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Jonathan Stull | 10.24.2016

The landscape of Southern California is as diverse as Los Angeles: Surfs and slopes are separated by a morning commute, and national parks and preserves dot the backcountry. Over the past few years, dry conditions have persisted in a thirsty land, and while we have our fingers crossed for a hasty end to the drought, we can’t help but appreciate the blue skies and sunshine for what they aren’t: seven months of rain or snow. The winter in Southern California is a better time than ever to get outside.

1. Winter on Wings

One of two winter migrations that cross Southern California borders begins in December. Thousands of monarch butterflies take flight in the winter months as they travel through Southern California on their way to winter grounds in Mexico. Such delicate flyers have to land sometime, and land they do, en masse and in groves and state beaches, some with docents and walking trails. How convenient!

2. Winter on Water

The second of winter migrations, gray whales chart their own course along the Southern California coast to mate and give birth. Watching them is best on a whale watching tour, but you can see them from the shore, too. Bring binoculars!

3. The Stars Come Out

Winter is awards season in Southern California, and you can expect to see some of the biggest names in the sky: Canopus, Rigel Kentaurus, Arcturus—Siriusly. Los Angeles isn’t exactly an International Dark Sky park, but guess what? Joshua Tree applied for it. And if you want something closer to the city, cross the San Gabriel Mountains to Devil’s Punch Bowl Natural Area, which hosts moonlit hikes and telescope programs. The nearby campgrounds are great for night sky surveys.

Joshua Tree:

Near Devil's Punchbowl:

4. Tether to Heaven

Speaking of Joshua Tree, winter temperatures there hover in the 60s like a bob hairstyle. The nights are frigid, but that’s manageable when there are rocks nearby. Joshua Tree is one of, if not the, best place in Southern California to climb them, and climb them you should.

5. Fall Out of a Boat

You couldn’t find southwest swells on a winter SoCal day, so here’s our pitch: instead, catch the waves coming from the northwest. Winter brings the largest and most consistent surf of the year, and the beaches they break on will be free from summer hordes.

South Bay of L.A.

San Diego

6. An Island Escape

The Channel Islands are a layover for the migrating Pacific gray whales, and the islands offer an experience all their own. Unique animal species can be found here along with camping that is entirely off the beaten path. Winter can bring fog and rain to the islands—but this is a journey for the hardy, anyway!

7. Sanity in Death Valley

While temperatures in the lowest and hottest place in North America soar during the summer, they certainly mellow in the winter. Winter brings the occasional rain to Death Valley, and with it the possibility of a spectacular wildflower bloom. And while Joshua Tree is still waiting on its dark-sky status, Death Valley already has it, and it’s one of the clearest places in the West to see the Milky Way span across the night sky.

8. Serenity in the Sierra

Parts of Kings Canyon and Giant Sequoia national parks close for the winter, but that just opens up more trails for cross-country skiing. The arboreal giants that inspire awe over the summer are sure to be even more breathtaking in the winter snow.

9. The Smoke Clears

One of the best times to hike in Southern California is right after a winter rain. The rain clears out the haze, replenishes streams, and coaxes the fragrant aromas of the plant life. Hike one of the classic SoCal trails, or wind through canyons to a waterfall.

10. Beaches in a Bind

No matter where you turn in SoCal, there’s a beautiful beach. The crowds that cluster along the Pacific coast dissipate in the winter, so it’s a great time to take advantage of the sandy shores for your own enjoyment.

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