Living among some of the world’s most popular tourist destinations is flattering—and frustrating. Though only hours away, the mountains, lakes and coastlines people travel from all over the world to see can be too much of a crowded hassle for locals to bother with.
Here’s a secret: Late autumn through winter is the perfect time to see the famous places in your backyard that you can’t afford—or can’t stand—during the summer high season.
Instead of fighting for a reservation, you’ll discover that vacant rooms await your booking. And though the days are short, the weather can be chilly and trips can be harder to schedule with the kids back in school, you won’t regret giving yourself the gift of a getaway to one of the epic locales below—especially when you don’t have to compete for a parking spot.
It’s easy to forget that Big Sur is only two-and-a-half hours away from San Francisco—and that’s because it can easily take twice that long to get there during the high season.
Enter: winter! An off-season excursion over the Big Little Lies-famous Bixby Bridge yields vacancies at roadside motel rooms, quiet campsites and easy parking at pullouts along the California coast’s most popular road trip. The trails, tide pools and townspeople don’t take the winter off, and the locals will appreciate your business, especially given that last January’s landslide south of Lucia will keep Highway 1 closed all winter, meaning SoCal visitors will have to tack on an extra 35 minutes to their trip, which will likely serve to discourage many of them from coming at all.
Big Sur might be chilly, rainy and foggy through the fall and winter—or it might be sunny and warm. It’s the NorCal coast, after all. But strolls and views at Garrapata, Partington Cove, Big Sur River Gorge, Andrew Molera and Pfeiffer Beach topped by a must-do dinner at Nepenthe are easily enjoyed in a puffer and beanie—especially minus the LA tourists who won’t be there crowding out the sweeping ocean views.
The beauty of the Wine Country is world-renowned. But put the screws on, and most will admit: Winter is less gorgeous than the other seasons—and that’s great news for Bay Area oenophiles.
For the months between harvest and blossom—approximately November through February—tourism hits rock bottom in Napa and Sonoma counties, leaving banks and banks of rooms at all price levels ripe for the taking. Off-season wine tasting and dining reservations are also much easier to come by.
Bay Area locals tend to have a favorite Wine Country destination, but in winter, San Franciscans have long been partial to Calistoga. With a bit more variety in type and price of lodging, the town founded by Gold Rush entrepreneur Samuel Brannan—San Francisco’s first newspaperman and millionaire—has an Old West-ish downtown, hotels with hot spring-fed swimming pools, a 2007 Tuscan castle, a Petrified Forest and easy access to the valley’s wineries, shops and eateries along both Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail.
“I hate Lake Tahoe—can’t do it anymore,” a friend said recently. Harsh? Yes! It’s arguably the most picturesque lake in the most picturesque state in the country. But last year, the respected travel guide Fodor’s actually went so far as to put the lake on a list of places to avoid due to the harmful effects of overtourism. Tahoe’s ridiculous crowds, epic gridlock and above-the-tree-line prices—both in summer and winter—can be too much for even the lake’s most devoted fans.
But what if you could get to Tahoe without a fight? Stay near the lake without breaking the bank?
October through early December is a short, dreamy window for lake lovers to sneak up to Tahoe and bask in its glory without battling for the privilege. Before ski season hits full tilt, rooms and rentals are easy to come by, and trails are not yet covered in deep snow. Short hikes near the shore, drinks by the fire and first flakes of snow are all possibilities in late-autumn Tahoe.
To be sure, the weather can be icy, the trees bare, and many restaurants won’t be ramped up for the winter season. But visitors will still get a full dose of Tahoe Blue—and maybe one dusted in white.
If you love the beach but hate the summer beach scene, it’s time to go to Santa Cruz. When Thanksgiving is near, and the Pacific air gets that whiff of chill, the crowds vanish and the prices dip. A room at the waterfront retro-chic Dream Inn lets swimmers choose between the oceanfront heated pool or an invigorating-if-nippy dip in the Pacific, both just steps from the lobby.
While the same low-season opportunities apply to all Bay Area coastal towns, the Santa Cruz area offers a lot more than sunsets and strand. There’s migrating Monarch butterflies, a train through the redwoods, loads of hiking, the Mystery Spot —and of course, the Beach Boardwalk, which even runs its Giant Dipper roller coaster on winter weekends, which involves a lot less waiting in line.
The trouble with Yosemite is that it is too famous: The lack of lodging in the valley means it's tough—and expensive—to book a room at any time of year (unless you want to camp). But stay just outside the national park at Rush Creek or the Evergreen Lodge, and you’ll have a perfect base from which to explore.
Another challenge? Snow. The white stuff can cover the passes leading to Yosemite Valley, which means packing chains for the trip and staying on top of road conditions, even in autumn. It also means that most trails up from the valley floor will be closed.
But hit the right weather, and you won’t miss the Mist Trail. Yosemite dazzles in every season. How about a walk around Mirror Lake dusted in snow? A longer, scenic loop of the valley? A chance to see it all without buses and throngs of tourists? It’s all possible this time of year—and if the roads are clear, you can even keep driving to Sequoia National Park and catch General Sherman in his winter coat. Just heed one word to the wise and avoid holiday breaks, especially from late December to early January, when Yosemite is likely to be as packed as during high summer.
Locals know that when summer’s crowds thin out, San Francisco often enjoys the best weather of the year. From October through Christmas, skies tend to be clear, and temps tend to be mild—if not warm. Even Karl the Fog skedaddles for the most part.
It’s the perfect season to staycate in the Presidio. Splurge on a room at the Lodge or the Inn, and you’ll be set to head out on foot, bike or bus to explore the impressive number of new and classic sights concentrated nearby.
And though there are forts, monuments, marshes, museums, beaches, trails, tide pools, the Golden Gate Bridge and the blockbuster new Tunnel Tops park within walking distance, San Franciscans might be most excited about the new food options in the The Presidio: Staycationers can taste new Mediterranean at Dalida, brunch at Colibri, beers at Presidio Bowl, Equator coffee at Round House Cafe or treats from food trucks on the Parade Lawn.
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