Winter Weekend Getaways in Southern California

November 22, 2023

With its vast national parks, endless shoreline, and billowing palm trees, California is often typified as the quintessential destination for summer travel. But who says the fun in the sun should be confined to summer? Year-round, even in the warmer and sunnier confines of Southern California, the changing seasons bring a wealth of adventure and natural beauty. In fact, winters here offer the unique choose-your-own-adventure opportunity to pick between skiing or sunbathing, national parks or theme parks, and deserts or mountains. There’s truly something for every kind of snowbird in Southern California, and here are seven of the best winter weekend getaways to embark on this season.

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A street view in the European-themed town of Solvang, California. A windmill is pictured at the right of the cobblestone street.

1. Solvang

Even in Southern California, wine country isn’t as far away as you think. For a scenic drive up the coast, via the gorgeous PCH no less, the central valley has its own fruitful wine region that’s just as beautiful as Napa or Sonoma, and frankly far more chill. In the Santa Ynez Valley, a lush region comprised of several quaint communities, the town of Solvang stands out as a particular gem for its distinct culture, architecture, and cuisine. As evidenced by its windmills and bakeries, the largest town in the valley is teeming with Danish-influenced architecture, history, and heritage. Hotels and homes boast classic thatched roofs, bakeries sling things like aebleskivers, and there’s even a Little Mermaid statue inspired by the one in Copenhagen. Visit the Solvang Amber Museum at the Copenhagen House, snag snacks at the Danish Mill Bakery, sample Danish pancakes at Paula’s Pancake House, and enjoy fresh farm-to-table fare — a family-owned homage to the fertile central valley — at peasants FEAST.

Nearby KOAs:
Avila / Pismo Beach KOA
Santa Margarita KOA Holiday

Palm Springs, a city in the Sonoran Desert of southern California, is known for its hot springs, stylish hotels, golf courses and spas. Palm trees and green belts create beauty and a dramatic view.

2. Palm Springs

A literal oasis in the desert, and the quintessential winter getaway for warm-weather and sunshine, Palm Springs is at its peak during the winter months. Renowned for its palm-line swimming pools, art scene, golf courses, desert hikes, and world-class restaurants, there’s no shortage of wintry entertainment here, especially when you combine it with nearby Joshua Tree National Park. For the ultimate view of the valley, take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the top of San Jacinto Peak — built in 1963, it’s the largest aerial tram in the world. Closer to sea level, the Palm Springs Art Museum is a mecca of contemporary installations, while the Palm Springs Air Museum displays vintage aircraft employed during world wars. A hike through Tahquitz Canyon reveals a surprising 50-foot waterfall, and Palm Canyon Drive offers a spree of boutique shops, galleries, and eateries.

Nearby KOAs:
Palm Springs / Joshua Tree KOA Holiday

Aerial view over Big Bear Lake and San Bernardino National Forest with now, South California, USA

3. Big Bear

When most folks envision winter wonderland vibes in California, they might think of the Lake Tahoe area, or any place nestled in the snowy Sierras. But for Southern California’s very own Tahoe, Big Bear reigns supreme. A convenient escape for winter sports, even from perpetually warm-weather cities like Los Angeles and San Diego, Big Bear offers a plethora of adrenaline-pumping powder. Nestled in the San Bernardino National Forest, the area is known for its skiing and snowboarding, along with snow tubing for all ages. Big Bear Mountain Resort is the main ski resort, encompassing three mountains and a slew of rentals, runs, and cozy aprés-ski fun.

Nearby KOAs:
Banning Stagecoach KOA Journey

Sunset in Badwater, Death Valley National Park. Badwater is the lowest point in the USA, located in Death Valley National Park, California.

4. Death Valley National Park

The largest national park in the contiguous U.S. makes for a larger-than-life weekend getaway in Southern California. Death Valley National Park, the hottest and driest place on the continent, is a place of otherworldly extremes, best experienced in the less-scorching winter months. While nighttime temps in the winter can dip towards freezing, these are typically the most comfortable months to visit this unforgiving park. Start by catching a staggering sunrise over Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes or Zabriskie Point, and end the day with sunset at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282-feet below sea level. In between, go hiking at Badwater Salt Flat, the Ubehebe Crater, or Mosaic Canyon, a beautiful four-mile outing so named for its kaleidoscopic rock formations. Death Valley is also prime turf for horseback riding, stargazing, backpacking, and cycling.

Nearby KOAs:
Lake Isabella / Kern River KOA
Las Vegas KOA Journey at Sam’s Town

A holiday day themed sweets shop in the snow.

5. Lake Arrowhead

Nestled in the same national forest as Big Bear, Lake Arrowhead is a peaceful reprieve rife with outdoor recreation and relaxation all year long. While close to the same mountain resorts as Big Bear, Lake Arrowhead manages to feel worlds away, comprised of communities that feel more old-world and rustic-chic. SkyPark at Santa’s Village is a big draw here, as is Lake Arrowhead Village, a charming hub for shopping, dining, and entertainment. For more outdoor fun, the Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area encompasses part of the Pacific Crest Trail, while Diane’s Saddleback Grill is a beloved local institution for hearty comfort food, like chicken pot pie, pork schnitzel, and braised short ribs.

Nearby KOAs:
Banning Stagecoach KOA Journey

Mary Poppins smiles at a young child as she leads a line of children in song and dance in front of Cinderella's castle during Disney's 60th Diamond Celebration.

6. Disneyland

For surefire fun this winter, it’s hard to bear the Happiest Place on Earth. Disneyland Resort, one of the most famed theme parks on Earth, has been a global icon since its opening in 1955, marking the first of its kind to be opened by The Walt Disney Company. Located in Anaheim, this is a place of epic attractions, magical memories, thrilling rides, and whimsical food — with more than enough to keep you entertained for a weekend, a week, or a whole month. While you can’t go wrong with any of the classic marquis attractions, like The Haunted Mansion or Space Mountain, newer and buzzier additions offer their own brand of excitement and innovation, from the out-of-this-world atmosphere of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and the Big Hero 6 vibes of San Fransokyo Square to the heroic rides of Avengers Campus and the brand new Princess & the Frog-themed restaurant, Tiana’s Palace.

Nearby KOAs:
Temecula KOA at Vail Lake

This is a picture of Mobius Arch during sunset at Lone Pine, California.

7. Alabama Hills

While the Sierra Nevada mountains tend to get massive amounts of snow, the Alabama Hills offer a lower-elevation approach that’s more accessible in the winter months, especially for a wider range of visitors and recreation. Located in the foothills of the mighty mountains, and comprised of eroded hills, natural arches, and rounded rock formations, the terrain provides a picture-perfect backdrop for hiking, climbing, horseback riding, and mountain biking. A stunning juxtaposition against the snow-capped craggy peaks behind it, the Alabama Hills are a boulder-clad landscape tinted with granite so golden that the area has frequently been used for Western films, like The Lone Ranger and Valley of Fire. Drink it all in with a hike to Mobius Arch, which perfectly frames Mount Whitney, and be sure to check out area attractions like the Museum of Western Film History and Manzanar National Historic Site, a place of harrowing history where Japanese immigrants were held during World War II.

Nearby KOAs:
Lake Isabella / Kern River KOA

Born and raised in New Hampshire, Matt Kirouac grew up with a love for camping and the outdoors. Though he’s lived in Chicago since 2006, he’s always on the lookout for new adventures. He writes about travel and food for outlets like TripExpert, Money Inc, Upventur, DiningOut, Food Fanatics magazine, Plate Magazine and Zagat, and he currently serves as Chicago editor for What Should We Do?! He’s the author of The Hunt Guides: Chicago (2016) and Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago (2017).

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