Whether sledding down a desert dune or through a snowy winter wonderland, there are some amazing places to visit in California in December. You can find magical travel destinations in all directions, and this list of the best places to visit reflects the state’s natural beauty and mind-boggling diversity.
Holiday decorations and festivals add a special glow to our favorite winter destinations. From tree lightings to art installations, it’s not hard to find the perfect winter escape for your family. And if one thing unifies the following destinations, it’s that Californians love s’mores around a campfire!
Read on to find the perfect destination for your family’s December getaway!
Things are changing fast – make sure to double-check what’s open before your trip. And be sure to follow all local guidelines to keep yourself and others safe!
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WHERE TO GO IN CALIFORNIA IN DECEMBER WITH KIDS?
When I started this list, I was thinking of places to visit for families, but each could make an epic couples or girlfriend getaway too. After all, there’s nothing like December to bring out the kid in each of us.
We hope that you gain ideas and inspiration for your next winter escape here. And for a visual guide, check out the map here. All the locations below are color-coded by region: Southern California (red), the California Desert (orange), the Sierra Nevada (green), the Central Coast (aqua), the Bay Area (blue), Wine Country (purple), Gold Country (yellow), and the Shasta Cascades (brown).
In the post, I start in Southern California and zig-zag my way north to the Cascades.
CALIFORNIA WEATHER IN DECEMBER
Given that this list of places to visit in California in December is literally all over the map, you’ll find that there is no such thing as “California weather” in December. As a general guideline though, late fall is a great time for travel because you escape most of the seasonal extremes.
December is the perfect time to visit the deserts. We visited Death Valley National Park in early December last year. The sunny days we enjoyed were around 70 degrees, perfect for running around and exploring.
In the mountains, early snowfalls will likely have begun, though this varies each year. On average, Tahoe gets about 75 inches of snow in December. You may come across some snowfall (we’re hoping to this year!), but you also have a good chance of skiing the slopes in the sunshine.
And speaking of sunshine, California’s coastal towns are much less foggy in December. On a nice day, you can enjoy stunning clear blue skies from Monterey to Mendocino.
1. SAN DIEGO IN DECEMBER
San Diego is a wonderful city for a family escape year-round, but it’s an awesome place to visit in California in December. December adds a bit more sparkle to the many fun things to do there. With the weather rarely falling below 60, it’s easy to enjoy San Diego’s many activities even in the winter.
During the first weekend of December, Balboa Park transforms into a twinkle-light-filled wonderland during the December Nights Festival. Full of food, fun, and free museums, the event attracts a crowd every year.
Elsewhere in the park, Jungle Bells at the San Diego Zoo offers decorations, displays, and entertainment near your favorite animals. A quick stroll away, families enjoy the Old Globe’s annual performance of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, now a 20-year-old tradition.
San Diego is a beach city, so it’s no surprise that for the past 50 years, boats have taken to the Harbor to celebrate. The San Diego Bay Parade of Lights takes place around San Diego Harbor on two December Sundays.
One of my favorite places to be in San Diego anytime is Coronado Island. In December the famous Hotel Del Coronado is all dressed up for the season with snowy surprises and an ice skating rink with views of the beach and ocean. Warm up with hot cocoa and snacks when you reserve a rink-side fire pit at the Frostbite lounge. If you can get away, make time to experience the one-of-a-kind celebration that is Holidays at Legoland in nearby Carlsbad.
WHERE TO STAY
I’ve noticed that I don’t feel like I’m on vacation in San Diego until we arrive at the beach in front of the Hotel del Coronado. And staying in a cottage at the Beach Village during the holidays is near the top of my California bucket list.
Besides easy access to the ice rink, guests and visitors can enjoy holiday movies on the beach and a private beach bonfire complete with s’mores and Santa hats. Guests can even schedule a special delivery by the hotel’s “elves.”
2. LOS ANGELES IN DECEMBER
We love a good holiday movie. After every Thanksgiving, we bring out our list of favorite movies to watch throughout the season. So where better to make holiday movie magic come to life than Hollywood?
If you’re in town the Sunday after Thanksgiving, be sure to catch the Hollywood Christmas Parade. The famous event offers something for parade lovers: floats, celebrities, bands, giant balloons, and of course, a visit by Santa Claus. Reserved grandstand seating is available, or you can watch for free throughout the parade route.
Some of my favorite childhood memories of LA were family trips to Universal Studios. I loved seeing the magic behind some of my favorite movies, and my dad could always be counted on to volunteer for one of those interactive shows! During the holiday season, Universal transforms thanks to Grinchmas and Christmas in Hogsmeade. It might be that bit of holiday movie magic that you’ve been looking for.
If you’re more into the small screen, Warner Brothers also offers holiday-themed studio tours. I’m keeping my eye out to see when the next Friendsgiving or Holiday in Stars Hollow experience will be offered!
Outside of movie magic, LA’s endless options for family fun make it an ideal place to visit in California in December. Take a holiday train ride through the Griffith Park Holiday Light Festival, wander through LA Zoo’s Wild Wonderland of Light, or venture out to Logan’s Candies for Candy Cane Making Demonstrations in Ontario. In the Los Angeles area, there is no shortage of options for winter fun.
WHERE TO STAY
Located in the heart of Hollywood, the Roosevelt Hotel provides its guests with a unique and memorable stay. This is your chance to experience Hollywood history first hand! Built in 1927, The Tower once housed Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Marilyn Monroe called The Cabanas home in the 1950s.
The Tower is best suited for families, as The Cabanas are steps from the hotel’s famous pool and cafe, still popular and open until 2 AM!
3. BIG BEAR IN DECEMBER
Three hours from Los Angeles, Big Bear is one of Southern California’s favorite year-round mountain escapes. It’s a great place to visit in California in December, especially for those looking to add some snow to their holiday festivities.
Snow Mountain is one of the area’s most family-friendly skiing and snowboarding spots. Families also enjoy outdoor screenings of holiday movies during Movies in the Meadow and high-speed tubing on Grizzly Ridge Tubing Park’s groomed lanes.
Unique to Big Bear is California’s only bobsled experience, the Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain. Start with a scenic chairlift ride, and then navigate down in an individually controlled sled on a cement track. You can go as fast or slow as you want! Other activities at Magic Mountain include go-karts, mini-golf, the Mineshaft mountain coaster, and Soaring Eagle.
If there’s enough natural snow on the ground, give snowshoeing a try. Action Tours leads tours for all levels, ages 10+, which can help you get the basics down and find the best local areas. If there’s not enough snow yet, they also lead zipline tours and a ropes course for ages 8 and up.
When you’re over the mountains and snow, take a cruise on Big Bear Lake with Santa. The paddle-wheeler known as Miss Liberty has “Sail with Santa” excursions each Saturday before Christmas in December.
WHERE TO STAY
Big Bear is a great place to rent a cabin for the whole family. There are some great options like this cozy cabin in Upper Moonridge. If there’s snow on the ground, building a snowman or snow fort in the yard is a perfect way to cap off your December visit to Big Bear.
4. RIVERSIDE IN DECEMBER
You may not find Riverside on every list of places to visit in California in December. But I’m a sucker for holiday lights. And you can’t get many more holiday lights than you’ll find at the Mission Inn in December.
During December, the Mission Inn is lit up with about 3 MILLION holiday lights and 400 animated figures during its Festival of Lights. The lights at this historic hotel turn every day at 5 PM, offering passers-by a bit of holiday magic. In past years, festivities have also included horse-drawn carriage rides and street vendors. Nearby Main Street has a miniature train, carousel, and Ferris wheel.
Restaurants have started to offer holiday treats to enjoy while taking in the scene. The Gingerbread Shop is right across the street. Head here for delicious desserts including cinnamon rolls, apple crisp, and, of course, gingerbread cake and gingerbread men. The latter can be found peeking out from their fancy hot beverages.
If your little ones love the Polar Express as much as ours do, take a short drive from Riverside to Perris, CA where you’ll find the Southern California Polar Express Train Ride. Passengers take a magical one-hour trip to the North Pole set to the movie soundtrack. Enjoy delicious hot chocolate served by dancing waiters and settle in for a reading of the classic story.
WHERE TO STAY
This one’s pretty obvious. A stay at the Mission Inn for the Festival of Lights may not be a tranquil relaxing getaway. But you’ll also get an inside look at the lights and decorations from every corner of the famous hotel.
Guests love to view the lights reflecting off the water in the pool and the holiday decor everywhere. Just know that there will be crowds and all that you’d expect when staying in the heart of a holiday festival!
5. ORANGE COUNTY IN DECEMBER
The “OC” pulls out all the stops during the holiday season. Newport Beach, Dana Point, Huntington Beach, and San Juan Capistrano keep their towns aglow all December making the region a top place to visit in California in December.
Newport Beach is known for its Christmas Boat Parade, when more than 100 decorated sailboats, yachts, and even kayaks cruise along the waterfront. The town has been continuing the tradition for over 100 years now. View the parade from the Balboa Village Fun Zone, or get on the water yourself with Newport Landing Cruises.
Newport’s boat parade takes place over five nights, but if you miss it you can still enjoy a Holiday Lights Cruise to see the town’s “ring of lights” from the water. You can also catch holiday boat parades and light cruises nearby in Dana Point and Huntington Harbour.
Winter Fest is held at the OC Fair and Convention Grounds in Costa Mesa. Visitors can play hockey at the Anaheim Ducks Village, browse the World’s Largest Candy Maze at Yowie’s Sweet Shoppe, play at an Alpine Village with tubing slide and snow play areas, and even get a chance to spy Santa flying overhead with his reindeer.
Further south, families love Capistrano Lights at the Mission San Juan Capistrano. The Mission offers festive programming and nightly tree lighting for 30 days. Having been raised Catholic, I’ve been to many California missions. This was the first I’ve ever paid admission to visit. Though the chapel still has services, it feels more like a history museum and is interesting to view in this context.
Of course, I have to mention Anaheim’s star attraction. But I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about the Holiday Experiences at Disneyland!
WHERE TO STAY
The Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach & Resort is an awesome spot for families to stay in Orange County. There’s plenty for families to do with multiple heated pools, a kids club, beach bonfires, bikes to rent, and a bridge that crosses over the PCH to the beach.
And nothing says holidays at the beach like the sandcastle they display in their lobby every holiday season!
6. DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK IN DECEMBER
We made our first trip to Death Valley in December. The weather was mild and sunny, allowing for full days of fun adventuring. If you’re looking for a unique escape from the cold, Death Valley makes a perfect place to visit in California in December.
During our quick trip, we sledded down the Mesquite Sand Dunes, wandered through Badwater Basin (at noon), and explored Golden Canyon and the Red Cathedral.
We also rented a Jeep from Farabee’s because we weren’t very mobile in our RV. A few hours in, and we wished we had more time to explore further out. Titus Canyon, Tea Kettle Junction, and the Racetrack Playa are definitely on the list for our next visit to the park.
Our visit didn’t have a single thing to do with the holidays. We just wanted a place to travel in December without crowds. Or tire chains. We were giving RV’ing a try, and it was a perfect place to do so.
Check out our full guide to Death Valley in December here.
WHERE TO STAY
We camped in the Furnace Creek Campground during our stay. Though the site offered little privacy and we were close to our neighbors, we had a good time trying out the whole RV thing there.
If camping isn’t your jam, a stay at the Inn at Death Valley will take your stay to a whole new level. A classic Hollywood hideaway that once hosted stars like Marlon Brando, Clark Gable, and Carole Lombard, the Inn was recently restored to its former glory days. The spring-fed pool is always 87-degrees, so make some time to enjoy a fresh December dip after a day of exploring.
7. PALM SPRINGS IN DECEMBER
As with Death Valley, December in Palm Springs offers warm sunny days that are more pleasant than most other times of the year. But unlike Death Valley, there’s plenty here to get you into the holiday spirit.
The season kicks off with the Palm Springs Festival of Lights Parade, which has been held on the first Saturday of December since the early 1990s. Floats coated in holiday lights and giant floating balloons keep visitors coming back year after year.
About 20 minutes outside of town is the Cabazon Dinosaurs, a fun roadside attraction that features one of the largest manmade dinosaur sculptures in the world. There’s a gift shop in the belly of the apatosaurus, and visitors can climb up into the head of Mr. Rex. In 2020, the dinosaurs were freshly painted to celebrate each season. In December, Mr. Rex transformed into Santa Rex! It may be a little gimmicky, but I loved the concept and hope it continues through 2021!
One of the great things about Palm Springs is that in addition to the amazing desert weather, you can also hop on the Aerial Tramway and find snow on Mt. San Jacinto! Mt. San Jacinto gets about 25 inches of snow in December. It’s not exactly Tahoe, but it can still make for an exciting day of snow near the desert.
For another type of outdoor adventure, drive under an hour to Joshua Tree National Park. You can see some great Joshua Tree sights in a day, including the Cholla Cactus Garden, the Hidden Valley Trail, and some beautiful sunset sights.
WHERE TO STAY
Palm Springs has some awesome family-friendly vacation rentals, like this mid-century modern house with a hot tub and pool.
If you’re looking for a hotel stay, consider the La Quinta Resort & Club. Every December the resort transforms into a winter wonderland with desert style. From breakfast with Santa to outdoor holiday movie screenings complete with s’mores, there’s holiday fun here for the whole family.
8. SEQUOIA & KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARKS IN DECEMBER
I love those beautiful photos of sequoias in the snow, with their red bark striking a stunning contrast to snowy white. With flat and easy trails to some of the park’s best-known sites, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are both great places to visit in California in December. Both offer opportunities for snow play in spectacular settings.
In Sequoia National Park, Wolverton Meadow is 2 miles north of General Sherman, the largest tree in the world. This is a popular family spot for sledding, snowman building, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing.
On weekends, park rangers and naturalists offer guided snowshoe walks nearby for ages 10+.
In Kings Canyon National Park, the Big Stump snow play area is a great place to play with sledding hills and more. Park rangers lead snowshoe walks five miles away in Grant Grove. The walks average about two hours and allow access into areas where you’d otherwise sink in the snow. Finish your snow day with a cup of hot cocoa near the fireplace in John Muir Lodge.
The General Grant Tree in Kings Canyon is the second largest tree in the world. It was also designated as the nation’s Christmas Tree in 1926. From that year forward, on the second Sunday in December at 2:30 in the afternoon, the Sanger Chamber of Commerce organizes a “Trek to the Tree.” The National Park joins in the celebration by placing a giant wreath at the base of the tree.
In winter, the road that connects the two parks may be impassable. It usually closes in January, but it’s worth knowing that you might have to drive back down to the foothills if you plan to visit both parks. Check road conditions before you go.
WHERE TO STAY
In Kings Canyon, the Grant Grove cabins are clustered in the Grant Grove Village. This is a convenient base within walking distance of Grant Grove. Like many National Park accommodations, they offer a rustic experience and some have shared bathrooms. Make sure you note your cabin’s features before you book! If you’re a national park history buff you might appreciate the stand-alone “Honeymoon Cabin” (Cabin 9). Built in 1910, it’s the oldest structure still standing in the Village.
Over in Sequoia National Park, the Wukaschi Lodge is the most popular place to stay. Like Grant Grove Cabins, the main draw here is the convenient location. Guests also appreciate the lodge’s stunning setting and the common area’s warm fire throughout the winter months.
9. MAMMOTH MOUNTAIN IN DECEMBER
Mammoth Mountain is one of those spots in the Eastern Sierra that looks close to many cities but takes about 4 hours from every direction. Thanks to its remote location, it’s free from the over-development that other mountain communities have experienced and is set in beautiful natural surroundings.
Consider the drive as part of the journey. Pack up some limes, and make time to stop and admire the beauty of the Eastern Sierras along the way. The feel of escaping to a winter wonderland makes Mammoth one of the best places to visit in California in December.
The ski resorts are central to winter fun, with lessons offered for ages 3 and up. June Mountain is a particularly good spot for families with 1,500 acres of less crowded slopes, an easy-going atmosphere, and awesome views of the surrounding peaks and lakes. Lift tickets are free for kids under 12.
When you’re ready to get out of the snow, take a scenic gondola ride to the Mammoth Mountain summit at 11,053 feet. Snap your photos at the summit sign before enjoying a scenic lunch at the Eleven53 Cafe. Up to 2 kids (12 and under) ride free with each paying adult.
If you’re in town during the annual Night of Lights celebration at Canyon Lodge, enjoy a free family-friendly event with music, a parade, kids’ activities, snowmobiling, tubing, and a fireworks show that illuminates the beautiful Sierra sky.
WHERE TO STAY
Located in the heart of Mammoth, the Village Lodge is a popular family-friendly Condo-hotel.
When traveling as a family, we try to make as many of our own meals as possible, and having a full kitchen makes all the difference in the world. On top of that, you also get awesome amenities like a heated pool, hot tubs, fire pits, and help with lift tickets and other local activities.
And you can’t beat the location, steps from the Village shopping, entertainment, and direct gondola access to the slopes.
10. YOSEMITE IN DECEMBER
Our first visit to Yosemite was planned for the weekend after Thanksgiving. We expected crisp and cool weather perfect for hiking but there was a sudden snow dump the day before we arrived. We decided to go ahead with our visit and were rewarded with a true winter wonderland. Yosemite in the snow is gorgeous! It’s now one of my top places to visit in California in December.
During our trip, we enjoyed a tour with Yosemite Family Adventures. Our guide convinced us to try snowshoeing on the trail to a frozen Bridalveil Falls. My mom was hesitant, but we all gave it a try and loved it. After, JJ had a great time sledding down the hills nearby.
That day we also took some of my favorite photos at Tunnel View and enjoyed a perfect lunch and some warm-up time by the fire at the Ahwahnee. We capped off the day building snow forts with amazing views at El Cap Meadow. And we barely scratched the surface!
Next time we visit in the winter, I’m going to take a spin on the Curry Village Ice Skating Rink, an open-air rink with Half Dome as a backdrop. Badger Pass also opens in mid-December, offering a chance to ski, snowboard, or go tubing, right in the middle of Yosemite.
Read more about our favorite Yosemite family adventures in every season here.
WHERE TO STAY
During our winter trip, we stayed in the Explorer Cabins at Tenaya Lodge. We always enjoy having our own space and appreciated the small living room with a fireplace. It was the perfect way to relax after a long day in the park and made for an easy way to get outside for snowman building the next morning
The main lodge was beautifully decorated for the holidays. You get to most of the lodge amenities here, and can also enjoy activities like ice skating and gingerbread house building. While we enjoyed visiting, it felt a bit too crowded for me to want to stay at that part of the lodge. And that was pre-COVID!
If you stay at Tenaya Lodge, give the concierge a call before you go. There were several activities offered for families that I wanted to join, but most were already full when we arrived. As with anything near Yosemite, planning ahead is helpful!
11. LAKE TAHOE IN DECEMBER
Ah, Lake Tahoe. Like many of us from the Bay Area, I’ve been visiting Lake Tahoe for as long as I can remember. But my family wasn’t big on skiing, so I didn’t take my first lesson until I was an adult. Then I pretty much failed my lessons and remain fairly terrified of skiing today. But I still love a good snowy day near Lake Tahoe.
If you want to give skiing or snowboarding a try, Diamond Peak in Incline Village is a great option for families. It’s a little more under the radar than the other big resorts, and lift tickets are free for kids 6 and under. If you’re traveling with a toddler, you can also take advantage of interchangeable tickets for parents.
For another take on family snow fun, check out Soda Springs Mountain Adventure. My boys loved playing at Planet Kids, which is for little ones under 7. First off, you arrive in an open-air jeep snow-vehicle, which was a big win for the boys in and of itself. Their favorite activity was the tubing carousel. We couldn’t get them off of it! We’re hoping that they’ll take a bit more advantage of the tubing hill and ski/snowboard learning zone when we go again this year. For older kids, there’s also Tube Town and, of course, the slopes.
Fun options for families that don’t involve ski slopes include a scenic ride on the Heavenly Gondola or Squaw Valley Aerial Tramway, honest-to-goodness sleigh rides, dog sledding, and ice skating. And that’s only scratching the surface!
WHERE TO STAY
Getting cozy at a Tahoe cabin is one of the reasons Tahoe tops my list of places to visit in California in December. There are options for every taste, style, and budget. This one caught my eye for a family trip, with a swing set, plenty of snowman building space, a bocce court, and a hot tub. Everything you need for a fun family Tahoe escape!
12. SOLVANG IN DECEMBER
This Central Coast town was once named the “Most Christmassy Town in America” by TIME Magazine. In December, the annual Julefest takes over, with hundreds of glowing trees along the sidewalks downtown. It’s no surprise to find Solvang on many lists of the top places to visit in California in December.
Solvang, as we know it today, started with nostalgic Danish immigrants who wanted to bring home to the California sunshine. Today’s visitors love its Danish architecture, bakeries, and even family-friendly wine tasting options for mom and dad.
In December, visitors get to experience the Christmas Market Light Show, go on a scavenger hunt for hidden Danish gnomes, and visit the Santa Village & Winter Lade. This area has real snow, live animals, and holiday treats. You can also get into the spirit of the season with free candlelight tours and Christmas carols.
Most Julefest events happen on the weekends, but dates and details vary each year. One shop you can depend on to be open year-round is Jule Hus, which has been family-owned for over 50 years. Pick up a souvenir ornament and special gifts, like music boxes and unique advent calendars.
Solvang offers plenty of options for family fun all year long. Read our list of the top 20 things to do with kids in Solvang here.
WHERE TO STAY
If you prefer to stay in downtown Solvang, Hotel Corque is a visitor favorite. It’s in the quieter part of town, but it’s an easy walk to the downtown holiday attractions.
13. CAMBRIA IN DECEMBER
Another favorite Central Coast town, Cambria goes all out for the holidays with the Cambria Christmas Market making it a top place to visit in California in December.
Modeled on Germany’s famous Christmas Markets, the Cambria Christmas Market shines with millions of twinkle lights, themed vignettes, visits from Santa, live music and carolers, cozy fire pits, and, of course, delicious food and drink in the Biergarten. Tickets are required, but children 10 and under are free.
When you get to downtown Cambria, don’t miss a slice of Linn’s famous olallieberry pie. A mix between a blackberry and a raspberry, this delicious treat put Linn’s on the map many moons ago.
Down near Moonstone Beach, December marks the beginning of the gray whale migration along the California Coast. The Whale Trail has a designated spot near Shamel Community Park that is a good place to view wildlife like whales, dolphins, sea lions, and otters. The park also has a playground where kids can get their wiggles out.
Further up the road, Hearst Castle decks the halls out every December. Visitors get to experience the estate as guests of Mr. Hearst would have during the holidays in the 1920s and 1930s. From large outdoor wreaths to towering trees, this is a chance to see Hearst Castle in a unique light.
Check out more Highway 1 stops near Cambria on our ultimate guide to Highway 1 with kids.
WHERE TO STAY
The Cambria Christmas Market is set on the property of the Cambria Pines Lodge. We stayed here as a family in Feb 2020, which seems like a lifetime ago! The Jr. Suite gave us plenty of room with a separate sitting area with a fireplace, and we enjoyed exploring the grounds and gardens.
The Lodge is marketed as being near Moonstone Beach and within walking distance to downtown Cambria, but I would say both claims are a stretch. We made a comical attempt to descend the steep hill to downtown Cambria with a stroller, which I would not recommend to anyone! John ended up running back up the hill to get the car for our return trip which would have been a total disaster in the evening.
All that aside, I do recommend staying at Cambria Pines Lodge if you are attending the Christmas market. There are even hotel-only nights when you can have all the lights to yourselves. Know that during these nights the vendor booths are closed. But if you’re there for the ambiance, it would be a great opportunity to wander through the lights and decorations without the crowds.
14. MONTEREY IN DECEMBER
Monterey is a pretty magical destination all year round. It cools down but rarely dips below 45 degrees on the Peninsula. That means there’s plenty of fun to be had both indoors and outside.
The region’s most beloved attraction, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, is mostly indoors, so you’ll have no problem staying warm while learning about the kelp forests and tide pools.
Outside, visitors wander through the Christmas on the Wharf decorations, including a 30-foot Christmas Tree decorated with colorful sea creatures.
Winter is also prime time to view gray whales migrating north. They usually start appearing near Monterey Bay at the beginning of December. This past winter we went on an awesome tour with Discovery Whale Watch. Just make sure to pick up a pack of ginger tablets before you board! Bobbing while watching an adorable baby gray whale was tough for many of us on board.
If you’re interested in the area’s history, the annual Christmas in the Adobes event takes place in the middle of December each year. Explore more than 20 historic adobes all dressed up for the holiday season.
If you’re a fan of the crisp weather and sunny skies, take a hike in one of our favorite California State Parks south of Carmel. With fewer crowds, mild weather, and clear skies, the whole family is sure to fall in love with Point Lobos.
WHERE TO STAY
Because Monterey is such a family-friendly destination, you can find many great options for an overnight or weekend stay. One favorite is the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa. Located a block from Cannery Row, this waterfront hotel is an easy walk to the aquarium, food, and shopping options.
Kids staying at the hotel can join the Plaza Explorers Program. They’ll receive their own discovery kit, with tide pool bingo, binoculars, and exploration gear. They’ll also earn prizes for completing activities during their stay.
15. SANTA CRUZ IN DECEMBER
We know that we’re pretty lucky to be a short drive away from Santa Cruz. This beach town is fun all year round. While the traffic and crowds are heavy all summer, winter is a much more relaxed time to explore. The laid-back atmosphere and beachy festivities make it an awesome place to visit in California in December.
One of the first things anyone thinks of in Santa Cruz is the Boardwalk. Though many of the rides shut down during the colder months, the Boardwalk still gets festive during the holiday season. Take a whirl on the ice rink that’s surrounded by fire pits groups can reserve ahead of time. The arcade games nearby are open, and the park is anchored by a giant Christmas tree decorated with beach balls. Every few minutes, a machine blows out snow bubbles. Not surprisingly, the tree was my boys’ favorite part. You’ll find plenty of photo-ops up and down the park.
Roaring Camp’s Holiday Lights Train and Chanukah Train begin their journey from the Boardwalk. It’s fun to wave at the friendly people watching through town, and my parents enjoyed their visit with Santa on board.
For a more traditional Roaring Camp experience, leave from the station in Felton and chug through the redwoods to Bear Mountain for the Holiday Tree Walk. Wander through trees decorated by local school children, warm up with cider, and donate gifts to Toys for Tots.
Over at Natural Bridges, a wide boardwalk leads to an overwintering site for monarch butterflies. The number of monarchs has sadly been declining every year on the California coast, but we still spotted quite a few during our last visit. The butterflies begin arriving in mid-October and leave by mid-February.
Read our guide on 15 Ideas for an Amazing Weekend Getaway in Santa Cruz.
WHERE TO STAY
If you want to stay in the thick of things, the Dream Inn has been a popular choice for visitors to Santa Cruz since the 1960s. It has a fun retro vibe that reflects Santa Cruz’s quirky nature and is within walking distance to the Boardwalk and Wharf.
If you’re looking for more room and relaxation, check out Seascape Beach Report in Rio del Mar. The resort has condos and villas for up to eight people, three ocean-view swimming pools, and a private beach. Guests can drive golf carts to the private beach where resort staff will build a beach fire and provide all the fixings you’ll need for s’mores.
16. SAN FRANCISCO IN DECEMBER
Further up the coast, San Francisco shines throughout the holiday season. I have great memories of holiday visits to the city as a kid and hope to continue that tradition with my boys too.
Union Square is the heart of the city’s holiday celebration. The square holds a popular outdoor ice skating rink, a Christmas Tree, and the Bill Graham Menorah with activities and performances through Chanukah. If your kiddos are hoping for a cat or puppy this year, Macy’s teams up with the San Francisco SPCA for an annual event in which animals up for adoption are showcased in the store’s famous Union Square windows.
When you’re ready to move on, hop on a decorated cable car and head to Fisherman’s Wharf for the Lighted Boat Parade.
Over in Golden Gate Park, the city’s beloved Conservatory of Flowers transforms into an illuminated interactive experience during “Night Bloom.” And at the California Academy of Science’s annual exhibit, “Tis the Season for Science: Life on Ice,” visitors will get to enjoy indoor snow, live reindeer, holiday performances, and more!
Last but not least, it wouldn’t be Christmas in our house without tamales. If you’re not going to be home to make your own, pick up the next best thing at La Palma Mexicatessen. The Mission standby sells delicious tamales all year, but they make tens of thousands to sell every December.
WHERE TO STAY
If you’re looking for somewhere special to stay in San Francisco around the holidays, look no further than the Fairmont.
In December, you’ll be greeted by a HUGE gingerbread house in the lobby. The gingerbread house is 25 feet high by 35 feet wide and constructed with more than 6,000 gingerbread bricks. For an extra special occasion, plan a private dining event for up to 10 guests inside!
17. MENDOCINO IN DECEMBER
Sandwiched between redwoods and the Ocean, Mendocino is not the easiest town on the California coast to reach. But once you get there, you’ll find its unconventional and adventurous spirit is a draw for visitors of all ages. In the winter, the hills are greener, the skies are clearer, and fewer tourists crowd the quaint streets making it a perfect place to visit in California in December.
Downtown Mendocino has no chain stores, and the village’s awesome boutiques are a great place to find that perfect gift for a special someone. The Out of This World was science-obsessed JJ’s favorite shop, hands-down. It’s filled with a wonderful collection of science toys and tools. They’ll even let you peek through the telescopes pointed at the ocean through their front window.
Mendocino is a town that loves its whales. Bring some binoculars and try to spot them from land at the gorgeous Mendocino Headlands State Park or Point Cabrillo Lighthouse. Of course, the best place to spot a whale is on the water. Readers recommend Hooked on Mendo for a memorable family-friendly experience.
The town of Fort Bragg is only 15 minutes north of Mendocino but has a completely different feel. The top thing to do with kids in the area is to take a spin on the famous Skunk Train. In December, families enjoy the Magical Christmas Train with stories, music, and Santa.
Nearby is the beloved Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. In December the gardens are aglow during the Festival of Lights. Enjoy live music, sweets, and pathways full of, you guessed it, twinkle lights. Kids of all ages enjoy roasting marshmallows by the campfire.
Curious to know more about things to do in Mendocino with kids? Check out our family guide to Mendocino.
WHERE TO STAY
If you’re looking for a unique lodging experience, consider a stay in the historic Keeper’s Quarters at the Point Cabrillo Light Station, a California State Historic Park.
Enjoy the spectacular ocean views and 300 acres of Nature Preserve. The location is located between Mendocino and Fort Bragg, meaning easy access to the best things to do on the coast. Properties range from the amazing 4-bedroom Head Lightkeeper’s House to smaller 1-bedroom cottages.
18. COLUMBIA IN DECEMBER
Visiting Columbia, CA is another of my favorite childhood memories. My mom loves exploring little California towns, and I guess I caught the bug.
Located in Gold Rush country, the entire downtown of Columbia, CA is a California State Park. Staff and volunteers dress like they are from a nineteenth-century mining town and invite visitors to experience a polished version of what the town might have been like.
Making the holidays come to life here is an annual tradition. Decorations are up throughout the town, and Nelson’s Candy Kitchen is busy making fresh candy canes for all to see.
In early December, Lamplight Tours guide visitors through vignettes in a walking play. Later in the month, enjoy a Victorian Feast with Christmas carols. At Miner’s Christmas, docents encourage visitors to try roasted chestnuts, take part in family-friendly crafts, and try to catch a glimpse of Father Christmas.
Check the town’s calendar for the date and time of the annual Equestrian Parade, Toy Drive, and Las Posadas Nativity Procession.
A short drive away, visit Railtown 1897 which offers a Polar Express experience with hot-hot-hot chocolate and appearances by many of the story’s characters. At the North Pole, Santa boards to give each passenger “the first gift of Christmas.”
WHERE TO STAY
The Columbia State Historic Park operates three vacation cottages close to downtown. Each has the story of the people who once lived there, giving a deeper historical insight into visitors’ experiences of the town. They are also comfortable, provide plenty of space for families, have full kitchens, and are close to all the downtown attractions.
19. NEVADA CITY IN DECEMBER
We recently visited Nevada City with the kids. It didn’t take much to imagine the town’s narrow, hilly streets, aglow from the light of gas lamps, being from another era. This is a great place to visit in California in December if you want to feel like you’ve landed in a Hallmark holiday movie. In fact, you might even recognize it as the setting of The Christmas Card.
This quaint town leans into that ambiance during the annual Victorian Christmas Celebration. Carolers in period clothes, brass bands, and bagpipes fill the streets. Visitors can try roasted chestnuts and carriage rides through town. And keep an eye out for the town’s walking Christmas Tree.
A short drive away in Grass Valley, an annual Cornish Christmas Celebration commemorates the town’s historical ties to Cornwall with musicians, jugglers, and traditional cloggers.
If there’s not enough snow for you in town yet, the Sugar Bowl, Boreal, and Soda Springs ski resorts are each less than an hour away. As I mentioned in the Tahoe section, Soda Springs Mountain Adventure is a winter wonderland for kids who may not be ready to ski yet. Planet Kids is for little ones under 7 with a fun tubing carousel and easy hills perfect for their ski and snowboard learning zone. For older kids, there’s also Tube Town and, of course, the slopes.
WHERE TO STAY
In walking distance to the heart of Nevada City, but far enough away for peace and quiet, the Outside Inn is an affordable option with unique themed rooms.
If you’re worried about your kids climbing the walls in your hotel, book the Climbing Suite which comes with a climbing wall and a mural of Yosemite for inspiration.
Need more space? The 850 sq ft cottage has two bedrooms, a bathroom with a claw foot tub, a full kitchen, and private decks.
20. MT. SHASTA IN DECEMBER
Up in the northern part of the state, snow is the norm and small-town holiday ambiance is a given.
The historic town of McCloud transforms its streets into a Victorian-inspired winter wonderland. During the month-long sip-and-shop, visitors enjoy wagon rides and carolers, and weekly events in the shadow of Mount Shasta. Don’t miss out on gourmet s’mores at Marshmallow’s on Main.
Outside of Mt. Shasta City Park, take a spin on the Siskiyou Ice Rink. At 85 feet wide by 200 feet long, the rink is the only National Hockey League-sized outdoor rink in California. Enjoy skating in the open area surrounded by the beautiful Mt. Shasta scenery.
Mt. Shasta Ski Park is popular with locals and visitors seeking a change of pace from the big Sierra mountain resorts. If more casual and less crowded slopes appeal to you, Mt. Shasta Ski Park might be an ideal fit.
As an alternative to skiing, snowboarding, and sledding, you can rent a dogsled through Dogsled Express and take in the beautiful snowy mountain scene while getting pulled along by trained huskies. Another option is renting a snowmobile. Fun Factory Snowmobile Rentals can rent you a vehicle and let you know where the best trails are.
The Mt. Shasta area also has great options for winter hikes and snowshoe treks. Take the popular one-mile trek to Castle Lake, one of the best ice fishing spots in California. Heart Lake is another great hike that isn’t too challenging with awesome views.
WHERE TO STAY
If your kids are as obsessed with The Polar Express as mine are, trains play an important role in your holiday traditions. For a unique stay near Mt. Shasta, consider the Dunsmuir Railroad Park Resort where you can eat on a train and sleep in a caboose! The resort’s family cabooses comfortably sleep up to five.