While some people may think of California as having an endless summer, the Golden State actually has an array of seasons—announced by fall foliage, spring wildflowers, and a variety of wildlife making their annual migrations. Plan a trip around these colorful arrivals and phenomena, listed by time of year to experience them.
February: Yosemite Firefall
In February’s final two weeks, Yosemite Valley’s Horsetail Fall puts on a phantasmagoric show. When conditions are just right, the setting sun illuminates Horsetail's 1,570-foot-long ribbon of water as it leaps off El Capitan’s eastern face, turning it molten-lava orange. The 10-minute show occurs only when the waterfall flows with snowmelt, the sky is cloud-free, and the setting sun hits El Capitan at the perfect angle. (more)
February–May: Desert Blooms
Every spring, California’s deserts get a flashy upgrade as wildflowers pop up from the sand. Starting in February and lasting in waves through spring, sunflowers start to unfurl in a bright-hued frenzy and poppies wave their glowing orange petals. Top viewing spots include Death Valley National Park (desert gold and desert five-spot), Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (ocotillo and sand verbena), Joshua Tree National Park (brittlebush and globe mallow), and Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve (poppies). Enjoy nature responsibly: Stay on the trail and do not pick or step on the flowers. (more)
March: Return of the Swallows
Every year on March 19—St. Joseph's Day—the mission in San Juan Capistrano throws a lavish fiesta with a parade and mariachi bands to honor the annual arrival of orange-tailed visitors, thousands of cliff swallows. (more)
Winter and Spring: Sea Otters
Thirty miles south of Santa Cruz, the Monterey Bay hamlet of Moss Landing is famous for slapping-fresh seafood and cuddly cute sea otters. In winter and spring, the otters stick close to shore, so it’s easy to watch them feeding, sleeping, frolicking, and caring for their young. Look for them in Moss Landing Harbor (at the mouth of the seven-mile-long Elkhorn Slough) or at Moss Landing State Beach’s protected coves, where they huddle together in “rafts” of up to 100 animals.
Autumn: Colorful Aspens
In fall, aspen stands grow along Eastern Sierra canyons—just follow any road heading toward the mountains. Two driving routes: Bishop Creek watershed (Hwy. 168) and the June Lake Loop (Hwy. 158). For more fall leaf-peeping ideas, check out these 8 Places to See Fabulous Fall Colors.
November–February: Sandhill Cranes
Starting in November, nearly 3,000 sandhill cranes fly in for an all-you-can-eat buffet at Galt’s Cosumnes River Preserve. The elegant, four-foot-tall birds fatten up to prepare for their spring journey to northern breeding grounds. Visit at sunset, and you might see a massive swoop glide across the sky, then spiral down to the wetlands to roost. For even more birding opportunities, check out these 6 Incredible Places to Spot Birds in California.
December–April: Whale Watching
Looking for a heart-racing thrill? From December to April, the California coastline hosts one of the most amazing wildlife migrations on the planet: Each year, about 20,000 gray whales make a 6,000-mile journey from Alaska to Mexico and back again. Hop aboard a whale-watching boat for a close-up view out of towns such as Dana Point—aka the “Dolphin & Whale Watching Capital of the World”—to get close enough to feel the splash from a tail slap or see a massive barnacled head shoot out of the waves.
The safety of both visitors and residents is a top priority in the Golden State. Before traveling, familiarize yourself with local guidelines and regulations for all of the destinations you plan to visit. We also encourage everyone to check out Visit California’s Responsible Travel Hub as well as the latest Travel Updates.