California By Region
California is enourmous, and there’s so much to see that you can spend a lifetime exploring it and STILL not have seen everything. Which is cool, but also super overwhelming. What helps us is to break down California into smaller, explorable regions. Here’s a breakdown of how we think of California by region:
- Northern California: From about the San Francisco Bay northwards, Northern California features looming redwoods, rolling fog, scenic coastal views, the state’s best wine country, and a whole lot of weird, quirky, hippie sh*t. This region includes Mount Shasta, Lassen National Park, and the jaw-dropping Avenue of the Giants.
- The Bay Area: San Francisco and its neighboring cities and towns has everything to offer, and it’s where we’ve called home for the past decade. From the hippies on Haight Street in San Francisco to the Black Panthers in Oakland to the techies in Silicon Valley, the Bay Area is the best place to discover why California has always been full of forward-thinkers. (And eat amazing food while you’re at it.)
- Wine Country: There’s not just one wine country in California – there are several! California produces some of the best wine in the world. Experience it for yourself by going wine tasting in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Paso Robles.
- The Central Coast: Located between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Central Coast is a quiet goldmine of charming beach towns, rolling wine country, fresh seafood, abundant farms, and beautiful coastal scenery. This area includes Morro Bay, Cayucos, Pismo, Big Sur, and Monterey.
- The Mountains: The Sierra Nevada mountains dominate the eastern side of California. And yes: they do get snow each year, and lots of it! Heat to the mountains incredible hiking, skiing, outdoor adventure, hot springs, beautiful fall foliage, and fascinating pioneer and Gold Rush history. This area includes Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, Mammoth Lakes, and June Lake.
- SoCal: Roughly stretching from Los Angeles southwards, Southern California includes multiple mountain ranges, a series of islands that double as an overlooked National Park, and a huge expanse of colorful desert, plus two of California’s biggest cities: Los Angeles and San Diego!
Where to Go in California
Wineries, elephant seals, seafood, charming towns, fog, and a ridiculous castle.
Need to get out of the Bay Area this weekend? Here’s where to go!
All the best places to stop along the Pacific Coast Highway, from towns to attractions to food!
Traveling California FAQ’s
What to pack for California?
Although it does depend on the season you’re visiting and the regions you’ll be spending time in, most of California is colder than you probably think it is. Also, the seasons make no sense, and everywhere is covered in microclimates. Sorry, this is only getting more confusing, isn’t it?
Here’s a few quick tips for what to pack by region and season.
- San Francisco: Generally freezing cold all year long except for summer, which is in September & October. Actual summer, June & July, are the coldest, foggiest, and gloomiest months. Pack layers and a warm down jacket – you’ll want to put it on the minute 6pm hits.
- SoCal: From Los Angeles south, you can generally count on warm weather year-round. Even in winter, you likely won’t need more than a light jacket during the day. But it does get cold at night – especially in the desert – so bring a warm jacket just in case.
- The Coast: On the coast (excluding SoCal, so the Central Coast northwards) it’s generally cold and foggy until about noon. Then you’ll enjoy some sun for a few hours until the fog rolls back in around 6pm. Bring layers and a warm jacket, because while it’s foggy and gloomy, you’ll be cold. But head just 45 minutes inland, and the weather will likely be hot and sunny for most of the day! To be safe, just pack lots of layers.
- The Mountains: California’s mountain destinations (including Yosemite and Lake Tahoe) actually do follow fairly normal, predictable seasons. They’re warm from about June through September, cool down and showcase gorgeous fall foliage for a couple months, and are covered with snow between November and May, so pack accordingly! Also note that July-October is fire season, so… bring an N95 and hope for the best.
- The Central Valley: Hot, sunny, desert. Unless it’s the middle of winter, plan to be dripping with sweat. Pack lots of sunscreen and water, and maybe just do your best to not spend very much time here…
Ready to get packing? We’ve got tons of specific packing suggestions to help. Check them all out here.
How to get around?
California is ENORMOUS – you can drive 8 hours in any direction and still be within the state (unless you drive west, in which case you’re underwater).
The size of California makes public transportation challenging. Within large cities like San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles, there’s plenty of public transit to get around. But navigating elsewhere can be a challenge. That said, there are a few scenic Amtrak routes running through the state, and you can take a Megabus to get from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
However, hands down the best way to see our beautiful state is on a classic California road trip!
Driving the Pacific Coast Highway is the most beautiful road trip in the entire world. Hop into a car and head up the Pacific Coast Highway, sea breeze, singing along to our Driving in California Playlist, and stopping every few minutes to take in the view. Check out our recommend ultimate 10-day California Pacific Coast Highway itinerary.
If you’re not able to drive your own car here, you can rent one here and still have lots of freedom to explore!
What’s our favorite ‘off the beaten path’ area?
We’re super biased because it’s where Jeremy grew up, but we absolutely love California’s Central Coast region.
Instead of bustling cities, what you’ll find in the Central Coast area is about 200 miles of scenic coastline – including the most well-known California Central Coast destination, Big Sur.
Located between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Central Coast is a quiet goldmine of charming beach towns, rolling wine country, abundant farms, fresh seafood, and beautiful coastal scenery.
Our favorite destinations on the Central Coast are Paso Robles (wine country) and the charming coastal town of Morro Bay, which is also Jeremy’s hometown. This post has more beautiful places to visit on the central coast!
What’s the weather like?
A common misconception is that California is warm and sunny year-round. Some parts of Southern California are, but that’s … about it.
California actually has several different micro-climates and seasons, which vary by region. Much of California is covered in desert, which experiences very hot summers but can be freezing cold at night, or mountains, which are fully seasonal and very snowy in the winter. And much of California’s coast is cooled down by chilly breezes and fog rolling off the ice-cold Pacific ocean, so they’re unlikely to be warm at any time in the year, even (and especially) in the middle of summer!
So, here’s what you need to know about California’s weather:
- SoCal, from about Los Angeles down to the border of Mexico, is pretty warm and sunny for much of the year. In the summer, it can be in the 100’s. In the winter, it might be in the 50’s or 60’s.
- NorCal, from about Los Angeles northwards, doesn’t get very warm. The two hottest months of the year are September & October, where you’ll get mostly sun and less fog. The rest of the year, expect fog until noon, a few hours of mid-60’s weather, and then fog and cold from 6pm onwards. And from November-February, you’ll get occasional rain and a lot more fog and mid-50’s days.
- The weather in the mountains is typical seasonal weather. Snow falls in November and lasts until early June, and then you’ve got a couple months each of summer and fall.
A few more California seasonal quirks to be aware of:
- February is usually the end of the California’s rainy season which turns California’s golden hills bright green and covers the coast with wonderful wildflowers. February, March, and April are the start of spring, and this is the most beautiful time to visit California. (Except for the mountains, which are still snowy!)
- San Francisco is known for its characteristic fog in spring and early summer, but it’s not just SF that experiences “June Gloom” and “May Gray.” Expect fog and cold on the coast from May through July, even in typically sunny San Diego.
- After the fog and cold of “summer,” the coast experiences two months of “Indian Summer” in September and October. The hot, dry weather is also what gives California its annual fire season, so … bring N95s and hope for the best. Incidentally, this is the worst time to visit the mountains, which are usually on fire or just super smoky between much of August and October.
- Some parts of California do experience a seasonal fall, complete with foliage and everything! Fall is harvest season in Wine Country, so it’s beautiful and delicious, too. We’ve got a whole guide to visiting California in the fall!
When is the best time to visit California?
The best time to visit California is between February and April, after the rains have turned California’s rolling golden hills to a deep, lush green.
The rains also give way to vibrant wildflowers as early as February, which cover California’s hills for months in giant colorful patches. If you’re hoping to see one of California’s epic “Superblooms,” this is when to schedule your visit!
And if verdant hills and wildflowers weren’t enough, spring is also the best time for wildlife:
- Monarch migration starts in November, and Monarch mating occurs in February. The best time to see Monarch butterflies is in February in Monterey.
- Whale migration season occurs during the springtime, so keep an eye out for humpback and grey whales blowing offshore. Check out our ultimate guide to whale watching for more details!
- Elephant seal pupping season overlaps with the spring! You’ll see hundreds of blubbery little seals molting and sneezing on the beach between February and April. Meet California’s weirdest marine residents at Point Reyes or San Simeon, two of our favorite stops along Highway One.
Listen To Us
Listen to our Highway One podcast episode! A humanist cult, a Danish hideaway, a gravitational anomaly, towering trees, a spoiled rich kid’s castle, clothing-optional hot springs, and the cutest (and weirdest) animals imaginable: in this episode, we cover everything you need to plan your trip up the California Coast.
We also have a Podcast episode all about Lake Tahoe! Towering pine trees, ancient granite cliffs, crystal clear water, cannibalistic pioneers… wait, what? Strap on your snow goggles and come along as we cover the macabre past and enchanting present of this alpine paradise with more ghosts than you can shake a ski pole at.
Psst: Planning a California coast road trip?
We’ve created a free, printable version of the ideal Highway One itinerary!
Plus, we’ll also send you our favorite tips to help you plan your California road trip! Just sign up below.
Free Printable Highway One Itinerary!
Printable Highway One Itinerary
This FREE printable Highway One itinerary will help guide you on your road trip! Plus, we’ve included our San Francisco walking tour, and we’ll send you some helpful tips to plan your trip.