When to visit California – by season

By Laura Chubb, California-based travel writer

Photography by Alamy

Skip to Navigation

The Golden State has always got something happening: summer is surfing season, spring brings Coachella, autumn is for Yosemite hikes, while winter is a good time to tackle Death Valley. California-based writer Laura Chubb rounds up the best events by season, so you can plan your next California trip.


Surfin’ USA 

The lowdown: Just 65 kilometres south of big city Los Angeles, surf-obsessed Huntington Beach is the place in California to catch waves (its nickname is ‘Surf City USA’). Every summer, the US Open of Surfing competition brings pro surfers and hundreds of thousands of spectators to Huntington for nine days of sun, sea, sand… and world-class shredding.

Stay at: You can’t beat staying on the beachfront at Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa.

Fly to: Los Angeles

Because of its exceptional beauty, they call autumn the ‘Golden Season’ at Yosemite National Park, when the flaming colours of autumn trees burn across Yosemite Valley.

Vine time

The lowdown: It’s late August, and you’re out on a patio in Napa Valley, sharing a bottle of wine from a local vineyard. It’s sunny. You can hear the soft clunk of a nearby Bocce game in its final, dramatic throes. It’s blissfully peaceful. The glitzy Napa valley and the more spread out and laid back Sonoma valley next door are the perfect summer retreat. Visit over the Labor Day holiday for the Taste of Sonoma festival.

Stay at: On a hairpin bend in the sinuous Napa Valley River, the idyllic River Terrace Inn has lovely patio overlooking the water.

Fly to: San Francisco and hire a car.

Book an excursion to the redwoods and wine country.

  • Head to the US Open of Surfing and catch waves with California’s biggest sporting stars © WSL Morris.

    Ride the wave 

    The world’s largest surf competition, the US Open of Surfing sees over half a million surf-seekers head to California’s Huntington Beach each summer. 

    Explore beaches
  • Observe Californian elephant seals in their natural habitat © Getty

    Seal the deal 

    Having made a comeback from extinction, there are now thousands of elephant seals that lounge and play along California’s Piedras Blancas beach. 

    Fly to California
  • Take to the slopes at some of California’s finest ski resorts

    To ski or après-ski 

    Near the banks of beautiful Lake Tahoe, winter sees California’s Northstar Ski Resort come to life with first-time skiers and mountain pros.

    Discover California

Just deserts

The lowdown: Death Valley gets its ominous name from the blistering temperatures endured by its desert landscape, so winter is the most sensible time to go – and even then, the average day is a balmy 25°C. Don’t miss the colourful volcanic hills along Artist’s Drive, seeing golden badlands from Zabriskie Point, and the Devil’s Golf Course’s jagged rock-salt spires.

Stay at: Cool off close to the national park’s visitor centre at Furnace Creek Ranch.

Fly to: Los Angeles and hire a car, or Las Vegas.


Lose yourself

The lowdown: You can’t go to California in autumn without visiting a pumpkin patch. But at Cool Patch Pumpkins in Dixon, around 25 miles from state capital Sacramento, October also means unveiling their Guinness World Record-holding corn maze. Open solely for the season, the maze changes every year and is notoriously difficult, covering about 40 acres of tricky turns and dead-ends.

Stay at: The Sheraton Grand Sacramento has a prime location in Downtown.

Fly to: San Francisco and hire a car.

All that glitters

The lowdown: Because of its exceptional beauty, they call autumn the ‘Golden Season’ at Yosemite National Park, when the flaming colours of autumn trees burn across Yosemite Valley. It’s also less crowded than summer, so you might snag some hiking trails to yourself. The Merced River’s Mist Trail is especially scenic this time of year, as colourful forests and granite cliffs are reflected in the mirror-still water.

Stay at: Tenaya Lodge makes a great base for exploring the area, surrounded by Sierra National Forest.

Fly to: San Jose.

Book the total Yosemite experience from San Francisco

  • Indulge in some classic Cali-culture at the iconic Coachella Music Festival © Erik Voake

    Good vibrations 

    Attracting some of the biggest names and most unique artists in modern music, Beyoncé, Eminem, Bon Iver and Radiohead have all featured on the Coachella line-up.

    Things to do in California

Hot stuff

The lowdown: Surfie, studenty Santa Cruz is a seaside town on California’s Central Coast that’s best known for its beach boardwalk, stuffed with retro fun: think arcade games, carousels and rattly rollercoasters (the Giant Dipper was built in 1924). In October, The Boardwalk’s Annual Chilli Cook-Off brings the community together for more old-fashioned shenanigans as they compete to cook the best chilli con carne. Bring an appetite… and lots of water.

Stay at: Only 10 minutes from The Boardwalk and with lovely redwood views, the Hilton Santa Cruz/Scotts Valley is a winner.

Fly to: San Jose.


Ski’s up 

The lowdown: The Golden State might be known for sunshine, but come winter, its Sierra Nevada mountains get plenty of snow. And while that can make a trip to Yosemite tricky (eastern access road the Tioga Pass often closes), it’s playtime for snow bunnies in alpine Lake Tahoe, where there are nine top-class ski resorts across 22,000 powdery acres.

Stay at: An action-packed trip starts with the right hotel: Harveys Lake Tahoe is within reach of the Heavenly Ski Resort gondola, where fresh pistes await.

Fly to: San Francisco or San Jose.

Seal’s the deal 

The lowdown: For one of California’s more unexpected sights, head to San Luis Obispo, in between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Six miles of coastline around Point Piedras Blancas have been claimed by a colony of elephant seals, which come to birth and breed here in winter. Non-profit organisation Friends of the Elephant Seal provides free viewing areas to spot these creatures in the wild.

Stay at: There’s plenty more to see in San Luis Obispo, from wine country in Paso Robles to miles of sand at Pismo Beach. Base yourself at Sea Crest Oceanfront Hotel Pismo for a prime spot on the shore.

Fly to: San Jose or Los Angeles and hire a car.


Rock out

The lowdown: Coachella is to the USA what Glastonbury is to the UK – only more glamorous, and minus the predictably rainy weather. Celebrity spectators and the world’s biggest acts converge in Coachella Valley for two weekends every April. In recent years the headliners have included Beyonce, Eminem and Radiohead.

Stay at: Coachella is only 40 kilometres from retro party town Palm Springs, where the Ace Hotel has its super-cool, mid-century modern desert inn.

Fly to: San Diego or Los Angeles.

Bay city rollin’ 

The lowdown: Foggy San Francisco enjoys its clearest days in spring, helping you get the best views of this gorgeous, hilly city by the bay. Head to Baker Beach for a picnic with a perfect vantage of the Golden Gate Bridge, and cruise over to Alcatraz to see the city as its prisoners did. Japantown hosts its annual Cherry Blossom Festival in April, too.

Stay at: Familiarise yourself with the San Fran skyscrapers from the skyline rooms at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square, or from its Cityscape Restaurant, where the views are almost as tempting as the menu.

Fly to: San Francisco

Book the San Francisco hop-on hop-off bus, plus Alcatraz.