California’s winter is very pleasant. Especially in Central and Southern California it reminded us more of spring than winter. Of course, at higher elevations in the mountains there’s real winter, too. But we want to talk about hiking here. 🙂 And what we loved the most about our winter hikes in California is that after some rain everything is lush green, and there’s water in the otherwise dry creeks and waterfalls. In winter everything comes alive!
Coastal hikes are particularly pleasant. Unlike in summer, fog is not common in winter, but there’s a lot of sunshine (who can resist that? we couldn’t). In addition, winter is mating season for seals, and the first wildflowers bloom around January-February. If you long for snowy hikes, you can get that, as well, if you drive to the Sierra Nevada mountains – areas that are accessible in winter.
So let us show you our favorite places for winter hiking.
Año Nuevo State Park
The windswept dunes and beaches of Año Nuevo State Park are famous for the unique wildlife experience they offer: observing elephant seals! The park is their favorite resting and mating place, about 10000 of them come to the shore each year. Even though you can see them year-round, winter is the mating season. The beaches are full of cute elephant seal pups by January/February.
During mating season (between December 15 and March 31), no one is allowed to hike individually in the park, but there are regular ranger led public walks. We love observing wildlife in their natural habitat, and this was an enjoyable occasion to observe the elephants seals and their pups from a safe distance. Just make sure to reserve a time for one of these walks a couple of weeks ahead (you can do it here), because they are very popular.
Our favorite coastal park in California! It’s quite large compared to others, and it has everything from beautiful beaches to wild coastal panoramas, rich wildlife, wetland habitats and pine woods. That means a variety of astonishing hikes.
Just like Big Sur’s popular McWay Falls, Point Reyes also has a beach with a waterfall that flows directly into the ocean at high tide. It’s called Alamere Falls – and unlike McWay Falls, you can get very close to it on Wildcat Beach. It’s much lesser known and requires a hike. You can choose from several routes, we hiked from Palomarin Trailhead and reached Alamere Falls in about 2 hours.
Tomales Point Trail is our favorite scenic hike at Point Reyes. It has marvellous coastal views all the way, and there’s a high chance you’ll bump into wildlife, especially elks as you pass the Tule Elk Preserve, and seabirds and seals at Tomales Point.
Laguna Trail starts in a beautiful pine forest, and leads you to Limantour Beach. You can choose Muddy Hollow and Bayview Trails on your way back to make a loop.
Limantour beach is an awesome sunset spot, and it’s accessible by car, as well.
Point Reyes is located only about 1.5 hours drive from San Francisco which makes it a nice weekend getaway from the Bay Area. Despite being so close to SF, it feels remote and unspoilt. There’s barely any accommodation inside the park, but you can book rooms along Highway 1, in the small towns that are closest to Point Reyes – like Inverness, Olema or Bolinas.
We’ve already written a detailed guide to explore Point Reyes National Seashore – read it here!
Redwoods in the Bay Area
Northern California’s giant redwood forests are chilly and rainy in the winter. But redwoods in the Bay Area become lush green after (much less intense) winter rains, and they’ll be full of rushing creeks and hidden waterfalls . You usually don’t see any sign of water in these creeks in other parts of the year, but that’s what winter rain does to California: a short-lived greenery and abundant water in streams, creeks and waterfalls. Just be prepared for morning chill in the redwoods in winter – but it can be pleasant later in the day.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
This is our favorite redwood park close to San Francisco. And our favorite hike there is a day hike in the old growth part of the forest, passing by three lovely waterfalls (Berry Creek Falls, Silver Falls and Cascada Falls) on the way. We started on Sunset Trail and made a loop by hiking back on Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail. Berry Creek Falls is the biggest waterfall in the park, and it’s the most beautiful after winter rains.
Redwood Trail is a very short (0.5 mile) nature trail, and it enchants you with the tallest redwoods in the park.
Sadly, the park is closed due to a 2021 wildfire, and it would take a longer time to re-establish the trails and make them safe again. You can check the status of the trails on the official park website.
Portola Redwoods State Park
Portola is a small park close to Big Basin, and it offers a bunch of nice, short trails in the redwood forest. It’s a perfect one day getaway, located very close to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Hike along Pescadero Creek, visit charming Tiptoe Falls. In winter this waterfall is accessible through Old Haul Road and Iverson Trail, because other bridges are seasonal, and most of them are removed at the start of the rainy season.
Old Tree Trail is a short and pleasant walk which leads you to the oldest tree of Portola Redwoods State Park.
Lush green hills
We moved to the Bay Area in June, and by December we got used to the view of yellow and brown hills. We haven’t expected that after a week of rainfall the scenery suddenly turns into a lush green wonderland. This is what we loved the most about winter here! Those rolling green hills reminded us of the Shire from the Lord of the Rings, and we happily explored several small state parks and regional parks in the SF Bay Area.
Mission Peak Regional Preserve
Mission Peak (770 meters/2520 feet) rewarded us with great views of the East Bay. There are several trails to the Mission Peak Summit, and we took the 10 miles long trail from Sunol Wilderness. It’s a wild and quiet one compared to the other routes, just a perfect day hike.
Wildcat Canyon Regional Park
Another park that can be hiked all over within a day. We did a full day loop trail in Wildcat Canyon, starting on Wildcat Creek Trail. The first section until the Little Farm (a fun place for kids with cute farm animals) runs in the forest, and there’s no scenery. Then from Little Farm we headed to Nimitz Road through Laurel Canyon. This is a steep hike up to the hilltop, but it delivers great views. And great views are still there as you continue on San Pablo Ridge Trail, and complete the loop trail on Belgum Trail.
We even saw a beautiful sunset over the East Bay at the end of the day.
Bothe-Napa Valley State Park
Napa Valley is a famous wine region north of San Francisco. But wine tasting is not the only option here, there are also several state parks where you can hike, or just find some solitude under the trees and along the creeks.
Our favorite park was Bothe-Napa Valley State Park. We hiked Ritchey Canyon and Redwood Trails that took us to coastal redwoods and Douglas-fir forests along a rocky creek bed. It’s tiring to visit Napa Valley on a day trip from San Francisco, you better book a few nights in Napa or Santa Rosa, or the fully restored historic cabins and yurts in the park.
Del Valle Regional Park
Hiking on the green hills with idyllic views of Lake Del Valle is another nice winter hike option in the East Bay. You can take in the views as you hike on the ridges of the oak-covered hills, walk on the lakeshore or have a picnic on one of the grassy areas.
We decided to do a loop trail on the east shore of the lake: starting on Ridgeline Trail that has views from the hilltops, then continuing on Shallow Bay Trail and East Shore Trail directly on the lakeshore on our way back. But you find trails on the west shore of the lake, as well, and Lake del Valle is the eastern gateway to 28 miles long Ohlone Wilderness Trail.
Anthony Chabot Regional Park
Another East Bay park with a lake (well, a reservoir, because most of the lakes in the area are created for this reason). The hike to do here is quite straightforward: around Lake Chabot. We started the loop on the West Shore Trail, then continued on a series of shorter trails: Bass Cove Trail, Columbine Trail, Quail Trail, Live Oak Trail, to finally complete it on the East Shore Trail. Most of this hike is along the lakeshore, but Quail and Live Oak Trail offer some nice panorama of the surrounding hills, too.
Mountain hikes in Mount Tamalpais State Park
Mount Tamalpais State Park is right north of San Francisco and has breathtaking panoramas, deep canyons, redwoods, smaller lakes and waterfalls. Winter is the perfect waterfall season here, too!
Cataract Trail runs along the charming cascades of Cataract Falls all the way, and it ends at Alpine Lake (which is not an alpine lake and doesn’t even look like one, but it’s a lake). It’s a 5.4 miles round-trip, easily achievable in half a day (unless you waste time taking too many pictures).
Another half day hike gives you access to Carson Falls, a seasonal waterfall, and Kent Lake which looks special because of the dead tree trunks in the lake. This 9.1 miles loop starts from Azalea Hill Parking Lot, but you need to follow Pine Mountain Road on the other side of the road first.
The Pine Mountain Road – Oat Hill Road – Little Carson Trail route leads you to Carson Falls. Continuing further on Little Carson Trail you arrive to Kent Pump Road which gives access to Kent Lake. From there you can choose the Old Vee Road – Oat Hill Road – Pine Mountain Road route to get back to the parking lot. (This is the best map we found online about this area.)
Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles is one of the most underrated and least known national parks in California. Being home to impressive rock formations (the pinnacles) and talus caves which you can climb through, it’s a park worthy of attention. But located in hot and dry Central California, autumn, winter and early spring are the best seasons to hike here.
Spring starts early, wildflowers sometimes bloom even in January or February, but the majority of them bloom between March and May. You can find the iconic (and very photogenic) vibrant orange California poppies mostly in creek beds.
Pinnacles National Park is easily reachable from San Francisco even on a day trip, and we have a detailed guide about the best trails in the park – check it out here!
Where to go for snowy hikes
If you’d like to experience real winters, you need to drive up to the Sierra Nevada. Beware though that many park roads are closed in winter, and mainly some short and easy hikes are available. Also, tire chains are often required on the roads between autumn and spring.
In Yosemite National Park Yosemite Valley and Wawona remain accessible by car all year, but the Tioga Road and the road to Glacier Point are closed. In Sequoia National Park the Giant Forest and Giant Forest Museum are open year-round, and several sections of the Generals Highway remain open, but always check the current conditions on the official website.
Vehicle access is very limited in Lassen Volcanic National Park, it mainly means driving to Manzanita Lake and the southwest areas of the park. But you can enjoy a wide range of winter activities, like sledding, snowshoeing, cross-country and backcountry skiing or ranger-led snowshoe walks.
But the most popular place for snowy winter getaways from the Bay Area? Lake Tahoe! When Tahoe gets snow, the entire Bay Area hops in their cars to have some snow fun – skiing, snowboarding, tubing, sledding, snowshoeing or hiking. The latter means lower-altitude hikes down in the valley, and you better check the weather and trail conditions before you go. If road conditions allow, you can drive from North Lake Tahoe to South Lake Tahoe which is a beautiful scenic drive.
And the list goes on and on…
It’s impossible to mention all the beautiful places. Even if we only talk about places in and near the San Francisco Bay Area where we hiked the most during winter time. Would you add anything to our list? Don’t hesitate to share it!
What to wear: 5 essentials not to leave home without
We don’t think we need to tell you how to dress up on a cool winter day. But we have some suggestions that can make your hikes in California more enjoyable in the winter:
- A pair of comfortable waterproof hiking boots: that’s the most important thing when you go hiking! We prefer those types that support our ankles, too – like this one for men, this one for women -, but the downside is that they are a bit heavier, too. Well, to each his own (and we are strong, anyway 😀 ).
- Windbreaker (for men, for women): no matter the season, the ocean coast can be quite windy. An easily packable windbreaker is always useful, and if it’s waterproof, as well, even better.
- Breathable sun hat: even though we always use sunscreen on our hikes, we like protecting our head and face from the sun by wearing a hat, too (and yes, you need it in sunny California all year, while a beanie is a necessity only if you go up in the snowy mountains)
- Trekking poles: some of these terrains are easier, some are more challenging, but none of them are flat. Trekking poles can help reduce the strain on your knees, especially when walking downhill. They also improve your balance when hiking on rough terrain or crossing a wild mountain stream.
- Hiking socks (for men, for women): you need to spoil your feet when hiking! Merino wool is a good material because it keeps your feet warm and fresh, you can benefit from it both in cold and warm weather. Vermont based Darn Tough is famous for their great quliaty socks for outdoor adventures.
More seasonal hikes in California
Disclosure: Please note that affiliate links are used in this post, and at no additional cost to you, we earn a commission if you make a purchase. If you are ready to book your trip and would like to support this website in some way, here’s your chance. Thank you! 🙂
200+ Travel Tips For Hungary
Get our free e-book and join the community!
Want to find a place for travel in your life? Want to find your happy places – and happy trails? Subscribe to our monthly newsletter where we share insider tips, updates and more. Get our e-book with all the tips you need before visiting Hungary as a first gift.
Travel tips and resourcesIt takes effort and careful planning to get the most out of your vacation days each year. We help you with complete travel itineraries, based on our own experiences. See them here!
- Flights: find the best flight deals with Skyscanner, Kayak and Google Flights. Save money: be flexible with your flight dates & fly with carry-on only.
- Accommodations: Find great hotel and apartment deals with flexible cancellation policy on Booking.com. Book hostels on Hostelworld.
- Car rentals: use RentalCars.com and Kayak to get the best rates on car rentals.
- Tours: Book guided tours with GetYourGuide, Viator and Civitatis.