California: When is the best time to visit?

Alamere Falls in fog

When is the best time to visit
California - especially its waterfalls?

The answer depends on where you are in the state. That's because it encompasses all sorts of climate zones such as...

We'll attempt to address the best times to visit based on these climate zones, but the short answer is to come during the spring (March through May) for waterfalls.


Sand Dunes in the California DesertBelieve it or not, most of California is a desert. The desert regions generally persist on the eastern and southern portions of the state. This encompasses the Owens Valley, High Deserts (Palmdale/Lancaster), Mojave, Palm Springs, and Death Valley. However, even the terraformed developed areas like the Greater Los Angeles area as well as San Diego technically is also a desert climate (though you wouldn't know it from all the development).

Paradise Falls in Thousand OaksWhat this all means is that if you want to see waterfalls here, your best bet is to come right in the winter time through mid to late spring (i.e. December through April/May). You might also get thunderstorm-fed flash-flood waterfalls in the scorching heat of the mid to late summer (late July through August) to make the ephemeral dry-falls come alive. But the vast majority of the falls in this region tend to be short-lived so the time range I've given is considerably shorter for such waterfalls. Moreover, even during these months, many waterfalls might not flow at all because they depend on how much winter rain has fallen. There have been several years that I can remember where we had relatively dry winters, but then there has been others where we had heaps of rain and more reliable waterfall sightings.

Perhaps in the past, the weather was a bit more seasonal, but these days (at least in Southern California), it seems like it's summer all year long - at least in the rainfall sense. A consequence of Global Warming and Climate Change, perhaps?

On the flip side, there are some spring-fed waterfalls, and even in a place like Death Valley, there's a year-round waterfall there called Darwin Falls.

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The snowy Monarch Divide of the Sequoia National Forest in the Central SierrasOf all the climate regions of California, it's the mountains that perhaps yields the most reliable waterfall sightings. That's because precipitation tends to fall as snow in the upper elevations. Water is essentially stored as ice in the cold weather of the mountaintops, but begin to melt and feed drainages as the weather warms and the snow and ice thaw. As a result, come during the Spring and Summer months (March through July) to see the falls in this terrain.

A snow-fed cascade in Lundy Canyon in Central CaliforniaThe main mountain ranges are the Sierra Nevada in the far north of the state and the Central and Southern Sierras running along the middle spine of the state from Lake Tahoe region in the north to the high deserts of the Palmdale/Lancaster area. The northern part of the state tends to precipitate more reliably than the south so the seasons tend to hold true. Precipitation is more sporadic in the southern mountain ranges so you could have seasons where some of falls down here may not flow at all if there had been no accumulation of snow during the winter.

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The rugged coastline of Big SurCalifornia has an extensive coastline that runs completely up and down the state from the Oregon border to the north to the Mexican border down south. The ocean tends to be a temperature regulator so it's not unusual to see temperatures that are 30 degrees F cooler than the valley regions just 15 miles further inland. It's this phenomena that tends to make these regions precious high-priced real estate as well as year-round beach hangouts.

In terms of precipitation, your best bet for seeing waterfalls is easily the winter through spring months (December through May). However, there are some that flow year round such as the beautiful McWay Falls, whose stream actually comes from a spring and goes through the La Ventana forest (to limit evaporation of the stream flow). In fact, quite a few of Big Sur's (Central Coast) tend to flow reliably for most of the year.

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A thawing Mineral King Valley in Sequoia National Park, Central CaliforniaThis is correlated with the mountain climate. In smaller, more high elevation valleys, you can expect similar climate to that of the mountains except it gets hotter and snow tends to melt quickly on the valley floor. But in terms of waterfall sightings, there will be snowmelt-fed ones that tumble down the flanking cliffs as they make their way down into the valley. The most famous example of such a valley is Yosemite Valley.

Look at the Mountains climate for more info.

Then, there are also developed, wide valleys such as that of the Greater Los Angeles area as well as the agricultural Central Valley. In both instances, you're not likely to see waterfalls due to the terrain. Moreover, you can expect to see scorching hot temperatures (easily in the 90s and 100s) during the late Spring and Summer months. Air quality also tends to be poor here when it's hot.

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The General Grant Tree in Sequoia National Park, Central CaliforniaFor the most part, this climate zone is most correlated with Mountains. That's because most of the forests that remain in California are on the slopes of the state's mountain ranges. Thus, the best time to see waterfalls closely mirror that of the mountains (late winter through early summer).

Outside of montane alpine forests, there are also coastal forests as well as even rainforests. The coastal forests thrive in the central and northern parts of the state. The central coast forests include the La Ventana Wilderness hugging the mountains pinning Big Sur to the ocean. The forests themselves aren't too full of waterfalls, but you can see them when the terrain drops suddenly to the ocean at the Big Sur Coast, which I've mentioned earlier in the Coasts section.

The rainforests are in the far north. Since Oregon tends to get lots of rain, this is also true in the neighboring parts of California. Plus, they also get dew point moisture from fog or just cold weather (even if it hasn't been explicitly raining). Thus, waterfall sightings can be quite reliable here even into summer.

For a more complete climate story, check out this website.

For a report on the current state of California's rivers and streams, check out this website.

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