A Tranquil Winter Adventure Across Northern California

Winter may be the off-season at many National Parks, but not in California, where major destinations like Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are open 24/7, 365 days a year.

While a winter road trip may take a little extra planning—such as checking road conditions and seasonal closures and packing some extra layers—winter can be the perfect time to visit this region. Not only are the crowds thinner, but you’ll be able to avoid Yosemite’s permit system, which requires reservations to enter the park between May and September.

Our six-day road trip itinerary includes stops to see the majestic Redwoods covered in snow and plenty of winter activities like ice skating and snowshoeing.

Start: San Francisco

We’ve planned our itinerary as a round-trip route starting and ending in San Francisco, but you can start your trip anywhere in the area and adjust the route accordingly. If you’re arriving from another part of the country, plan on flying into the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and picking up a rental car. Check the road conditions and rent a car with four-wheel-drive and tire chains if conditions require them.

San Francisco is a worthwhile destination in its own right, but since we’re focusing on the outdoors on this trip, we’re going to head right out to our first destination.

DAY 1 – SAMUEL P. TAYLOR STATE PARK

Start the day by driving north across the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito, a small picturesque town known for its houseboats.

Sausalito, California. Photo Courtesy of Jason.

Stop for lunch at Fish., which offers sustainable seafood dishes right on the waterfront, or the Lighthouse Cafe for Danish diner fare. Then, take a quick visit to the Bay Model Visitor Center, which features a hydraulic model of the iconic Bay, showing the tides in action.

Muir Woods

But our highlight today is the Muir Woods National Monument, one of the most popular places to see Redwoods in the San Francisco Bay Area. This destination gets busy, so you’ll need to reserve a parking pass in advance, but it’s worth the effort.

Hikers at the Muir Woods National Monument in California. Photo Courtesy of Yi-Liang Liu.

The Muir Woods is named after famed naturalist John Muir, and has been protected since 1908, leaving these beautiful redwood groves intact. You can hike at your own pace, choosing from a variety of options ranging from 30 minutes to 1.5 hours.

Where to Stay Near San Francisco

Then, end the day with a short drive north to Samuel P. Taylor State Park, where you can rent a cabin in the Redwoods. Outside the park, the nearest lodging is the quaint Fairfax Inn. A little further from the park, about 10 miles, in San Rafael are the Best Western Corte Madera InnMarin Suites HotelCourtyard San Francisco Larkspur LandingExtended Stay America Suites, the Villa Inn.

DAY 2 – CALAVERAS BIG TREES STATE PARK

The next day, wake up early and head to Two Bird Cafe for coffee and breakfast before the four-hour drive to our next destination: Calaveras Big Trees State Park.

The Big Trees in Calaveras Big Trees State Park, California. Photo Courtesy of keppet.

Along the way, you’ll drive past the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge and see a very different side of California: the wetlands of the Sacramento River Delta. Visit the Western Railway Museum, where you can take an 11-mile trip on a scenic railway powered by electricity and see vintage streetcar exhibits. Don’t stay too long, though, because you’ll want to get to Calaveras before it gets dark.

Once you arrive at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, choose from a variety of easy hiking trails to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the area. Explore the North Grove trails for a chance to walk through a forest of giant sequoias or head to the South Grove if you prefer a cross-country skiing experience.

Where to Stay Near Calaveras Big Trees State Park

There are dozens of private cabins available for rent around the park; these range from small rather rustic escapes to genuinely spectacular mountain retreats.

DAYS 3 & 4 – YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK

On the way out of Calaveras Big Trees State Park, stop for breakfast at Bistro Express or Gold Country Roasters. Then, head south to our next stop: Mariposa Grove, located on the southwestern side of Yosemite National Park.

Here, you’ll find some of the biggest sequoias in the country—over 500 in all—including the famous California Tunnel Tree that you can still walk underneath.

Giant Sequoia at Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California. Photo Courtesy of David Denicolo.

The next day, take part in one of several winter activities, such as a guided snowshoe hike, ice skating, or sledding—all available to book directly through Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite. If all that time outdoors gets you chilly, don’t worry: you can warm up at the Ascent Spa, which has a steam room and sauna, as well as a variety of massage treatments.

Depending on the weather conditions, you may be able to take a day trip into Yosemite Valley to see El Capitan and Yosemite Falls.

Where to Eat & Stay Near Yosemite National Park

This is the main destination of our trip, so plan to spend at least two nights at Tenaya Lodge, just four miles away from Mariposa Grove. The Lodge has multiple rooms to choose from, including pet-friendly rooms, romantic suites and two-bedroom cabins. Have dinner at one of the on-site dining options, such as Jackalopes Bar & Grill.

DAY 5 – SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK

Our last full day of this California winter road trip includes a stop at Sequoia National Park, home to the legendary General Sherman Tree and other landmarks like Moro Rock. The most efficient route is to drive east from Fresno, but if that entrance is closed, you can enter via Three Rivers instead.

The Trunk of General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park, California. Photo Courtesy of Joel Sowers.

You’re pretty much guaranteed to see snow here this time of year, so be prepared for icy roads and trails. But the Giant Forest Museum is open year-round, and the National Park Service maintains a list of the best winter drives and viewpoints so you can make the most of what the season has to offer.

Where to Eat & Stay Near Kings Canyon National Park

Warm up with food and drink at the Three Rivers Brewing Company, then spend the night in the heart of Kings Canyon National Park. Surrounded by magnificent sequoias, John Muir Lodge offers pet-friendly accommodations, on-site dining and more resort amenities to keep you comfortable throughout your stay.

DAY 6 – SAN FRANCISCO

The drive back to San Francisco should take around four hours, but there’s no need to hurry! Start with coffee and pastry at Sequoia Coffee Co., then pay a visit to the Three Rivers Historical Museum to see giant wood carvings of Paul Bunyan and John Muir.

The Lick Observatory in California. Photo Courtesy of Pranjal Mahna.

If you have the time, take a detour to the Lick Observatory, which is open year-round unless there’s significant snowfall. The dome of the observatory looks beautiful in the winter, and you can take a tour of the telescope every half hour.

From there, it’s just a 30-minute drive back to San Francisco International Airport. We hope you’ve enjoyed the trip!

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