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Top Christmas-Inspired Road Trips in California

Top Christmas-Inspired Road Trips in California

Famed mountain peaks frosted with snow, national parks devoid of tourist crowds, and iconic routes allowing you to cruise without traffic... Team


5 min read

December 05, 2023

Winter is a magical time in California. Famed mountain peaks are frosted with snow, national parks are devoid of large tourist crowds, and the state’s most iconic routes allow you to cruise without crazy traffic. While any corner of the Golden State brims with holiday joy and magic during the season, these are the destinations you should mark on your map if you want to experience the creme de la creme of Christmas road trips in California.

Getaways to quaint villages, retreats to the mountains, and road trips along the California Coast—the possibilities are endless when it comes to feeling the Christmas magic in California.

California Road Trip Ideas To Plan Before Christmas

Soda Springs

Secluded behind picturesque pines and surrounded by beautiful mountains, the charming town of Soda Springs is a winter wonderland in every way. Make this small town a stop on your Northern California road trip this season and you’ll be greeted with a welcoming resort spirit, snow-white landscapes as far the eye can see, and a relaxed atmosphere that’s perfect for families and couples alike.

Soda Springs’ location just off Highway 80 also gives you the perfect opportunity to enjoy various snow activities at the famous Donner Ski Ranch nearby. Snowboarding, skiing, and snow tubing are a few of the fun adventures you can partake in here, but you’ll get up to much more once you arrive as well!

Secluded in the picturesque pines and conveniently located directly off Interstate 80, Soda Springs is perfect for families new to snow.

Mammoth Lakes

Mammoth Lakes has something to offer to its eager visitors no matter the season. However, its serene setting encompassed by awe-inspiring mountains, crystal clear lakes, and lush pine forests feels a little extra special on a winter road trip in California. This Sierra Nevada destination is home to California’s highest serviced peak and offers an exhilarating adventure at every turn. 

Plan a getaway to Mammoth Mountain Resort and enjoy some of the best skiing and snowboarding of your life. Struggling to find your holiday spirit? Join the resort’s Night of Lights on December 16th and enjoy a fun-filled evening complete with fireworks, live music, and various kid-friendly activities.


Carmel-by-the-Sea is the ultimate fairytale town by the California Coast. Now imagine how utterly magical it looks when it's enveloped in Christmas lights, green garlands, and fun seasonal ornaments… 

Make Carmel a California road trip destination and watch it come to life with musical performances and decorated storefronts and homes. Grab a fresh cup of hot cocoa from the Plaza and stroll around the enchanting city to admire the decorations and friendly atmosphere—this is truly a spectacular time for a road trip to California’s Carmel-by-the-Sea. 

While the weather is consistently mild year-round, the winter months are cooler and bring the occasional shower in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Death Valley

Not really in the mood to embrace the cold just yet? Death Valley offers a different kind of December delight you’ll love. In fact, the period after Thanksgiving and before Christmas is just about the perfect time to explore this desert park. The temperatures are ideal as they average the mid-60s to low-70s, and the crowds are virtually nonexistent! 

Embark on a Southern California road trip to Death Valley in early December and expect cool days, chilly nights, and—very rarely—rainstorms. With snow-capped high peaks and low-angled winter light, this season is especially beautiful for cruising around the valley.

In winter, Death Valley morphs into a desert paradise. The cooler conditions and clear, sunny days make winter the perfect season to explore the park.

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California Road Trip Destinations To Put You In the Holiday Mood

Big Bear Lake

Big Bear Lake turns into the most beautiful mountain town in California during wintertime as it transforms into a classic Christmas wonderland with twinkling lights and snowy pines. A quintessential destination for a winter road trip in California, Big Bear is a Christmas destination that you can easily mold into the perfect vacation. If you’re traveling with your family, stay at one of the area’s fabulous ski resorts and enjoy going on snow adventures, shopping at local stores, and exploring Big Bear Village. If you're planning to road trip in California with your partner, then book a winter cabin and have fun building an itinerary of holiday dates in this picturesque town—the sky is your limit.

For a lot of people, the winter scene around Big Bear Lake may be the first snow they have ever seen—and the first chance to go tubing and sledding.

Nevada City

Nevada City is on the bucket list of every Christmas-loving traveler in California. In fact, this beautiful town gets so Christmasy that it has acted as the set of one of the most beloved Hallmark holiday movies, The Christmas Card. Visit on any Wednesday or Sunday in December and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a Victorian fair with people dressed up in old-timey costumes, craft booths, music, and of course, Santa walking around. 

Even if you’re not so keen on Christmas, you’ll still enjoy seeing Nevada City on a road trip in California for its historical significance. The locals actively preserve the city’s Gold Rush history, so the entire downtown area is registered as a National Historic Place. This means all the buildings in the area are authentic 1800’s buildings; how cool is that?

For a winter getaway, Nevada City does the holidays right. From charming Victorian Christmas to cozy tasting rooms, you'll want to stay longer here.

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe has cemented its reputation as a classic destination for a road trip in California and is one of the state’s premier winter sports destinations. Go ice skating under the stars, ski down the powdery slopes, lounge around the lake, and embark on a winter hike or two—Lake Tahoe is a great California road trip idea for all these reasons and more.

All the little towns and ski villages in Tahoe don classic Christmas decorations and provide a large variety of different winter activities. So, if you’re traveling by car, make sure to drive through a few of them and see the holiday glory yourself.

There's one thing that adrenaline junkies and snow bunnies can agree on; Lake Tahoe is the place to be in the winter.

San Francisco

Do you enjoy the thrilling buzz and frenzy of the city during the holiday season? Make San Francisco the end destination of your iconic road trips in California. Holiday shop till you drop, eat at the finest restaurants, ice skate around the Christmas tree in Union Square, and admire the extravagantly Christmas storefronts all around town.

You can also head to the annual Charles Dickens Fair, which takes place in the Cow Palace. A true fairytale Christmas village-come-to-life, this is a fantastic fair to visit if you can’t make it up to Nevada City—so fun! 

Most of the things to do in San Francisco in the winter can be done at any time of the year, but the colder months do offer unique opportunities.

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