A Helpful California Trip Planner
California is a big state. Unless you have oodles of vacation time, it’s going to be hard to explore the whole state. That’s why most people divide their trips into southern California, the Central Coast, and Northern California.
From there, it can get even more narrowed down: San Diego and Orange County, San Luis Obispo and Hearst Castle, Monterey and Carmel, San Francisco, Yosemite, Wine Country…the list goes on and on.
One thing is for certain, though, when planning a trip to California, there is no shortage of gorgeous and exciting places to visit and things to see and do.
I lived in California for over a decade and traveled all over the state. I still am constantly traveling around it, even though my homebase is now farther north in the Pacific Northwest. After planning countless trips around California as both a local and a visitor, I’ve come up with some top planning points that you should address and figure out in order to put together your ideal California itinerary.
When to Go: Planning a Trip to California in Each Season
When it comes to the best time of year to plan a trip to California, different times of year have different benefits. Generally speaking, the farther north you go along the coastline, the more likely you are to encounter cooler weather in the winter months.
When choosing the dates of your California itinerary and trying to figure out potential weather, it’s easiest to think of California in quadrants with the left side being thinner than the right. On that left side you’ll find the California coastline (which is probably a big focus of your trip if doing a California road trip itinerary or beach vacation).
On the left side, you’ll find a climate that stays pretty temperate year-round thanks to those coastal breezes keeping it from ever getting stifling hot, and without freezing temps in the winter. Still, you’ll find summer to be warmer than winter and even in the summer months, the nighttime air substantially cools after the sun goes down, so bring a lightweight cardigan or sweatshirt with you when you head to the sand to watch a sunset.
The right hand side of the state of California is a desert and it doesn’t take long heading east from the coast until you encounter that desert landscape and the weather that comes with it. In the winter months, you’ll find pleasant sunshine that feels like summer in other areas of the country, though the nights will get colder. In summer, though, expect a dry heat that can reach well into the triple digits.
When looking at the north and south, the north is going to have more dramatic weather fluctuations with the northeast region of California being colder in the winter than the rest of the state and even prone to snow while the northwest gets more rain. The southeast
Southern California (namely San Diego, Orange County, and Los Angeles) changes less drastically with the seasons. Even southern California has a “summer” though. With a change in currents comes warmer water starting in early summer with the warmest ocean waves crashing onto the shore from July through September before cooling down again. If visiting in the winter and you want to go in the ocean, consider packing or renting a wetsuit.
So when to avoid southern California? Well, anytime of year has its appeal, particularly if you’re coming from a bitterly cold winter somewhere else; however, if your goal is sunshine and beach time and you’re planning a trip to California’s southern coastal regions, you may be unpleasantly surprised when you arrive to find gray skies and cooler weather. This is due to what the locals have nicknamed May Gray and June Gloom, two months when the marine layer stays thick and heavy until late in the afternoon, giving your beach vacation a foggy day vibe that may require a sweatshirt to stay warm.
Planning Your California Trip with the Drought in Mind
No matter when or where you choose to go for your California itinerary, remember that the entire state is in an ongoing drought and water conservation is of utmost importance. You’ll even find that in some parts of California where water is especially scarce, the restaurants won’t automatically deliver water to your table unless you ask and even then you may be charged a nominal amount for bottled water as opposed to being served the typical tap.
When showering, it is also good practice to shut off the water when you’re soaping up in the shower or brushing your teeth and not letting the water run if you’re not actively using it. Fake grass or lack of grass is also common throughout California due to the amount of water it takes to keep it alive and green. So don’t hold it against your hotel or golf course if it doesn’t have a perfectly manicured, bright green lawn!
California Itinerary with a Focus on National Parks
California is home to several National Parks. Unless you have a surplus of vacation time, it’s best to either focus on the ones in the south or the north.
In the south you’ll find desert-focused national parks with otherworldly landscapes while the northern California national parks are rich with coniferous trees and waterfalls.
Southern California’s most famous national park is no doubt Joshua Tree National Park, which is located about an hour east of Palm Springs and three hours east of Los Angeles. Joshua Tree National Park is known for its unique Joshua trees (from which its name is derived), which resemble the truffula trees from Dr. Seuss books and when interspersed among the massive rocks and desert landscape of the park it creates a beautiful and hypnotic horizon that will likely be unlike nay you’ve seen before.
Another fun desert park in southern California if you don’t mind the heat is Death Valley National Park due to its recreational activities that include off-roading and dune buggying. Or even if you’re not into that it’s still a cool place to go due to the sheer size of the desert landscape sprawling out before you like you’re on some other planet.
Northern California is a mecca for national parks. From the massively tall redwoods of Redwood National Park and the astonishing breadth of the Sequoias in Sequoia National Park, there is no shortage of mesmerizing trees to gaze at that are hundreds (and hundreds) of years old. Adding to the intrigue of Northern California’s national parks are the the canyons and rock walls of Yosemite National Park that create stunning mountain vistas, and the coastal beauty of seaside bluffs and waterfalls in Channel Islands National Park near Big Sur.
Other National Parks in California include Kings Canyon National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, and Pinnacles National Park.
California Itinerary with a Focus on Amusement Parks
If fun and animation is what you have in mind, then Los Angeles and Orange County are where you want to focus your planning for your California trip.
South of Los Angeles in the city of Anaheim, you’ll find Disneyland, which rarely needs an introduction, but it is important to note that this Disney amusement park is on a much smaller scale than Florida’s Disney World, meaning it’s much more manageable to visit with just a day or two to dedicate to it (though you still may want longer if you want to hit up all the rides). If you plan to get a park-hopper ticket, you can go between Disneyland and California Adventure, the other Disney-owned amusement park located adjacent to the first that has bigger roller coasters and more of a focus on the Pixar and Star Wars characters.
In the Hollywood area of Los Angeles you’ll find Universal Studios, which blends movie trivia and memorabilia with action-packed rides and experiences influenced by past blockbusters.
And if you want even more rides and carnival-style fun, head to Santa Monica Pier, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean in a grand style complete with a Ferris wheel, games, and fair food.
Safety Precautions to Take in Southern California
It’s good to be cognizant of wildlife while in California, particularly the further out into nature you get, but even within city limits there’s the possibility of encountering potentially dangerous animals. The California wildlife association has helpful tips here on how to stay safe if you and a wild animal cross paths while in California.