The Best Winter Adventures in 20 of California’s State and National Parks
That works out to about one per weekend, from now until the end of the season
It’s easy for sun-loving coastal dwellers to forget that there’s a whole world of California winter adventures just slightly inland: downhill skiing, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, spelunking, hot spring-ing, volcano skirting, frozen-waterfall exploring … you name it.
And if you don’t like the cold? There’s plenty of hot chocolate on tap in those warming huts.
Today, we’re taking a closer look at exactly which winter activities are on offer in 20 of the state’s most popular state and national parks, from the best way to romp around a snow-covered Yosemite to the one place in California where you can learn to “skijor” — picture dog-sledding, but on skis.
And remember: There’s no bad weather, just insufficient gear.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Activities: Lassen may offer the superior — and unique — California park winter experience. If you’re not in the mood for skiing or sledding, slip into some snowshoes and trek out to the burbling, bubbling hot pots at the Sulphur Works Hydrothermal Area. It’s a one-mile trip from the visitor’s center.
Where to stay: The Southwest Walk-In Campground is open year-round, and just $16 a night.
Lava Beds National Monument
Activities: Unfortunately, one of the California park system’s standout winter activities — the Crystal Ice Cave tour — won’t be offered in 2020 due to a “lack of adequate staffing.” Still, the lava bed caves are open for exploration year-round, and the pleasantly warm cave interiors can provide a welcome change from the frosty conditions outside.
Where to stay: Who could resist the Wild Goose Lodge, just across the state line in Merrill, OR?
Redwood National and State Parks
Crescent City, CA
Activities: Exceptionally wet this time of year, Redwood gets a huge amount of precipitation between October and April: “the majority of 60-80 inches of annual rain.” But you probably won’t get snow, or summer’s crowds — so try a hike that’d be packed in the high season, like Tall Trees.
Where to stay: Rent one of eight available cabins at Jedidiah Smith and Elk Prairie.
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
Lee Vining, CA
Activities: The eponymous tufas — highly Instagrammable towers of calcium carbonate — are even more beautiful when they’re covered in a layer of frost, and going in the off-season means (much) smaller crowds and accommodation prices slashed by as much as 50 percent. There’s also good cross-country skiing at South Tufa and Navy Beach.
Where to stay: For something a little fancy, head up to Mammoth to the Village Lodge.
Yosemite National Park
Activities: If you’ve been to Yosemite in the summer, the non-amusement park vibe that prevails in the off-season will come as a welcome surprise. You’ll need chains if you want to drive into the park, but you can avoid this by taking a shuttle to, say, your hotel (see below) and then heading out for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and sledding in the “snow play” areas. You can also ice skate — with a view of Half Dome — at the Curry Village rink, a park tradition for nearly 100 years.
Where to stay: The Ahwahnee is open year-round.
Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Activities: Snowmobile under the shadow of gorgeous Mt. Shasta along hundreds of miles of trails. Don’t have a snowmobile in the porte-cochère? Rent a one- or two-person Polaris snowmobile (and maybe a guide, too) at a local supplier like Fun Factory.
Where to stay: With Redding an hour away, you’ll want to stay closer to the park. Try the Tree House, with its cocktail lounge, indoor pool and dog-friendly policies.
Klamath National Forest
Activities: The Goosenest Ranger District within the national forest offers 135 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, which in turn link up to those within Shasta-Trinity, creating a total circuit of 250 miles of trails. With some willing and practiced dogs, you can also try “skijoring” (“The Wildest Winter Sport You’ve Never Heard Of”) at Deer Mountain and Four Corners.
Where to stay: The Etna Motel offers straightforward rooms basically adjacent to the Pacific Crest Trail.
Grover Hot Springs State Park
Activities: You can ski all over Tahoe. But what other nearby state park offers a natural hot spring pool hovering between 102 and 104 degrees? (Come on a non-Wednesday weekday to avoid waiting for pool access.) When you’re ready to get cold again, head out on your cross-country skis for a trek across the snowy meadow.
Where to stay: Camping here — with flush toilets and sinks is first-come, first-served and just $25 a night.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
Activities: Snowmobiles are verboten here, so get your wintry zen on and snowshoe or cross-country ski your way across the North Grove Ski Trail (a 1.5-mile trail beneath massive Sequoias) and the Parkway Loop Ski Trail (3.5 miles with Sierra views). A weekly guided tour on Saturday afternoons is conducted on snowshoes if there’s enough snow.
Where to stay: The Big Trees cabins offer fire pits, two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room and a private bathroom — it’s rustic luxe.
Tahoe National Forest
Nevada City, CA
Activities: For downhill skiing, come here, with five ski complexes — Donner Ski Ranch, Alpine Meadows, Boreal, Squaw and Sugar Bowl — all operating on National Forest land. More relaxed snow activities are available by parking in the Sno-Park areas, offering easy, highway-adjacent access to snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, sledding and more.
Where to stay: The pleasingly rustic Sierra Pines Resort, right above the Yuba River, is open year-round.
Lake Valley State Recreation Area
South Lake Tahoe, CA
Activities: During the summer, Lake Valley is home to an 18-hole championship golf course at 6,000 feet — in the winter, it’s converted to a snowmobile and cross-country skiing park.
Where to stay: Located right on Tahoe’s southern shore, The Landing offers lakeshore rooms with private fire pits.
Sugar Pine Point State Park
Activities: Cross-country skiers can try out the Olympic Biathlon Trail, famous from the 1960 Olympics. (Note the trail grooming is conducted as possible; volunteer to help out if you can.) There are also once-monthly moonlight snowshoe tours of the West Shore of Lake Tahoe through March; go reserve now if you’re interested.
Where to stay: Camping is available here on a first-come, first-served basis through winter. Or upgrade with a room at the family-run Granlibakken.
Activities: This perpetually oversubscribed state park — no doubt due to the popularity of the 129-foot titular falls — is an altogether different place in the winter (read: better). Though some parts of the park are unavailable off-season, those falls run, and are accessible to visitors, all year long, and might be at their best frozen over.
Where to stay: Campsites here are available on a first-come, first-served basis through winter.
Donner Memorial State Park
Activities: Snowshoe and cross-country trails of varying difficulty criss-cross the snowy terrain here, where a memorial pays tribute to all of California’s early settlers (including the ones who unhappily gave their name to the park). Our picks: The 2.9-mile Snowshoe Adventure Trail and the novice-appropriate 2.5-mile Lake Loop cross-country ski trail, both of which overlook Donner Lake.
Where to stay: The Truckee-Donner Lodge basically abuts the park. If you’d like a super-luxe option, consider the Ritz-Carlton at Northstar.
Plumas National Forest
Activities: Plumas, along with other parts of the Tahoe National Forest, are debating how much mechanized access to allow to visitors (read: snowmobilers). In the meantime, new snowshoers can get some practice in on the Big Creek Trail — aka County Road 423 — or try more challenging terrain on the Bucks Creek Trail Loop (4.3 miles).
Where to stay: For a sophisticated end to a snowy day, consider the Quincy Feather Bed Inn. Ask for a room with a clawfoot tub.
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area
Activities: Winter happens chiefly at upper elevations in Whiskeytown, so the vibe is more “snow falling softly on a lightly dusted trail” than survival tactics and avalanche planning. Some trails are closed following damage due to the Carr Fire, but others, like the Clear Creek Canal Trail, are open.
Where to stay: Nearby Redding has a ton of two- and three-star corporate offerings … this is a good time to stay private.
Activities: Take the tramway from Palm Springs — via the “world’s largest rotating tramcar” — and you’ll end up at the 8,516-feet-up Mountain Station in Mount San Jacinto State Park, with two restaurants and 50 miles of snowy hiking.
Where to stay: Swish accommodations abound in Palm Springs — both in hotels and private rentals — but our pick of the former would be the Parker.
Los Padres National Forest
Activities: Sledding, tubing, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are all available at the Mount Pinos Ranger District — there’s snow on the ground now, and last season it stuck around until mid-April.
Where to stay: Many of the campgrounds here remain open year-round.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
Three Rivers, CA
Activities: Rangers lead 90-minute, 1.5-mile snowshoe hikes as soon as there’s eight inches of snow on the ground. Or rent a pair at the Lodgepole Market and explore on your own. Sledding and cross-country skiing are available at Wolverton and Grant Grove.
Where to stay: The family-run Lazy J offers highly equipped rooms (with microwaves, fridges and mini fridges) year-round.
Burton Creek State Park
Tahoe City, CA
Activities: The non-profit Tahoe Cross-Country manages trails on California state parks, including Burton Creek, located just outside Tahoe City. Altogether, they run 21 ski trails and one snowshoe trail, with the occasional view of Lake Tahoe, and three warming huts.
Where to stay: We like the usually-not-astronomically-expensive Basecamp, with all the fire pits, and less of the fussiness.
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