Winter wet weather doesn’t need to put a damper on your outdoor exploring, if you can get your hands on a 4×4 vehicle. Almost any SUV or truck with 4 wheel drive is capable of driving through some snow or mud. Just how deep is the mud (underneath the snow) is usually the big question. Many National Forests and State Parks close certain dirt roads due to over-use, or to control soil erosion and prevent the deep muddy ruts which are costly to re-grade come springtime. Call ahead to the rangers to find which back road routes are indeed open, or bring your printed topo map and wing it.
The California destinations listed below are popular winter spots for off roading enthusiasts. Some places may be busier than others. The dirt roads surrounding these spots are real treasures, so try to plan an all-day loop trip if possible. Camping w/ a campfire permit is an option on many back roads. Plenty lodging in nearby small towns if winter camping is not your thing.
Tribal lands are mostly located in rural regions which always have plenty of dirt roads to explore. Get a good back roads map for the public lands nearby, parks, BLM, National Forest. If the overnight camping is dropping into the twenties or teens, then know the forecast. A good rule of thumb for California hotel stays: If the low temps overnight are below the cost of a hotel room at the nearby casino, the comfy lodge might be well worth considering.
@ California – Arizona border.
The Laughlin casino in the middle of nowhere, right on the Colorado River. Jet ski rentals, swimming pools and spas, restaurants, RV park. The historic Mojave Trail, aka Mojave Road, starts next to the property.
Gold Country Casino
@ Lake Oroville, California
Sierra Nevada mountains Northern California. Conveniently located near Feather River (all 4 forks) and Plumas National Forest, with Berry Creek and Bucks Lake Wilderness to explore. Snow often closes the highest elevations.
@ Pine Valley, East County San Diego
Great bouldered mountains with back road exploring, hiking, mountain biking trails, all easy access from Southern California. Get a Cleveland National Forest map and expect some road closures near Laguna Mountain Sunrise Highway, especially when it snows.
Diamond Mountain Casino
Susanville, Northern California
Located in between US Highway 395 and Mount Lassen, the scenic Susan River region has lots to offer for the outdoor enthusiasts. Plenty of roads to explore, some big lakes too. Many Forest roads could be closed due to snow, so be warned and call ahead to the ranger.
The whole Carson City area in Nevada has some excellent dirt roads to explore. Old mines, caves, many miles of pinyon forests. Lake Tahoe is nearby with luxury resorts, casinos and snow skiing.
If you just can’t stand the cold and snow, then warmer climates lie to the south. Baja California is a tourist/traveler and off-roader haven in the wintertime.
Jawbone Canyon for Thanksgiving weekend will get dirt bikes by the thousands and big families. Christmas is busy around the Palm Spring desert destinations – like Joshua Tree. Easter weekend is popular w/ wildflowers and campers in Anza Borrego Desert.
Occasionally, wide graded dirt roads lead to secondary routes, so overnighting it with a motorhome on the back roads is very possible (if deep mud is not present). RV camping is quite the tradition for Southern Californians. Desert off roaders in tow, all over the Mojave. Steer clear of busy family groups. Pick a lesser known area to camp and explore. Get your real topo maps out and choose easy access from pavement, but wide graded dirt roads are best. Plenty roads like this in the Eastern Sierra, on the east side of US Hwy 395. RV campers that follow Total Escape might very well be interested in testing the limits of their recreational vehicle, slowly.
Before AWD got marketed as 4WD, Total Escape was way out there exploring in a 2 wheel drive and posting it online for you. All wheel drive station wagons should stick to the paved and plowed roads. If you plan to do a lotta dirt road driving in the old Subaru, keep the rock crawling to a minimum. If not, you may want to invest in a skid plate for the oil pan. Nothing beats first hand experience and learning ahead of time how your car will behave before you loose control on icy dark steep roads. Go practice with the emergency break and get the vehicle in a wide open snow plowed area if possible, just avoid the temptations to get wild. Don’t get the doughnut urge and plant yourself in a tree. Remember, it’s not like the commercial showed us, those are closed roads they are filming on.
If you plan to be off roading in snow or mud at all you might want to consider some important safety items: tire chains for snow, a tow strap and tire plugs for flats. If you own a high clearance 2WD SUV, you could benefit from running chains on all four tires when snow is present. How deep the snow gets and how steep the hills are, determines how far you can go without a real 4 wheel drive. Some choose to rent a 4WD for the weekend road trip.
Carry these items when traveling in winter conditions:
tools, jumper cables, tow strap, emergency gear, first aid kit, real boots, extra clothes, blankets, flashlights, food, drinking water, cell phone, maps
Where the traditions and lifestyles of the vaqueros blend with traditions and lifestyles of cowboys who worked there way west from Texas, Arizona and Nevada. Live music, concerts, great food, wine and beer.
One of the better winter star shows. This well known meteor shower peaks in mid December, right in the middle of Christmas Rush. It’s a nice time to plan a desert camping trip around or a weekend away in the mountains. Look in the southern part of the nights sky these shootings stars.
The meteors from this shower are slow moving, can be seen in December and usually peak around the 13th – 14th of the month, with the date of highest intensity being the morning of the 14th. The shower is thought to be intensifying every year and recent showers have seen 120–160 meteors per hour under optimal conditions, generally around 02:00 to 03:00 local time.
The meteors in this shower appear to come from a radiant in the constellation Gemini (hence the shower’s name). However, they can appear almost anywhere in the night sky, and often appear yellowish in hue. Well north of the equator, the radiant rises about sunset, reaching a usable elevation from the local evening hours onwards.
If you’ve had it with the traditions, the big meal prep, or just sick of the family. Maybe you are a solo traveler, or a new transplant to California and need to explore more. Take a holiday away – for once this time.
Camping for turkey day? What a concept.
California is the perfect place for camping, all year long!
Stick to the lower elevations, look for canyons, and seek seclusion
California mountains often have snow during November. Avoid camping in snow @ 4000-5000′ elevation and above; Freezing temps above 3000-4000′ elevation.
Deserts, coastal regions and foothills are top choices for late Autumn car camping. Always check the weather ahead of departure, and have a plan B as an alternative. NorCal will be much wetter than the rest of the state.
MEALS: Prepare dinner meals ahead of trip departure. Bake turkey days before your trip and create meals based around that. Make mash potatoes at home and don’t forget to bring the butter. Pack pre-baked turkey for sandwiches, plus other quick snacks & meals for on-the-go travel.
Desert Camping is premium at this time of year. Luckily the eastern half of Southern Cal is desert. The lower the elevation, the better the temps will be overnight. Be prepared for wind when the ‘storm fronts’ approach, the winds do get a cranking! Dirt roads can become flowing washes during a good rainstorm, so know the weather forecast.
Coastal campgrounds may need advanced reservations. Be prepared for wet weather, especially up north. The redwoods groves are gorgeous anytime of year.
Gold County Reservoirs are prime areas for relaxing in nature, while everyone else is out shopping. Oak hills, rivers and canyons. RV campers love these large lakes; boating, fishing, mountain biking trails, kayak rentals, hiking near historic Gold Rush towns.
River Canyons of California are always beautiful destinations in the autumn months. Many campgrounds can be found at lower elevation, river access areas. California’s abundant Hot Springs are also top picks for holiday weekends.
Anza Borrego Desert State Park is always a nice, easy and relatively close get-away for any holiday. Open camping on the backroads (for free) makes it one of the most attractive camping options in all of SoCal. Many dirt roads are accessible for passenger cars, if extreme caution is used. Don’t plan on driving more than a few miles on dirt.
Masses of off roaders love to camp out, especially on Thanksgiving weekend. Wheel all day, eat, drink, bon fires every night and rumor has it ‘they roast their big bird outdoors – deep in a dirt pit’. Really? El Centro, Glamis, Imperial Dunes, Ocotillo Wells, Truckhaven Hills, Johnson Valley. All popular off roading areas in Southern California, so consider yourself warned.
Mojave Desert, near US Hwy 395 Jawbone Canyon expect to see RVs, toy-boxes and families outside enjoying the weekend. OHV style. Often the group tries to create a round corral with their huge convoy of vehicles, to keep thru traffic to a minimum around “their camp”. Just stay well away from those gear-heads. In general, it is a very busy area around Mojave up to Hwy 178 during the holidays. Try high desert Horse Canyon instead.
Opening Night is in late November and the events go multiple nights through Christmas; held in downtown San Jose at Plaza de Cesar Chavez. The tree lighting will kick things off in style. Ongoing for over 30 years, this is a family fun holiday fest in the South Bay!
La Posada Candlelight Parade in Monterey
Candlelight Posada and Parade
Over 30 years running; Local and long-held tradition McAllen’s Annual Candlelight Posada and Parade. Members from the community as well as out-of-towners gather in the city’s streets to enjoy a time of giving and joy with friends and family.
Christmas in the Adobes:
35,000 guests pack the streets and coastline. All gathered to witness a live nativity procession, Santa Claus and a lit parade involving more than 100 floats. As is tradition, the parade winds down at Archer Park where guests will find three stages for live entertainment.
Local farmers and ranchers parade fancifully decorated tractors and tractor-drawn wagons depicting holiday scenes down the Victorian Village’s historic Main Street. Sparkling country Christmas celebrations include the Tallest Living Tree Lighting, shopping and dining downtown. Romantic Christmas destination on the Northern California Redwood Coast!
A ‘continuous motion’ holiday parade that highlights youth groups, sports groups, schools, businesses, first responders and other organizations from Seal Beach and surrounding coastal areas. Seal Beach is located in between Long Beach and Newport Beach on the Los Angeles coastline.
This annual, festive holiday tradition takes place 2 Wednesday evenings and 3 Sunday afternoons in the month of December. Features holiday activities for all ages: carriage rides, live entertainment, savory yuletide treats and libations, and Father Christmas!
It’s a magical setting of hilly streets outlined with twinkling white lights and authentic gas lamps, wandering minstrels and carolers dressed in Victorian attire, and a myriad of visitors sharing holiday cheer and good tidings.
From 5-9pm the whole community is invited to share in the holiday fun. Crafters and artists will have their wares on sale for that special one-of-a-kind Christmas gift. Great food and entertainment, pictures with Santa. Shops and restaurants open. Holiday Open House in all the old town village shops!
Annual event; December – multiple days
(2 different Saturday nights)
If you find yourself traveling through the giant Mojave desert around the holiday season, keep Calico Ghost Town in mind. Whether you are headed to Vegas or Utah, you can take a “stretch break” from the freeway driving, to see the historic cemetery, sip hot cocoa or browse the gift shops – just a few exits after Barstow on Interstate 15.
The actual Holiday Festival is a one day celebration in late November that kicks off the winter season. Tree-lighting ceremony, native dancers, food, live music and Santa. FREE collectable, stuffed bear w/ a minimum purchase at participating local shops.
Balboa Park Christmas Lights
December Nights in Balboa Park, San Diego
Balboa Park December Nights Southern California’s premier holiday festival.
37 years running; Friday and Saturday night in early December
The event brings families and friends together to spread holiday joy, learn more about the cultural value of Balboa Park and kick-off the “most wonderful time of the year.”
Participating Balboa Park museums open their doors free of charge from 5-9 pm both evenings and more than 350,000 visitors are expected to experience the joy of San Diego’s largest free community festival. Those who attend will participate in a truly multicultural experience, enjoying food, music and entertainment from around the world.
Revelers can watch top-notch musical and dance performances, enjoy delicious and diverse food choices and help spread a heavy dose of holiday cheer. Some of the more well-known traditions include food from around the globe at the International Christmas Festival at the House of Pacific Relations Cottages; the annual Santa Lucia Procession at the Plaza de California; unique gift shopping at the museum stores and with the artisans of Spanish Village; and musical and dance presentations from the San Diego Junior Theatre, San Diego Civic Youth Ballet, Del Cerro Baptist’s Christmas Story Tree, and more.
Recapture the spirit of Christmas past amid the charming surroundings of historic downtown Grass Valley California during the annual Cornish Christmas Celebration.
Began in 1967 as a way to preserve Grass Valley’s Cornish heritage and holiday traditions, Cornish Christmas remains one of our most popular events. Mill and West Main Streets are closed to motorized traffic and filled with the sights and sounds of an old fashioned Christmas; carolers, jugglers, musicians, the Grass Valley Cornish Carol Choir, Tommyknocker Cloggers and of course, Santa Claus. Handmade arts and craft from artists throughout California are displayed on our historic downtown Grass Valley streets. Delicious food and drink can be purchased from a number of Grass Valley restaurants and specialty food vendors. Retail stores are open for your holiday purchases as well.
Enjoy the festive atmosphere of Historic Valhalla Grand Hall with an elegant evening of champagne, hors d’ouevres, fine wines and catered dinner at the annual Valhalla Holiday Gala Dinner. Each ticket includes a personalized handcrafted ornament, and you’ll also enjoy a silent auction before the end of the evening.
Annual event: December
Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe, CA
On rare occasions the local National Forest may be letting the general public cut their own Christmas trees in the nearby forests. There is usually a small fee & a list of rules. They do this for thinning of the forest, where pine trees are too close together. Free labor for the government & you are paying them for the privilege of cutting your own perfect pine tree. American traditions such as this still exist.
We love convenience & the reasonable prices of getting a tree locally. If you must buy your live Christmas Tree in the city, try your local plant nursery first. Orchard Supply Warehouse (OSH) usually has a great selection on live trees. Replant your little pine tree in your yard, or back in to a forest.