Most of the top California ski resorts are concentrated in this area of the Sierra Nevadas. Palisades Tahoe Ski Resort (formerly called Squaw Valley – Alpine Meadows) was the site of 1960 Olympic events and is a family favorite along with Northstar.
Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe has some of the best views and tons to do off the mountain, including gambling and concerts on the Nevada side.
Kirkwood is a favorite for people who love the difficult terrain. Sugar Bowl rounds out the top 5 because of it’s close proximity to the Bay Area.
We personally prefer the north Tahoe towns of Squaw Valley and Truckee. They’re less that an hour from Reno airport and they have tons of shopping, restaurants and winter activities.
In addition to downhill skiing and snowboarding, you’ll find cross country skiing, snowmobiling and horse drawn sleigh rides.
Even if you don’t ski, you can still have a great time. It’s truly one of those most beautiful places in California and a half day photography tour will take you to some drop dead gorgeous spots.
During December, Northern Lights is a month long festival at Incline Village in December with various events including a film fest and a visit from Santa.
In South Lake Tahoe, the Heavenly Holidays Family festival has a daily tree lighting, breakfast with Santa, holiday face painting, and an ice sculpture contest.
Hotel: Gravity Haus Truckee-Tahoe is conveniently located in Truckee. The hotel has a fun vibe with great decor.
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Yosemite in December
December in Yosemite National Park is one of California’s best kept secrets. If you enjoy crisp air, sunny days and beautiful hikes, bypass the crowds and enjoy some peace and quiet in paradise.
Without the throngs of visitors, you’ll easily find a spot at Tunnel View, shown above. It’s the perfect place to capture El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Falls all in one shot.
There are also incredible vistas from Sentinel Dome, Glacier Point and Taft Point that are even better with snow capped mountains.
On average, there are 7 days of snow in December at the higher elevations, which means you might get some snow capped mountains.
It does warm up to the high 40s during the day so you can hike and enjoy most of the park activities that you would in summer.
You’ll also be able to do winter activities like cross country skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating, and tubing. There are Christmas activities in December at Tenaya Lodge.
Your kids will love the Elf on a Shelf scavenger hunt, ornament and gingerbread decorating, breakfast with Santa. They also host Christmas Dinner and a New Year’s Eve Party.
The Ahwahnee Hotel also offers traditional winter festivities. The most notable is the Bracebridge Dinner, a 17th century, victorian Christmas celebration, complete with costumes and a 7 course dinner. It is held multiple times throughout December. Their New Year’s Eve event is another holiday favorite. Their event books way in advance so plan ahead.
Our Yosemite Travel Guide lists all the best hikes, best viewpoints, “must do” activities and more.
Hotel: Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite is right outside the South Entrance and in close proximity to ice skating and other fun winter activities. They offer lodge rooms and cabins. It’s pet friendly and we really enjoyed our stay.
Winter Fun in Big Bear in December
When people talk about being able to surf and ski in the same day, they are heading to Big Bear. It’s one of the best places to go for a December snowy escape in Southern California.
Skiing and snowboarding at Snow Summit and Big Bear Mountain Resort are one of the biggest draws to the area.
You can also take advantage of all kinds of winter activities including snowshoeing, sledding and tubing at Grizzly Ridge Tube Park.
During the holiday, they offer night skiing and New Year’s Eve has the coolest torch light parade.
One of the best activities is snow tubing at Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain. Take the magic carpet up to one of five fun runs, then zip down on your tube.
Big Bear Snow Play is another tubing hotspot with the longest runs in Southern California. Nighttime glow tubing is available at both locations.
Big Bear Village is a charming area with fun shops and restaurants. In the evenings there are many delicious dinner options as well. Stop by to see Santa and Mrs. Claus on weekends in Christmas Corner.
Lake Arrowhead in December
Lake Arrowhead is one of the best places to visit in December in California. This beautiful lakeside town offers a complete Southern California winter experience winter.
With an average temperature of 29-46 degrees, it’s cold enough for snow and a variety of winter activities.
Snow Valley Mountain Resort is nearby for skiing and snowboarding. Snowdrift Tubing Park is a blast for sledding and tubing. For a fun winter hike, don’t miss the Heart Rock Trail.
If you have kids, don’t miss Santa’s Village! Decorate gingerbread cookies with Santa’s Elves, take a ride on the Northwoods Express train, go ice skating in Silver Bells Arena, and of course, visit with Santa.
In Lake Arrowhead Village, in addition to a tree lighting and festivities, you can do your holiday shopping or eat at some of the best Lake Arrowhead restaurants. Taking a one hour winter cruise on the Lake Arrowhead Queen is also fun!
Lake Arrowhead Brewing Company always has something interesting going on. Try one of their holiday brews while you keep warm in an igloo on their snow covered patio. The Tudor House also offers a Holiday brunch and show.
Since we lived there for a year, we have multiple blog posts about all the amazing things to do in Lake Arrowhead year round.
Many people only think of Big Bear for a winter trip and completely miss out on Lake Arrowhead.
Hotel: Lake Arrowhead Resort & Spa is right on the lake, walking distance to the village, has a great restaurant and a full service spa. If you prefer a vacation rental check out these designer perfect Lake Arrowhead Airbnbs.
Santa Barbara in December
Santa Barbara has so many great things to do in California in December, This beautiful beach city comes alive during the holidays.
One of the best activities is the annual Parade of Lights at the Harbor. There are a full day of festivities including snow on the pier, holiday music, a tree lighting, stand up paddlers and kayakers in festive attire, a lighted boat parade and fireworks display.
Pick out your Christmas tree at Lane Farms Christmas Patch and try to navigate through the huge corn maze.
Other fun holiday events include Zoo Lights at the Santa Barbara Zoo and the annual holiday parade in Goleta with floats, dance groups and local bands.
There are great holiday performances at the Lobero Theater including the Sound of Christmas Sing-a-Long. The Holiday Sip & Stroll at the Old Mission or the Makers Market at Haley Corridor are other must do events.
But Santa Barbara isn’t just a great place to visit during Christmas- it’s also a great winter getaway. With less crowds and bigger waves, it’s the perfect destination for surfers.
If you love hiking, try the Seven Falls Trail, it’s especially beautiful in the winter.
If you are looking for some fun tours to do on your Santa Barbara getaway, the Downtown Santa Barbara Food Tour and the Santa Ynez Valley Biking and Wine Tasting Tour are both crowd pleasers. Book early because they sell out.
Whether you’re looking for things to do in California in December or just looking for a great winter getaway, Santa Barbara is the perfect place!
Carmel-by-the-Sea in December
Some places in California are so charming that they are on the top of every tourist bucket list. Skip the summer tourist traffic because December in Carmel, California is dreamier than ever.
The holiday season opens up at the Carmel Holiday Menorah and Tree Lighting held at Devendorf Park. There is snow, a visit from Santa and a whole program of entertainment. Afterwards the party continues at the annual Holiday Open House at Carmel Plaza.
Crisp air, cute cottages, tons of boutiques and art galleries to peruse and a gorgeous beach to enjoy are all part of the allure. The restaurants are phenomenal and you can also do some wine tasting of the regional wines.
Sandwiched by Big Sur to the south and Monterey to the north, a trip to Carmel also deserves some exploring nearby. Cross the Bixby Bridge overlooking the California coast.
Stop at Big Sur Bakery for breakfast or lunch then venture further south to see McWay waterfall at Julia Burns Pfeifer State Beach.
Hotel: Bernardus Lodge & Spa is a vineyard resort in Carmel Valley Wine Country. As you are welcomed with a glass of wine, your cares will melt away. Spend a relaxing day at the spa or take one of the complimentary Mercedes convertibles for a ride along 17 mile drive.
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San Francisco in December
Visiting festive Union Square during the holidays is one of the best things to do in San Francisco with kids. Ice skate in the middle of the city’s tall towers from November through January. Get a photo with Santa when you see Macy’s holiday windows.
Kids will also love the Teddy Bear Tea at the Ritz Carlton and the crazy inverted tree at Westfield San Francisco Center. Also, don’t miss SF Ballet’s Performance of the Nutcracker with the best costumes ever!
The light display at City Hall, Golden Gate park and the San Francisco zoo are also worth a visit. They are part of the Festival of Lights art installations done by artists throughout the city.
One of the best and most fun ways to get around town is with a San Francisco GoCar that has a guided GPS tour and tells you all about the city along the way.
Do a full day tour of Alcatraz, Sausalito and Muir Woods with giant California redwoods. Spending time on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge will allow you a chance to experience lovely Marin County.
Another option is a full day tour to Napa Valley wine country to do wine tasting at multiple vineyards. Spending the day in Napa was one of our favorite things to do when we lived in the Bay Area. Don’t miss it.
Of course you also should explore the iconic neighborhoods of San Francisco like Haight Ashbury, North Beach and Chinatown.
Hotel: Fairmont San Francisco is the perfect place to stay in December. They have activities throughout the month to celebrate the holidays from a Holiday Tea, a life-sized gingerbread house, a Christmas buffet and New Year’s Eve Dinner.
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Mammoth in December
December is when the ski season really gets underway at Mammoth Mountain. With more than 3,500 acres of skiable area, Mammoth Mountain is one of the premier ski areas in the California Eastern Sierras.
On the mountain, activities include downhill skiing, cross country skiing, snowboarding, tubing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and more.
Non-skiers can enjoy perusing the town or riding the Gondola to the top. At night there is ice skating.
Mid- December is the annual Night of Lights with live music, snowmobile rides, kids activities, a torch light parade and fireworks.
If you have to be visiting on Christmas Day, there are multiple restaurants that host Christmas dinner.
There are multiple places to visit in the nearby area. Right outside the the town of Mammoth is the Hot Creek Geologic Site where scalding hot water enters a creek.
While you cannot enter the water for safety reasons, you can view this beautiful and fascinating area from multiple viewpoints.
Also nearby are various hot springs where you can take a dip. Otherworldly Mono Lake is a 30 minute drive with an amazing view at the Conway Summit Overlook.
Hotel: The Village Lodge is perfectly located near shops, restaurants and a free gondola to get up to the slopes.
Now that you’ve seen all the best places to visit in California in December, which one would you choose? Getting away for the holidays is just what we all need. The Golden state has every type of vacation available. All you have to do is make reservations.
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