California Winter Hiking: What To Expect And Where To Go

You might think of sunshine and warm weather when you think of California. But this is a huge state with a variety of climates, which means there are plenty of beautiful options for California winter hiking and other snow sports, too. If you’re unsure where to start when it comes to California winter hiking, we’ve got you covered … so let’s break this all down for your next cold weather adventure! 

Of course, there’s pros and cons to hiking in any season, but to be especially prepared you’ll want to know what those are. For winter, you’ve got the following:

Pros of California winter hiking

  1. Less crowded. Fewer people are going to be adventuring outdoors in the winter, especially in California. This is a great time to get nature all to yourself.
  2. New scenery. The landscape changes in winter. What was once a lake is now frozen-over; what was once an expanse of green prairie is now covered in a white blanket of snow; what was once a trickle of a stream is now a rushing river. Heading out in winter allows you to experience places you may already know in an entirely new way.
  3. Fresh air. There’s something special about the cold winter morning air. Your breath catches a little, your lungs fill with what feels like the freshest air you could possibly breathe. Even though your nose might be a little raw from the cold, there’s a uniqueness to being out in the cold that you just don’t get on those warmer hikes. Plus, in many places in California, winter is the ‘wet season,’ which means those airborne particles and pollution will be more likely to be scrubbed from the skies.
  4. No bugs. A bug free hike sounds like heaven to me! No bees, flies, or mosquitoes circling around your ankles? Yes, please!

Cons of California winter hiking

  1. The cold. This one’s obvious, but it’s much colder in winter! If you don’t like being cold, or layering up on your hikes, this is definitely a con for you.
  2. Less daylight. As the sun sets earlier in the winter months, you will have fewer hours in the day to explore before the sun sets.
  3. Heavier backpacks. With all the layering you’ll be doing, as well as extra supplies (water sources might be frozen, so you’ll want to bring extra water), your backpack will be heavier than it might be in summer.
  4. New challenges. Remember when I talked about that new scenery? It also means you might meet new challenges on the trail and potentially need new gear. A hike like Mount Baldy in Los Angeles County is a tough but non-technical day-hike for most of the summer. In the winter it becomes a technical climb that requires crampons, helmets, ice-axes, and the knowledge to use all that gear.

Extra Gear for California Winter hiking

Now that you know what you’re getting into, it’s important to know what to bring with you on hikes in the winter months.

You probably know the basic hiking requirements — plenty of water, proper footwear, a charged phone. But it gets a little trickier in the winter. You’re going to want to wear sunscreen, just as you would on those hot, sunny summer afternoons. UV rays penetrate through cloud cover and snow can reflect sunlight back up at you in ways you wouldn’t expect.

Additionally, you’re going to want to bring plenty of layers for those cold mornings and chilly afternoons. We tend to get warmer as we hike and get our blood pumping. Multiple thin layers are better for hiking than one big coat, then, as you can put on and take off layers as needed throughout the day (and they pack better in your bag than bulky sweaters). Try for moisture-wicking fabrics — you don’t want your sweat to end up making you colder on really frigid days. Down vests and jackets are warm, light, and pack down small — they’re worth the investment!

As for footwear, consider the elements you’ll be hiking in. Snow and wet, mushy ground are more prominent in winter than dry, dusty trails, so make sure your shoes can handle the terrain. Wear thick, warm socks — and an extra pair is always recommended in case your feet do get wet. Foot and hand warmers are also your friends! Keep them tucked inside your gloves and socks to keep your extremities warm. 

So now you know what you’re wearing and bringing with you on your winter hike, you need to know where to go! Depending on where you chose to hike, you can expect rain or snow, and the wetter season is a fantastic time to explore waterfalls. Of course, as California does have moderate weather in the winter in some locales, you can always opt for hikes in fairer weather if you’re not quite ready for a snow-filled hike. Check out these three amazing California winter hikes for something special. 

1. Manzanita Lake Loop, Lassen Volcanic National Park

For a guided snowshoe trek around a frozen lake, with stunning views of Lassen Peak, an active volcano, check out Manzanita Lake Loop. There’s also cross country skiing available if you feel like dipping your toes into some winter sports. And if you’re really feeling adventurous, Lassen Peak Trail takes you to the highest point of the national park at just over 10,000 feet. 

2. Pomo Canyon Trail, Sonoma County 

Sonoma coastline – photo by Frank Schulenburg, used by Creative Commons license

Winter hiking with an ocean view? Now that’s something completely unique to the Golden State. Hop on the Pomo Canyon Trail for a scenic and diverse hike (think forest trails that exit out into stunning ocean vistas) in moderate winter weather. If it’s not too cold, you can spend some time at Shell Beach. 

3. Lower Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Falls – photo by Chensiyuan, used by Creative Commons

Of course we couldn’t talk about California hiking without including Yosemite. Bundle up for this hike, as the waterfall spray will definitely leave you feeling chilly as you take in views of the tallest waterfall in North America. You’ll get to view the lower 320 feet of the massive waterfall up close and pesonal. At only a mile, this is an easier hike that’s great for families, and is also pet-friendly and wheelchair accessible!

4. Moonridge Trails, Big Bear Lake

mitch barrie/Flickr

This quick SoCal loop will have you breathing in the fresh winter air by Big Bear Lake, where the trail is just as stunning in the winter as it is in the summer. Take the Moondridge to Trail to Bow Canyon loop for a nice 2 mile trek. Wind your way through the forest to the top of Moon Ridge, where you get expansive views of Big Bear Lake and Baldwin Lake. 

Do you feel prepared for your next winter hike? Pack up those layers, don’t forget the sunscreen, and enjoy your next cold weather trek.