“Winter Wonderland” takes on different meanings in this state, where you can wake up poolside in the desert and be skiing in the mountains by sunset

Two palm trees and San Jacinto mountains in the background. The picture was taken in Palm Springs, California, in winter.
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You can winter any way you wish in Cali. With the state’s roster of secret beaches, iconic ski resorts, cozy cabins, and vast deserts, California winter getaways span the gamut. Picture yourself whale watching from the stylish shores of Newport Beach, shredding on volcanic peaks covered in 20 feet of snow, or totally zenning out on an introspective Palm Springs wellness weekend. And the best part is—barring holidays—these destinations tend to be pocket-friendly and devoid of crowds during the cooler months. No winter blues here.

Take to the Healing Waters in Palm Springs

Courtesy Two Bunch Palms

Aquifers under the town of Desert Hot Springs pump geothermally heated and naturally cool mineral water into hotel and spa pools in this wellness-centric town, just outside buzzy Palm Springs. At Two Bunch Palms , a 1940s Hollywood hideaway that recently debuted $2 million worth of upgrades, you can float your cares away in mud baths or palm tree-lined hot pools, after indulging in treatments like the CBD Vibration Facial or water yoga. Like other desert hotels in the area, the country’s first carbon-neutral resort embraces holistic healing. On the more affordable—though no less chic—end, Miracle Manor nails the minimalist, desert-modern aesthetic. The renovated, 1950s motel also offers alternative spa treatments, like Ayurvedic massage, acupressure facelifts, and cupping. 

Snowshoe around Volcanoes in Northern California

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Courtesy Lassen NPS

Transverse a land of fire and ice at Lassen Volcanic National Park. The unsung Cascades park gets consistently blessed with snow, even when other parts of California are skimp on powder. In winter, park rangers lead snowshoe tours, kids sled around the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center, people cross-country ski the blanketed park highway, and backcountry enthusiasts take advantage of the steep slopes and deep snow. The prime peak, Lassen, is considered an active volcano, though the last eruption was about 100 years ago. Snowshoe to the Sulphur Works hydrothermal area to see the roaring steam vents, mudpots, and boiling springs that hint at what lies beneath. Lodging is limited around the park this time of year, but the charming St. Bernard Lodge —which only holds about 20 people—has all you need for a California winter getaway: free breakfast, hot tubs, and cozy rooms.

Camp in the Mojave Desert

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Death Valley (with its otherworldly sand dunes and in-park lodging) and Joshua Tree (which has gotten so popular, the park has been encouraging visitors to explore elsewhere in recent years) are both solid options for a desert camping trip. But Mojave National Preserve may top them both—especially for those who like to break from tourists. Spanning twice the size of Joshua Tree and with half the visitors of Death Valley, the park is known for its rustic sites, limited infrastructure, and stunning varied landscapes. Those desert, cotton candy sunsets and starry nights are still present. Oh, and the park actually has more Joshua trees than JTNP. Hole in the Wall is the most developed of the preserve’s campsites (it has pit toilets, trash cans, water, fire rings, and picnic tables), but it sits as 4,400 feet, so nights get chilly. Pack accordingly. For those who don’t want to rough it, look into staying in one of the tiny communities around the park. Nipton on Mojave’s northern edge is a quirky town with an 80-acre outdoor gallery with giant sculptures and multi-media installations, a brewery, a trading post-turned-artisan shop, and lodging in the 1905 Nipton Hotel

Go Coastal in SoCal

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For those escaping the cold, the best California winter getaways are along the shore. Head to Newport Beach in winter, and you’ll find stretches of beach devoid of people (especially around the lesser-known Little Corona area). Instead, all the action takes place in the water: Whale watching is a prime attraction as thousands of gray whales make their way south December through April. Around Christmas, you won’t want to miss the masterfully done holiday boat parade, which lights up Newport Bay with over-the-top displays. Whenever you go, check into the Lido House, a new Cape Cod mansion-style hotel with a funky-hip look achieved by the local designers commissioned for the project. End each day at Lido’s rooftop bar—the only one in Newport—to take advantage of the views and those perfect SoCal winter nights (temps barely dip below 50). Or, try to snag one of the character-filled cottages at the throwback Crystal Cove, where everything is updated but pretty much preserved as it was when the lot was built as a colony in the twenties and forties.

Ski the Sierras 

Creative Commons photo by The Camp of Champions is licensed under CC BY 2.0

There’s no doubt you should get to iconic California ski towns and resorts like Mammoth and Squaw-Alpine. But when you’re in the market for a low-key, budget-friendly, family ski adventure, underrated June Mountain is the ticket. With kids under 12 skiing free all-day, any-day; a cuddly deer mascot named Bucky that hosts bonfires with s’mores; terrain parks; and naturalist tours, it’s hard for tyke-toting skiers to top this Eastern Sierra resort. Cozy up in a cool cabin (the A-frame abodes at Four Seasons are some of the best in the West), and carve out time to explore the real-life alpine village of June Lake and Yosemite National Park, 30 minutes away. The park is magical when it’s covered in snow.