There is no one answer to when is the best time to visit California. The answer will be different for a surfer than a skier.
Complicating this question is the fact that California has a large number of microclimates. On a typical summer day, for instance, it might be 60° F in San Francisco, 80° F in nearby San Jose, and 100° F in the Central Valley (The Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys). This is because California has mountains. It has the towering Sierra Nevada mountains but the coastal ranges get up to around a mile high in spots.
In general, the north coast is wet and cool. The desert is dry. The Sierra Nevada is taller and cooler.
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The Central and South Coast
Much of California’s tourism hugs the coast from Napa and Sanoma north of San Francisco to San Diego in the south.
- The coast from San Francisco to San Diego is temperate. It is cooler than the interior in the summer and warmer in the winter.
- It does not rain in the area from San Francisco and Napa Valley to San Diego in the summer. My hometown of Salinas in the Central Coast had a tenth of an inch of rain on July 1st and that broke all cumulative monthly records for the month.
- When it does rain in this area in winter. February is the month most likely to have rainy weather.
- The coastal ranges of mountains are green in the winter and golden to brown in the summer. The best time to see wildflowers is after the winter rains around April or May.
- Late summer is the most likely time for brush fires in California. They happen every summer although huge fires that would affect your visit as a tourist are rarer.
- If you are going there for the beaches, the season is long enough for you since anything from May to October is an option. But if you are planning southern California, we recommend booking your trip in August or September. The weather can still be sunny and hot during the winter, but the water is too cold for swimming.
- The water from the top of the state down to Santa Barbara is always cold because the currents here come down the coast and because the water gets very deep just offshore. Surfers in Santa Cruz, for instance, pretty much always wear wet suits. The ocean gets warmer from San Diego to Santa Barbara as the currents come up from warmer waters here.
- If you are on a budget, then plan your trip around the second half of November, or at the beginning of December. This way you will save your money and avoid crowds
- This area gets about 300 sunny days a year. It does not rain much in this part of California.
- Summer is the best time of year for local festivals. Look for local Convention and Visitor Bureau websites for what farmer’s markets, art and wine festivals, or Shakespeare in the park are happening when you visit.
- June gloom is well known along the coast where the coastal fog may be particularly prevalent.
San Francisco Bay Area / Napa and Sonoma
- Wine aficionados will definitely have Napa Valley and Sonoma counties on their route, and the best time to go there is either from March to May, or from September to November. The harvest season is in the fall and there will be harvest-released activities.
- It is not true that Mark Twain said that the coldest winter he ever spent was the summer he spent in San Francisco… but he could have. Always, always bring a sweatshirt to San Francisco. If you forget, they will gladly sell you one.
- If you ask a local, they will agree with me that the best time to visit San Francisco when you can expect warm weather is in September.
- In the South Bay near San Jose each weekend in the summer some town is having their annual art and wine festival.
- The largest conferences in San Francisco are all tech conferences: Dreamforce in early November, IBM Think in early May, and Oracle World in February. Hotel rooms will be impossible to get in those weeks as they add 80-100k additional visitors.
- Pride day at the end of June will attract a lot of visitors to San Francisco. If that is your scene then it might be a weekend to visit. If you are not coming for the party that weekend, then best to come some other time.
- Other good festivals to include your plan in San Francisco are the Chinese New Year€™s Parade in Chinatown, Cherry Blossom Festival (April) in Japantown, Comedy Day in the Park (September), or the crazy Bay to Breakers race in mid-May.
- We have established that February is the rainiest month in most of California including the Central Coast. This is, nonetheless, when the largest golf tournament in California is held the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am… it often rains… go figure.
- One of the largest rodeos in the country is the California Rodeo which is held in Salinas in July. It is surrounded by daily horse parades and one night parade.
- The Monterey Jazz festival has been held in September. The festival goes back to 1958.
- The Gilroy Garlic Festival is a great place to try garlic ice cream and all things garlic.
- If you are a Disneyland fan or want to visit Knott’s Berry Farm, you should consider weekdays in January, February, November, and December. Crowds are much bigger in summer and the lines are much longer. If you do come in summer, you may want to take a break in the heat of the day.
- The first half of December is also a great time to go to Disneyland as the park is decorated for Christmas but the kids have not gotten out of school yet. The Haunted Mansion will change seasonally to a Nightmare Before Christmas theme. If you do visit the park in the crowded December Christmas break check out 12 Tips for Tackling Disneyland for the Holidays.
- The Academy Awards are held in February and are surrounded by parties and red-carpet activities. You probably can’t get an invitation to the exclusive parties but movie buffs might be interested in seeing if they can get a peek at their favorite stars. If you look good in a tux you might be able to apply for a job as a seat filler.
- Fans of popular culture and comics should consider attending San Diego Comic-Con in July. Tickets are hard to get but where else can you hear stars talk about new movies or fans in outrageous costumes?
- New Year in LA starts with the Rose Parade in Pasadena. It is a great event to attend. You need to get tickets ahead of time and get up early.
- The LA Auto Show is held in late November and is a great event for car lovers.
- One of the best places to visit in the northeast corner of the state is Lassen Volcanic National Park. Lassen is, as the name says, a volcano and thus a mountain. The highest roads in Lassen will not open until summer. My first visit to Lassen was in June and we have pictures of my father standing next to snow drifts twice his height and he is 6 feet tall.
- A fun summer activity in the area is house boating on Lake Shasta in the summer. It gets popular so book ahead.
- The is not a bad time to visit the North Coast, but because the region is cooler and wetter I would recommend summer as my favorite time to visit. You will find foggy cool shores and then hot interiors. Some of the best coastal redwoods can be found here in Redwood National Park.
Sierra Nevada / Gold Country
- Winter months are for skiing and snowboarding, and the best time to enjoy them is from December to February. Most of the best skiing in California is in the Sierra Nevada mountains but the mountains of the Sierra Madre north of Los Angeles also have ski areas.
- Areas such as Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park have a lower average temperature than the rest of the state, even during the summer. Hence there you can enjoy hiking, and fresh air, and make a getaway from boiling summer temperatures in cities.
- To get from Yosemite National Park across the Sierras to Mono Lake or the ghost town of Bodie is easy in the Summertime as you can take the beautiful Tioga Pass. You can also enjoy the high country of Yosemite like Tuolumne Meadows in summer to avoid some of the crowds in Yosemite Valley. Tiago pass closes around November and does not reopen until May or June because of heavy snow.
- To see the waterfalls at Yosemite there has to be water. So while the crowds are biggest in summer, the waterfalls may peak in late Spring as the winter snow melts. The park is empty in the winter. I visited Yosemite on December 14th one year and found 3 cars total in the Upper Yosemite Falls parking lot, but the falls would blow away in a stiff breeze.
- For the Gold Country sites like Jamestown and Historic Columbia, they don’t get so cold in the winter that you can’t visit nor as hot in summer as the Central Valley. Fall is a beautiful time to visit this foothill region.
Central Valley (Sacramento and San Juaquin Valleys)
- The Central Valley of California is very hot in summer so if Sacramento, Fresno, Lodi, Stockton or Bakersfield are on your itinerary, then try and avoid the heat of the summer.
- That being said, the California State Fair is held in the latter half of July in Sacramento.
- In the winter the Central Valley can get a thick ground fog (November through March) which is not fun to drive in. Spring and Fall are the best time to go.
- Death Valley is the hottest spot in the United States with a record summer temperature of 134° F. For some people that just makes a summer trip to Death Valley an adventure. Personally, I visited in winter.
- In the desert areas, the winter rains will cause spectacular wildflowers in April or May and sometimes a super bloom in specific regions. These are unpredictable.
California is packed with opportunities, and it welcomes travelers during the whole year, but if we had to pick one month as the best one for people going there for the first time, it would have to be September. The summer is slowly fading, but the weather is still nice and warm, there is no fog around San Diego and San Francisco, and it is not so crowded with people.
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