10 Must-Do Winter Activities in California

Get out of the house and play this season.

Yosemite National Park's firefall lit up at sunset.
Yosemite National Park's famous firefall.
Janelle Orth / Alamy

While every season has its offerings, winters in Northern California are something truly spectacular. From a jaw-dropping natural illusion that brightens the skies of Yosemite National Park each February to a rollicking comedy festival that makes Januarys in San Francisco a delight, here are 10 must-do activities that will easily fill your calendar from December through March. 

Witness the incredible Firefall in Yosemite National Park.

In mid to late February, Yosemite National Park puts on a wondrous show of nature that—if the conditions are right—is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It takes place at Horsetail Falls, a seasonal cascade that flows 3,000 feet over the eastern edge of El Capitan. It’s most visible when the skies are clear and recent snowmelt produces a steady flow of water. The result is a coming together of natural elements that looks like a waterfall on fire. It typically occurs around 35 minutes before sunset—its molten red-orange color becoming especially vibrant as the minutes progress. The park’s designated viewing areas on Northside Drive in Yosemite Valley are both good places to catch this remarkable illusion. Reservations have been required in recent years, so call ahead to check.

Get laughing at Sketchfest in San Francisco. 

Now in its 21st year, San Francisco’s premier comedy festival helps cure winter doldrums with two-and-a-half-weeks of laugh-out-loud humor. Some of the genre’s biggest names (past participants have included Weird Al Yankovic and Canadian sketch comedy troupe Kids in the Hall) take over neighborhood theaters, music venues, and performance halls citywide, putting on everything from stand-up shows to hilarious roasts. January 18-February 4, 2024.

Monarch butterflies swarm a eucalyptus tree in Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz, California.
Monarchs at Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz, California.
yhelfman / Shutterstock

See legions of monarch butterflies in Pacific Grove.

Thousands of western monarch butterflies start arriving in October. See them fluttering their dazzling orange-red wings as they cluster together on pine, cypress, and eucalyptus trees for warmth. Although these stunning creatures overwinter in areas from Big Sur through Monterey, it’s Pacific Grove’s free Monarch Sanctuary that’s best known for viewing the incredible migratory phenomenon. Peak season runs November through January, though the bulk of butterflies tend to stick around until early March. 

Experience elephant seal breeding season at Año Nuevo Coast Preserve.

Northern elephant seals make their annual pilgrimage to the shores of Año Nuevo State Park in San Mateo County beginning in mid-December. Then, for the next three-and-a-half months, they put on a display for the ages. Bull seals battle to establish breeding dominance, and pregnant females come ashore to give birth. Once they do, they’ll nurse their pups for a month or so before returning to sea, while the pups stick around swimming and sunning through April and May. Visitors must book a docent-guided tour to see the seals up close during breeding season. It includes a three to four mile hike through undulating sand dunes, and 2-hour equal access tours are available for visitors who need mobility assistance. Online reservations are recommended, and tickets cost $11/adult, children four and under free. 


Marvel at king tides in Santa Cruz.

King tides are extremely high and low ocean tides that occur when the earth, moon, and sun are near alignment. While the high tide brings impressive waves and occasional tidal flooding, low tide reveals expansive beaches and tide pools that typically remain hidden. Some places to look for these marine-filled pockets brimming with spikey sea urchins, colorful starfish, and flower-like anemones include Natural Bridges State Beach and Wilder Ranch State Park, north of the city. Upcoming king tides will occur on January 11-12 and February 9, 2024.

Three tiered tray and other foods on a table aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train as part of the tea service.
Enjoy a full tea service aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train.
Courtesy Napa Valley Wine Train

Enjoy holiday tea aboard an antique train in Napa.

Sip peppermint tea and nibble on finger sandwiches inside a restored vintage Pullman rail car. The Napa Valley Wine Train transforms into a daytime rolling tea house on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays throughout December, complete with festive décor. Tickets start at $205 and include a sparkling wine toast.

Snowshoe mystical Mount Shasta.

Mount Shasta is a beauty year-round, but this active volcano becomes even more majestic when draped in all its winter wonder. Strap on some snowshoes and start exploring. Popular cold-season treks include the 3.6-mile out-and-back South Gate Meadows Trail, which traverses open meadows on the slopes of the 14,179-foot tall peak, and any portion of the Sand Flat Winter Trails system, with multiple short trails winding through nearby Shasta-Trinity National Forest. 

Find solitude in Redwoods National and State Parks.

Cool temps and wet days are common within California’s coastal redwoods come winter. This often means an opportunity to have the area pretty much to yourself. Keep an eye out for the park’s resident elk population grazing in its prairies and along its beaches, or spend a contemplative morning listening to the sounds of wind whistling through redwood canopies. Fancy a walk? The 1.1 mile Fern Canyon Trail at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park meanders among stands of sitka spruce and lush greenery.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse on the Pacific coast in Pescadero, California at sunset.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero, California.
Iryna Horbachova / Shutterstock

Watch gray whales migrate in Pescadero.

Each year, approximately 18,000 gray whales make a lengthy journey from Alaska to Mexico and back, passing Northern California’s shallow coastal waters between November and mid-February while heading south. A great place to spot this annual migration is Pigeon Point Lighthouse, a 115-foot tall, operational Coast Guard aid perched atop a coastal bluff. While the tower isn’t open to the public, its boardwalk overlook provides prime viewing space. Catch the whales in motion, and keep an eye out for harbor and elephant seals as well.  

Forage for mushrooms in Mendocino.

Mushrooms proliferate across Northern California’s Mendocino coast from October through April, blanketing the local landscape after the year’s first rain and offering a trove of treasures for fungi enthusiasts. The county alone is home to more than 3,000 mushroom species, though they’re not all edible. An array of guided tours and packages can help you decipher which of these ‘shrooms are safe to consume, like candy cap mushrooms, beloved for their maple sugary scent, and sweet and nutty hedgehogs. Another prized favorite: prince mushrooms, known for their almond aroma and dense texture. They often grow beneath conifer trees.