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California is the place to be during the cold winter months. Whether you’re dreaming of cozy nights in a winter cabin, chilly evenings spent around the bonfire on a weekend glamping trip, or admiring the magnificence of sunsets by the beach, the Golden State has it all.
Although a playlist can create the perfect atmosphere for winter festivities and extra family time, the ultimate long-term cure for any winter blues is a road trip. Fuel your wanderlust this time of year by embarking on a road trip in December (or January or February) and creating memories that’ll last a lifetime.
California's most beautiful winter road trips
Thanks to the Golden State’s diverse terrain, you can make your version of a winter wonderland as sunny or snowy as you desire. If you’re up for the drive, take a dip in the beach and ski down the mountains on the same weekend. If that’s not enough for your adrenaline rush, the best winter road trips featured on our list will definitely have you packing a bag and taking PTO by the end of the day.
Incredible destinations for road trips in December
December is the time to don your ugly Christmas sweater and enjoy many of the cheesy guilty-pleasure activities you don’t like to admit you enjoy. Whether you head out to explore California Christmas tree farms or watch glistening Christmas lights in San Francisco, nothing beats a festive road trip in December.
Leave the holiday stress behind and rediscover the charm of a simple Christmas in Mendocino County. Make the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens your first stop on the winter road trip. The magical place lies on 47 acres of land between California’s scenic Highway 1 and the Pacific Ocean—be prepared for plenty of holiday cheer. Make sure to get your tickets online prior to visiting, as COVID-19 restrictions don’t allow walk-ins for non-members.
Later, check out the towering redwood trees at Montgomery Woods and soak in the relaxing sounds of nature. For a truly festive end to your day, take the Magical Christmas Skunk Train ride in Fort Bragg. The little ones traveling with you will especially enjoy the socially distanced visit from Santa and the complimentary goodie bags they get to take home.
Big Bear Lake
Big Bear Lake transforms into a classic Christmas wonderland in December, complete with twinkling lights and snowy pines as far as the eye can see. Several outdoor recreational activities can be enjoyed at a safe distance in this beautiful California locale, making it an ideal winter road trip destination.
Many SoCal snowboarders and skiers take off to Big Bear Mountain Resort at the first sign of snowfall to take advantage of the fresh powder. Packing your snowshoes for a Big Bear road trip in December is an absolute must, too; the endless white hiking trails around Big Bear will transport you into a winter fairytale. Keep an eye out—you just might experience a rare deer sighting.
The best road trips in January
Recovering from any post-holiday blues has never been easier. Thought you missed your chance for a memorable winter road trip? Think again. January gives you the perfect opportunity to start your year off on the right foot and take in the wonders of nature before warmer weather attracts more visitors.
Big Sur is one of the main reasons why driving along Highway 1 is a bucket-list item. Waterfalls, historic landmarks, scenic overlooks, and beautiful coastal campgrounds make up this dreamy destination. Your biggest challenge while visiting Big Sur will be choosing which phenomenal state park to visit next. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park are both top options for those looking to get in touch with nature. You also won’t regret squeezing in a walk along the coastline before you leave.
The fun never stops at Soda Springs. Step into a winter wonderland upon arriving in this mountainous landscape you won’t be able to get enough of. Snowboarding, skiing, and snow tubing are just a few of the outdoor activities you can enjoy here. Overnight rental options are also available at Soda Springs, so you’ll be able to postpone your return from your winter road trip adventure by a day or two. (We know you’ll want to.)
Where to plan a road trip in February
Thought we’d run out of winter road trip ideas by now? Nope. By February, you’ll probably already be dreaming of the sun and chill days by the beach. To have a little something to look forward to, get a taste of the California sun during one of these winter road trips.
The air in Monterey Bay may be cool and crisp during the winter months, but the temperature rarely dips below 45 degrees. If you made a New Year’s resolution to get more active in 2021, hike around the scenic trails in Monterey in February and snap pictures of the surrounding views—sans the large crowds.
A relaxing morning whale-watching excursion should also be on your agenda while winter road tripping in Monterey Bay. Winter is the prime time to catch the gray whales beginning their migration north. Dolphins, sea otters, and sea lions are also commonly spotted on these scenic shores. Need we say more?
No winter road trip itinerary is complete without Palm Springs. It’s an ideal sunny escape for a road trip in February—the scenic desert destination with towering palm trees and luxurious resorts will have you feeling like you stepped into a movie set. The best part? Even though it’s February, the resort pool waters are warm and welcoming.
But it’s not all glitz and glam in Palm Springs. You can enjoy many adventurous outdoor activities here. Hiking is one great way to explore the area; Bump and Grind, Lykken, and Homestead Trails are all convenient and scenic pathways in the area where the sun shines even during the coldest winter months.
A quick getaway to Joshua Tree National Park is also a worthy addition to your itinerary. Learn about the cultural history of the park, its animals, and strange rock formations while you’re there. Wrap up your trip by falling asleep under the clear night skies for the ultimate stargazing experience.