While many head to the Golden State for a summertime escape, now is Northern California's magic time of year. From the coastal beaches to the lakeside and mountains, the most unique destinations wake up in the winter. Solvang blends Danish charm with festivities, while Mendocino offers an unreplicable atmosphere along its Pacific headlands!
These NorCal towns put you in the middle of a hallmark movie, with fairytale festivities unraveling inside and Winter Wonderland's imposing stance on the great outdoors. There is the wine country with Sonoma and Healdsburg, while the slivers in the peaks of the Sierra Nevada receive tons of snow for one real White Christmas of skiing and snowboarding.
Let's jump right in and onto the beach. Amidst peace-inducing nature for every taste of adventure, this tiny town on the sound shores of Monterey Bay calls the relentless venturers into the shadow of the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. Just a 15-minute drive from the buzzing heart of Santa Cruz to its charming downtown, it is just a hop from the fringe for a winter hike. You can take a trail for any level through a lush mix of canopies, towering redwoods, and nearby waterfalls, or sip and chill along the Corralitos Wine Trail, replete with vineyards.
Between the park and the resplendent six-mile Rio Del Mar Trail, Aptos is a natural coastal hideaway for a quintessential NorCal escape with stunning ocean views. Seacliff State Beach is great for walks, while Seacliff Inn Aptos has a unique luxury feel with a large hot pool. Lounge away in the warmth at Farm Bakery Cafe & Gifts with cool souvenirs, and visit Marianne's Ice Cream near Seacliff—relevant in every season! The Tasting Barn at Lester Estate Wines has plenty of vineyards for tastings, strolls, or a light meal. You can unwind over dinner at the iconic Hideout and wind down at the 3-star shoreside Monarch Cove Inn or the homey Sand Rock Farm—a great family stay on the outskirts!
Hidden in the Sierra Nevada's ancient Stanislaus National Forest, Arnold is a natural winter sports haven and the first-rate ski resort near Bear Valley Mountain! Just along the Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway at the western end, the lakeside gem draws summertime for water recreation, turning crowd-free in the colder months to chill by the glazed-up White Pines Lake with mountain vistas. You can get down and dirty, or rather squeaky clean while enjoying snowshoeing or cross-country skiing trails all through the park's navigable trail systems. Arnold offers excellent access to the leveled North Grove at any time of year—one of the best places in the state to see the towering 300-foot-tall giant sequoias—a few millennia old!
You can return for the South Grove's rugged trails with spring wildflowers, summertime lushness, and spectacular fall foliage amid a wide range of flora and fauna. For a sunny day activity, you can take the dog-friendly 17-mile Arnold Rim Trail with lake views through old-growth forests, shady canyons, and boulders to the scenic central valley. From historical lodging options to all-season resort accommodations, the rustically charming Black Bear Inn and Arnold Meadowmont Lodge are reliable stays along the highway! There are plentiful places for casual dining and shopping along Arnold's festive streets and the top-rated Sierra Nevada Logging Museum.
Healdsburg, the heart of the Sonoma Wine Country along the Russian River, is a perfect all-season escape in northern California. From the resplendent open views for miles to the small town population of just over 11,000, you also get an award-winning mix of vintages and eclectic shops along the charming center plaza. At the junction of the three prime wine appellations of the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and Alexander Valley, you can enjoy scenic drives in between, with vineyard strolls and the best wine varietals paired with dining on a cold, cozy evening.
Healdsburg feels made for epicureans with its fine sights, wines, and haute cuisine through tasting rooms, restaurants, and over two dozen art galleries and bars. With exhibits, the Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society offers great cold-day activities or the refreshing outdoors at the heart of the Healdsburg Recreation Park, with a sports field connecting to Tayman Park. The riverfront Del Rio Woods Regional Park is just east, while the spectacular Healdsburg Ridge Open Space Preserve is a few minutes north of downtown. The reliable Hotel Trio Healdsburg or The Ruse Healdsburg has its fantastic lawn next door to the most popular Seghesio Family Vineyards!
Mammoth Lakes attracts scores of skiers and snowboarders to the great slopes at the resorts nearby, Mammoth Mountain and June Mountain! With the many peaks of the eastern Sierra Nevadas throughout the Mammoth Lakes region, some receive as much as 30 feet of annual powder! From sleigh rides and building sculptures to beginner skiing and expert runs, there are also cross-country and Nordic skiing adventures for seasoned pros. The Visitor Center offers excellent tips on incredible ventures like the Earthquake Fault, the nearby Twin Lakes Vista, and Rainbow Falls!
Whether you love the groomed runs and terrain or snowshoeing and snowmobiling, Wild Willy’s hot spring will feel just as great off-slope. Even now, you can enjoy a Hawaiian-style holiday at the tiki bar called Lakanuki, while Village Lodge Mammoth is central to it all and has a hot pool to warm up! Tamarack Lodge & Resort is right by the Twin Lakes, while the highly popular Mammoth Mountain Inn is in the heart of all the skiing action! With more Christmas parades and performances throughout the region, it is unmissable to drive between the magical landscapes for the next fun event!
Hidden behind the one-of-a-kind Mendocino Headlands State Park, Mendocino shines through the season from its spectacular headlands with rugged coastal beaches. Whether you want to enjoy great outdoor ventures or keep it casual in the refreshing ocean breeze, you can hike, hang out by the beach, or take a whale-watching cruise. With less coastal fog in winter and a temperate Mediterranean climate, all sights are more vivid, and it is the perfect condition for canoeing on the Big River or a hike through the nearby Russian Gulch State Park. The bluffs stretch all along the town, so you can walk out to enjoy the perfect sunset before dinner at Cafe Beaujolais, within an 1890s Victorian farmhouse.
Van Damme State Park features miles of winding trails through a forested canyon adorned with lush ferns, like the unique 2.5-mile Fern Canyon Trail through a pygmy forest with tiny pines and cypresses. Jug Handle State Natural Reserve opens into a sandy stretch of Mendocino Beach beneath the cliffs—a sheltered spot with a whale migration watch from November to February! You can hang out along the coast under breathtaking blue skies with sweeping sea views and hide from the wind along the quiet coastal coves. Plenty of accommodations with great lawn views, like the Sea Rock Inn or the more budget-friendly Mendocino Hotel and Garden Suites!
Solvang's resemblance to Denmark is uncanny for a year-round cultural escape and a kid-friendly destination without the hustle or expense of crossing the ocean! Nestled along the scenic Santa Ynez Valley, the parents and couples delight in the wine-growing country, with hundreds of wineries in the immediate surroundings and over 20 tasting rooms downtown! You can pop in for tasting—at much more affordable prices than Napa—and enjoy great food pairings along the festive, lit-up streets and one kind of cheer! Santa Ynez River winds to the south, while the incredible Hans Christian Andersen Park is a fairytale that comes to life no matter the age!
A check into Hotel Corque minutes access on a stroll to Elverhøj Museum of History & Art, Solvang Restaurant, and Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards. The traditional holiday fun-meet-Danish roots in one of the nation's “Most Christmassy Towns" allow families to share a memorable holiday experience from November 27th to January 1. From photos with Santa to a real winter wonderland feel straight from the Hallmark movie, now is the perfect time to make your holiday escape for an extended "holiday palooza" with plenty to drink, or plan to spend your Christmas break in Solvang! Turning on the Danish charm during the holidays, the top-rated Alisal Ranch is just down the road south for a stay along the creek.
Now is a perfect opportunity for a quaint escape full of history through the nation-renowned Sonoma Wine Country! The small town in the heart of it all is home to Mission San Francisco Solano. You can explore the last California-built Spanish-Mexican mission at the Sonoma State Historical Park, the Sonoma Barracks, and the nearby historic home of General Vallejo over a weekend getaway. Countless tasting rooms unite history with modernity tucked away in state-of-the-art buildings of the bygone century! Whether sharing a glass over a fine dinner or a bottle by your fireplace, Sonoma, the site where California first declared independence from Mexico during the Bear Flag Revolt, delivers the quintessential one-time experience for every taste of pursuit. Buena Vista Winery is a must-visit California’s oldest winery for a flight, while Gundlach-Bundschu is the oldest continually operating family winery in the state.
With countless shops, art galleries, bakeries, and restaurants to prowl by the day along the eight-acre Sonoma Plaza—California's largest—there is also a historic theater for a Christmas play and plenty of brewpubs around. Quiet and peaceful through the colder months, the winter rain makes the rolling hills even more vividly lush and verdant—a stunning backdrop through the vineyards! As a more affordable and charming Napa’s less-talked-about next-door neighbor, Sonoma delivers top-tier wine and food to make the most of the holidays with your loved ones! Cottage Inn & Spa is Italian-countryside inspired, while the festive MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa has a restaurant with big windows, and just south, The Lodge at Sonoma Resort boasts a fantastic lawn!
South Lake Tahoe
South Lake Tahoe shines through the white blanket with lake views and fun for everyone against the white peaks as a backdrop! The town along the southern shore offers an epic opportunity to nestle yourself in a rentable cabin by the lake or an inn with an in-room fireplace! Driving in, the immensely popular Playpark Lodge is just along the highway, with two iconic coffee shops for breakfast within a minute's stroll and the homey Bonanza Community Park. A hop away, the festive Heavenly Village dresses up in holiday decor under the running gondolas—an unreplicable sight on your shopping prowl through the wintry spirit!
Squaw Valley Resort (Palisades Tahoe), in what is now called the Olympic Valley, was the host of the Winter Olympics in 1960. Whether looking to relax or stay active, Heavenly Mountain Resort, one of the most famous resorts in South Lake Tahoe, offers to unwind along the slopes with a tremendous après-ski scene! Fireside Lodge delights an architect's eye, with wilderness in the backyard and trails to Tahoe Mountain and Evan's American Gourmet Café next door for a fantastic "New American" fare! There's the sprawling Lake Valley with its wander-worthy Tahoe Keys and Marina. At the same time, Keys Beach offers breathtaking mountain views over the lake, and Thomas F. Regan Memorial City Beach boasts a spectacular boardwalk!
Truckee, one of the state's snowiest places and closest to the Bay Area, offers a genuinely white Christmas with so much prepared in its holiday store! Make it many stores for the best mountain-themed shopping spree along the vibrant downtown area. With easy access just a 31-mile drive from Reno, Nevada, and a mere 25 minutes from the north shore of Lake Tahoe, you can enjoy an extended getaway in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. From the riverside in Truckee to traditional skiing in nearby Tahoe, the charming, quainter-apres scene is right here!
Part of the Squaw Valley, Truckee's unique maritime climate with a soft blanket—often knees deep—reflects the Christmas lights for one great show. You can enjoy skiing or snowshoeing through Donner Memorial State Park for a photoshoot with great views of the snowy beach. With one of the most popular areas for backcountry skiing fun for all levels, guided tours are available along the best wilderness trails to take it all in! The incredible Hampton Inn & Suites is just down the road midway to Lake Tahoe, and like the nearby beautiful Gravity Haus, it features an excellent woodland setting!
The Winter Wonders of Northern California
From picturesquely winding hiking trails to the showstopping Sonoma Wine Country, there is a nearby adventure for your taste! You can access the immense Lake Tahoe from multiple towns, including one right on its south shore or Truckee, just thirty minutes away from its northern coast.
Mammoth Lakes features the nearby Mammoth Mountain and June Mountain for skiing and snowboarding. South Lake Tahoe is a buzzier destination in the Squaw Valley—the Olympic Valley since the 1960 Winter Olympics—offering the best-groomed trails and terrain in the state.