When most Americans think of the West Coast of the United States, they think of fun in the sun—tanning on beaches in Santa Monica or Santa Barbara, shopping on Rodeo Drive in Hollywood, visiting the San Diego Zoo, Disneyland, wine country or national parks in shorts and shirtsleeves to soak in the warm weather.
When it comes to winter tourism, Rocky Mountain destinations like Utah and Colorado get all the love. Or, the western-minded American flees the cold weather across the border, chasing the sunshine and beaches to Mexico or Central America, where it is warm year-round.
This is a shame. There is so much to love about the West Coast in the winter. If you have never seen the Pacific seaboard in its winter getup, turn that tide with one or more of these 5 awesome winter activities on the West Coast …
1. Take a Scenic Drive Up the Coast of Oregon
Sometimes lost in the shuffle between San Francisco and Seattle, the state of Oregon boasts 363 miles of Pacific coastline. The winter months turn this wild terrain into high drama—bleak, beautiful terrain that looks ripped from the pages of a science fiction novel.
Famous for its California stretches, the Pacific Coast Highway 101 runs the entire span of Oregon from Brookings to Astoria. Along the way you will discover 79 state parks, windswept landscapes battered by epic ocean waves, and tiny coastal villages brimming with that eccentric personality exclusive to Oregon.
The Oregonian corredor of 101 takes about 30 hours to drive—a good week-long trip punctuated by fascinating opportunities to stop and revel in the natural world. You could:
- Visit chatty sea lions at Shore Acres State Park.
- Watch waves crash against soaring coastal mountains at Ecola State Park.
- Marvel at the mysterious dance of jellyfish at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
- Wolf down a buttery grilled cheese sandwich at the Tillamook Creamery, where the famous cheese is produced.
- Nerd out at Indian Beach, the shooting location that stood in for La Push Beach in the Twilight film franchise.
2. Go Skiing in Big Bear
California isn’t just about beaches and movie stars. The state houses the most diverse terrain of any of the 50 states, including inland mountains. Inland mountains mean skiing.
Roughly two hours by car from downtown Los Angeles, the town of Big Bear, wrapped around the shores of the high-altitude Big Bear Lake, is a gem of California winter sports. Nestled in the San Bernardino Mountains, Big Bear caters to both amateur and expert-level skiers, snowboarders, and other winter athletes with 26 lifts and over 50 runs.
Of particular note to newcomers are the Skillbuilder Parks, where children and adults alike can learn from professionals the basics of each winter sport.
Thanks to meticulous grooming of the snow, Bear Mountain also features the only half-pipe in Southern California, making Big Bear a mecca for skiing enthusiasts throughout the country, to say nothing of the west coast.
Check into one of the many vacation rentals or skiers’ chalets, hit the snowy slopes in the brisk chill of winter, then relax at a ski lodge with hot chocolate, Irish Coffee, and s’mores as the wind blows on the other side of the glass. Eat your heart out, Hollywood Boulevard.
3. Go Winter Surfing in San Diego
San Diego, in the southern corner of California near Mexico, is rightly revered for its spectacular beaches, receiving the most tourist traffic in the sun-kissed summer months.
Here’s the secret San Diegans are hogging—the weather never gets bad here. Winter temperatures range from 55 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit on average, meaning you’re just as likely to enjoy a beach outing in t-shirts and shorts or even bathing suits as you are to bring a jacket.
In the winter months, as tourists abandon the beaches, surfers hold sway in beaches like Torrey Pines, La Jolla Shores, and Carlsbad. The water is colder, so bring a wetsuit or drysuit. Winter currents result in colder water and larger, stronger waves, resulting in the spectacular tubes and breaks surfers live for.
One of the largest cities in the United States, San Diego enjoys substantial tourism infrastructure, from beach hostels to 5-star hotels to quirky BnBs, as well as world-class shopping and dining that you can explore without having to bring a heavy winter coat.
4. Visit Las Vegas
It’s amazing that people consider America’s Playground to be a summer-only destination. The 110+ degree temperatures and blast-furnace desert winds make it unbearable to be outside … which helps the casino resorts as they bend over backward to keep you indoors and spending money.
You can have that same stimulating indoor experience in the winter … but without the huge crowds. Las Vegas is a spectacular “off-season” destination. According to Mike Tan at Online Casino Gems, “You won’t feel lonely in Vegas in the winter, there are still people here. But you also won’t feel like a sardine crammed into casino floors, restaurants, and nightclubs with 100,000 of your sweaty best friends.”
Hotel rooms at the Wynn or Caesars Palace … fine dining reservations at Ambra or Water Grill, and show tickets to see La Reve or Penn & Teller … all are not only available, but deeply discounted to encourage off-season tourism.
Landlocked Nevada is not a “west coast” state, but Sin City, located at the very southern tip of the state, is only four hours by car from Los Angeles.
5. Take a Train Trip Through Alaska
America’s wildest frontier shows its true majesty in the winter. You may have an idea of Alaska as a frozen wasteland … and you would be right. But what a beautiful wasteland.
If you’re getting cold just reading this, what if you could experience the grandeur of an Alaskan winter from the other side of the window in a heated train car?
The Alaskan Railroad chugs the route between Anchorage and Fairbanks all year round.
The lively, quirky city of Anchorage is about six hours by plane from Seattle. From there, you can board the Aurora Winter Train for a 12-hour ride that skimms Denali National Park, blanketed by snow and observed by moose.
This far north in the winter, the sun never rises … which makes this the perfect season to catch an Aurora Borealis, the spectacular Northern Lights. Caused by charged particles ejected by the sun, auroras are said to make crackling and sizzling sounds as they paint the night sky with ghostly colors. What sane person could omit the Northern Lights from their bucket list?
Break up the trip with a visit to Winterlake Lodge, a stop on the historic Iditarod Trail, amid views of mirror-like frozen lakes and mountain peaks tipped by pure white snow.
At your terminus in Fairbanks, make sure to stop by the Aurora Ice Museum and enjoy an appletini served in a glass made from moulded ice. Who said winter couldn’t be fun?
Newcomers to the west coast will be happy to learn that they don’t have to flee the coast to find wintertime excitement. A treasure of the United States, the Pacific Coast has excitement and abundance on offer all year round.