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