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24 Stunning Holiday Lights Displays

24 Stunning Holiday Lights Displays

Marvel at these huge installations, twinkling boat parades, and a record-breaking Christmas tree

Posted 4 years agoby Katrina Hunt

From San Diego to San Francisco, Sonoma County, and beyond, California twinkles during the holiday season. Up and down the Golden State, late November and December brings 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 two dozen displays that will light up your season.

Through Dec. 21: Rodeo Drive Lights, Beverly Hills

Rodeo Drive celebrates the holiday shopping season with lots of twinkling lights and festivities as part of its BOLD (Beverly Hill Open Late Days) Holiday season. On select evenings through November and December, the area will host evening entertainment, Jolly Trolley tours of the lights (led by Mrs. Claus), and extended shopping hours.

Nov. 27–Dec. 28: Wildnights at the Living Desert, Palm Desert

On select nights through December 28, this Greater Palm Springs desert park sparkles with more than 1 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 running along more than 3,300 feet of track.




Through December: The World’s Largest Live-Cut Christmas Tree, L.A.




The 115-foot tree standing at the Citadel Outlets, located minutes from downtown L.A., came from California’s Shasta Cascade region. It’s 40 feet taller than the tree at Rockefeller Center and, if lying flat, would be 20 feet longer than the basketball court at nearby Staples Center. Check out its 18,000 lights on any evening during the holiday season, including the mall’s 27-hour Moonlight Madness, running from Thanksgiving through Black Friday. Take note: When the tree was near the end of its lifespan, 12 more were planted in its area to keep the cycle going.




Nov. 28–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. More than 40 works stretch from the Castro to Yerba Buena neighborhoods—check out the map of the installations, or browse the 12 featured on the Light Art Trail.




Starting Nov. 29: Santa Cruz Holiday Lights Train and Chanukah Train




Ride through the streets of Santa Cruz on a vintage excursion railroad, festooned with thousands of lights. The train celebrates Chanukah on Dec. 26 and then New Year’s  through Dec. 31.




Nov. 29: 40th Annual San Rafael Parade of Lights




A big tree lighting and parade of lights provide the focal point of this four-decade-strong annual tradition in the Bay Area town. Come earlier in the day for a holiday marketplace and kids’ activities.




Starting Nov. 29: Mission Inn Festival of Lights begins, Riverside




Every year on the day after Thanksgiving, the grand dame resort in the Inland Empire flips on the switch for their annual holiday extravaganza—and it is just that, with 5 million lights covering the resort and grounds, along with 200 animated figures, carriage rides, decorated trees, and the world’s largest mistletoe. You don’t have to be a guest at the hotel to explore the free festival, which lasts for six weeks—but you’ll likely be tempted to stay, in part for easy access to the holiday treats at the hotel’s Casey’s Cupcakes. Runs through Jan. 6.




Dec. 7: Festival of Lights Parade, Palm Springs




The acclaimed annual parade through downtown’s Palm Canyon Drive features light-bedazzled floats, cars, equestrians, and occasional celebrities.




Dec. 7: 34th Annual Lighted Boat Parade, Morro Bay




Eye-catching Morro Rock nearly gets upstaged at this annual event in the charming Central Coast town. Decorated yachts, fishing boats, and more compete for prizes, while the Winter Wonderland area along the Embarcadero offers live performances, a Santa House, hot cocoa, and baked goods. Pro tip: Grab a seat at one of the waterfront restaurants and bars for great views.




Nov. 30: Geyserville Tractor Parade




This Sonoma County town with deep agricultural roots gives its annual holiday celebration some farm flair: Illuminated tractors head through downtown, with Santa and the Mrs. meeting fans by the town Christmas tree.



Nov. 29–Dec. 22: 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.




Dec. 1–25: Christmas Tree Lane, Fresno




Stroll or drive this two-mile stretch of the Fig Garden neighborhood in this Central Valley city, which has been decorating almost every year since 1920. The displays encompass about 300 trees and 140 homes. Dec. 3 and 11 are pedestrian-only evenings. For a serious (but unlit) tree, meanwhile, head to Kings Canyon National Park, also in Fresno County, to see the General Grant Tree, which was named the Nation’s Christmas Tree in 1926. Dec. 8 will bring the annual Trek to the Tree event, leaving from Sanger, when a wreath is placed at the base of the tree.




Dec. 5: 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. 6–7, 13–14: 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.




Dec. 7: Lighting of the Snowmen, Sonoma




For the past 15 years, the folks at Cornerstone Sonoma—a collection of boutiques and wine-tasting rooms—create a whimsical installation of plastic, light-up snowmen for the holidays. The unveiling comes with its own party that includes music, crafts, local cuisine, and wine and beer tastings. The snowmen will be on display through the end of December.



Dec. 7–Jan. 6: Capistrano Lights, San Juan Capistrano




Since it can be tough to time your visit to a one-time tree-lighting, the historic Mission of San Juan Capistrano in Orange County makes it easy by holding a tree lighting almost every evening—from Dec. 7 through Jan. 6. Festivities include kids’ crafts during the day, and the chance to take selfies with an 18th-century-style St. Nikolas.




Dec. 8: 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. 8, 15: San Diego Bay of Lights




This annual boat parade—held on consecutive Sunday evenings and featuring about 80 ships—skirts alongside downtown San Diego. Its route goes from Shelter Island past the Embarcadero and Seaport Village, and then out to Coronado Island.




Dec. 13: 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: 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: Snow Wonder and the Marina Del Ray 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. 14–15 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. From Dec. 17–23, you can also take the Cruise of Lights to see more decorated boats, docks, and waterfront homes.




Dec. 18–22: 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 the 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 evening cruises through most of the month, which glide past more lit boats and homes.



Jan. 11–19: Napa Lighted Art Festival




Too busy during the month of December? Come to Napa after the New Year for this free, open-air lighted art walk created by local and international artists at 16 locations in and around Downtown Napa. These unique installations include light art, 3D video mapping projections, and lighted sculptures.








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