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17 Great Holiday Lights Displays in California

17 Great Holiday Lights Displays in California

The season twinkles at hotels, boats, missions, and more

Posted 5 years ago

From San Diego to Santa Barbara, San Francisco and beyond, California twinkles during the holiday season. Up and down the Golden State, late November and December means light displays in quaint towns, historic missions, ski resorts, and even off the shore—as boat parades carry both holiday cheer and uniquely California scenes. Here are 17 displays well worth the trip:

Nov. 22–Jan. 1: Illuminate SF Festival of Light, San Francisco

For holiday-lights superfans, it’s hard to beat this citywide event of light art installations that runs through New Year’s Day. See 37 works stretching from the Castro to Yerba Buena neighborhoods, accompanied by events like a neon walking tour and a stargazing party at the Presidio.

Nov. 23–Dec. 16: Festival of Lights at Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

During the day, Mendocino’s colorful preserve for flowers, shrubs, and birds needs no embellishment, but it dazzles on weekend evenings during the holiday season, when pathways are lined with twinkling lights and displays. Sip local wines and craft brews, or hot cocoa and cider. Each evening has different live music, too, from choirs to salsa, country, and blues.

Nov. 23–Dec. 24: Wildnights at the Living Desert, Palm Desert

On select nights through December 24, this Palm Springs area desert park lights up with more than a million holiday lights, including a tunnel of lights and life-size “lanterns” of giraffe, cheetahs, and other animals. Don’t miss the decorated G-scale model trains on more than 3,300 feet of track.

Nov. 23–Jan. 4: Mission Inn Festival of Lights, Riverside  

The Mission Inn Resort  & Spa in Riverside has been wowing crowds for 26 years with its lights display—now 5 million lights strong—supplemented by 200 animated carolers, the world’s largest mistletoe, and plenty of holiday goodies from the hotel’s Casey’s Cupcakes.

Dec. 1: Downtown Stockton Lighted Boat Parade

This annual parade takes place in the port city of Stockton, 70 miles from the Pacific. Watch from perches along the north shore of downtown’s waterfront—like behind the marina and Banner Island Ballpark—or from the south shore near Weber Point and the waterfront warehouse.

Dec. 1: Lighting of the Snowmen, Sonoma

Each year, the folks at Cornerstone Gardens—a collection of boutiques and wine-tasting rooms in Sonoma—create a whimsical (or downright funny) installation of plastic, light-up snowmen. The unveiling comes with its own party that includes music, crafts, local cuisine, and wine and beer tastings.

Dec. 1–25: Christmas Tree Lane, Fresno

Stroll or drive this two-mile stretch of the Fig Garden neighborhood in the Central Valley city, which has been decorating almost every year since 1920. The displays encompass about 300 trees and 140 homes. Dec. 1 and 11 are pedestrian-only evenings.

Dec. 1–Jan. 6: Capistrano Lights, San Juan Capistrano

Since it can be tough to time your visit to one-time tree-lighting, the historic Mission of San Juan Capistrano in Orange County makes it easy, by having a tree lighting almost every evening—from the musical “Christmas at the Mission” event on Dec. 1 through Jan. 6. Festivities include kids’ crafts during the day, and the chance to take selfies with an 18th-century-style St. Nikolas.

Dec. 7–8, 14–15: Dana Point Harbor Boat Parade of Lights

At the southern end of Highway 1, the town of Dana Point holds its parade four times over two weekends. Come as early as 4:30 p.m. for the Holiday on the Harbor events (including meet-and-greets with Santa) then see which boats win awards like Best Use of Lights and Most Colorful. During December, kids can make the most of the harbor, thanks to the nearby Kids Fish Free promotion at Dana Wharf.

Dec. 8: Snow Wonder and the Marina Del Rey Holiday Boat Parade

This L.A. boat parade starts with fireworks followed by a lineup of decorated boats floating along the channel in Marina Del Rey. Come during the afternoon beforehand, when Burton Chace Park hosts its annual Snow Wonder event with sledding on man-made snow.

Dec. 9: Santa Barbara Parade of Lights at the Harbor

Watch this elegant parade from Stearns Wharf: It kicks off with fireworks and ends as judges award prizes in five categories. During the afternoon, kids can submit their wish lists to St. Nick at the Santa’s Village on the City Pier.

Dec. 9–10 Huntington Harbour Boat Parade

This Orange County town’s boat parade first started in the in the 1960s, and now showcases about 75 boats, seen easily from Seabridge Park or the Huntington Harbor bridges. On the following two weekends (Dec. 14–17 and 20–23), take the Cruise of Lights to see more decorated boats, docks, and waterfront homes.

Dec. 9, 16: San Diego Bay of Lights

This annual boat parade (with about 80 ships on two Sunday evenings) skirts alongside downtown San Diego, going from Shelter Island past the Embarcadero and Seaport Village, and then out to Coronado Island.

Dec. 14: Fisherman’s Wharf Lighted Boat Parade, San Francisco

This waterfront parade of boats and yachts floats past San Francisco’s Pier 39, Fisherman's Wharf, Fort Mason, the St. Francis Yacht Club, and Crissy Field. Snag your viewing spot on the walkway along the Aquatic Park, PIER 39 Marina Green, or Crissy Field Beach. Until January, you can see more lit-up boats along the Sport Fishing Harbor.

Dec. 14–30: Zoo Lights at San Francisco Zoo & Gardens

The zoo neighboring San Francisco’s Lake Merced Park glows during select evenings with holiday light displays, Santa Claus sightings, carolers, and up-close looks at reindeer. Accent your visit with cocoa and stops by the fire pit.

Dec. 15: Night of Lights, Mammoth Mountain

A few nights before the Winter Solstice, ride the free Village Gondola to Canyon Lodge as the ski resort makes the most of the dark skies with a winter lights show—fireworks and a torchlight parade—accompanied by live music and snowmobile rides.

Dec. 14–18: Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade

This legendary boat parade in Orange County’s Newport Beach dates back to the early 1900s, and runs for five nights. Watch it from various spots along its route, such as Lido Isle and Balboa Island., or book a spot on one of the ships that’s actually in the parade. Or, take dinner cruises through most of the month, which glide past more lit boats and homes.

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