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California is a Winter Activity Wonderland

Nov. 17, 2017

Even as the days grow shorter and temperatures get cooler, California is still just heating up. From the mountains to the deserts to the ocean, the Golden State offers an incredible array of winter activities to satisfy families, thrill-seeking Olympic hopefuls, and everyone in-between. We say that in California you can Catch The Winter Wave, and promise it’ll be the joyride of your life, no matter what activity you choose. 

With California’s near fanatical devotion to recreational activities and with easy access to parks, resorts and sports facilities, it’s no wonder the state has a long history of producing winter sports stars. Icons such as Kristi Yamaguchi, Shaun White and Jonny Moseley have all brought Olympic gold home to the state. And although California has hosted two Summer Olympic Games (with a third to come … hello, L.A. 2028!), it’s often forgotten as the site of a Winter Olympics.

In 1960, the world’s top winter athletes gathered at Squaw Valley for an Olympic competition highlighted by opening and closing ceremonies produced by Walt Disney and a stunning gold-medal victory by the U.S. hockey team over the Soviet Union. Squaw Valley remains a winner, having been named a USA Today Readers’ Choice winner for Best Ski Resort in North America. With an average annual snowfall of 450 inches and 300 sunny days a year — plus family-friendly attractions like tubing and mini-snowmobiles designed just kids — it’s no wonder Squaw Valley retains its position on the podium.

Winter is also a magical time at Yosemite National Park, and many park insiders consider it to be their favorite season to visit. Gone are the crowds of summer and the breathtaking natural monuments, cloaked in snow, take on additional majesty. It’s also home to California’s oldest ski park, Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area (formerly Badger Pass Ski Area). It’s perfect for families as well as for cross-country skiers and snowshoers who can make their way to spectacular Glacier Point and overnight at the rustic Glacier Point Ski Hut. You can also practice your double axels while taking in the postcard-perfect vistas from the valley floor at the Half Dome Village (formerly Curry Village) ice rink.

And that’s just the tip of the winter recreation iceberg. While most of the country may bemoan endless winter, in California it may not last long enough (despite a ski and boarding season that can last until summer) to get in all the activities, such as:

  • Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing: California is home to North America’s biggest cross-country resort — Royal Gorge in Soda Springs. XC skiers and snowshoers have access to some 6,000 acres and eight trail systems. If you want to harness the wind and try some snowkiting, this is your spot. Other places to cross off your list include Tamarack Cross-Country Ski Center in Mammoth Lakes and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, where you can glide among the massive trees.
  • Skiing and Snowboarding: You can get your rush on at ski areas and resorts stretching the length of California, from Lake Tahoe to Lake Arrowhead. Look to world-class High Sierra gems like Mammoth Mountain, which soars to a height of more than 11,000 feet; family friendly Northstar California Resort, which offers a luxury snowsport experience; and aptly named Heavenly Resort, spread over 4,800 skiable acres and offering plenty of backcountry terrain. And when you want to take a break from the slopes, you can try snowmobiling, join a snowcat tour, or explore some trails on a fat-tire bike. Even Southern California gets in on the act with amazing ski areas like Bear Mountain and Snow Summit, which are accessible on day trips from Los Angeles and San Diego.
  • Surfing: Hey, it’s California — we surf 365 days a year here. Plus winter storms provide some of the best swells of the year. And if you’re timing is right, you might catch the legendary Mavericks surf competition at Half Moon Bay, which gathers the world’s best big-wave riders on 48-hour’s notice, whenever winter conditions are perfect.
  • Hiking: Sure you can take a backcountry tromp through the snow, but how about a hike through a palm oasis in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park or clambering on some boulders at Joshua Tree National Park? Daytime desert temperatures are perfect in the winter there, along with locations like Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park. And the cold, clear nights make for unforgettable stargazing.
  • Curling: The stone is in the house! Yes, everyone’s favorite low-impact Winter Olympic sport, a cross between shuffleboard and housekeeping, is played in California. In fact the San Francisco Bay Area Curling Club, established in 1958, is one of the oldest curling clubs in the country and they schedule a full slate of lessons and competitions. Bird and Butterfly Watching: Looking for a kinder, gentler adrenaline rush? Thrill to the sight of thousands of monarch butterflies wintering at the Monarch Grove Sanctuary in Pacific Grove — aka Butterfly Town, USA — along the Central Coast. Or check in with the National Audubon Society and sign up for its Christmas Bird Count, a citizen science project that’s been going strong for more than 100 years. Dozens of sites around the state look for volunteer bird watchers every December to January.
  • Whale Watching: Every winter some 25,000 Pacific gray whales undertake one of the longest migrations in the animal kingdom. Making a round-trip journey of more than 10,000 miles from their Arctic feeding grounds to the warm breeding lagoons of Baja California, these behemoths travel the length of California, often close to shore. Numerous outfits up and down the state offer whale-watching excursions to bear witness to these amazing creatures.
  • Spectator Sports: There’s plenty of action throughout the state for any sports fan, including pro football in L.A. with the Rams and Chargers, and the Bay Area with the 49ers and the Raiders. There are several college bowl games, too, including the granddaddy of them all, the Rose Bowl. NBA fans can check out the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, the Sacramento Kings, and the Lakers and Clippers in L.A., while California’s roster of NHL teams features the San Jose Sharks, L.A. Kings and Anaheim Ducks. Two of the country’s premier golf tournaments take place during the winter months, as well (again, it’s California) — the Farmers Open at Torrey Pines (late January) and the Pebble Beach Pro-Am (early February).
  • Ice Skating: Seasonal open-air ice skating rinks pop-up around California for the winter, adding a festive holiday air. You’ll find rinks in San Francisco’s Union Square, in downtown Santa Monica, at Pershing Square in downtown L.A., and even seaside in San Diego at the Hotel del Coronado.

The list ends here but the possibilities and mash-ups are endless. For instance, it’s absolutely true … you can actually ski and surf in the same day in Southern California. Thanks to the proximity of ski areas like Big Bear and Mt. Waterman to L.A., you can schuss and shred in one day. And boy, will that soak in the Jacuzzi feel good later.