13 Incredible Hiking Trails in California
One of the best things about living in (or visiting) California is just how many spectacular hikes you can discover, all without venturing too far from a city.
Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.
You might not be planning an international vacation this summer due to continued lockdowns and border closures. You may even be nervous about flying domestically or taking a leisurely road trip. But after months of sheltering in place and working from home, chances are, cabin fever has set in and you are dreaming about wide open spaces and long walks through nature. A healthy hike might just be the best way to keep your spirits from flagging before the fall weather sets in. We’re not suggesting you pull a Cheryl Strayed and spend weeks trekking along the Pacific Coast Trail. Rather, here are some delightful day trips you can take if you live in or are visiting California. Each hike will allow you to experience some of the Golden State’s most stunning scenery. But before planning a visit, be sure to check each park’s website for local conditions and possible closures.
Best Hikes in Northern California
With rugged coastlines and towering redwood forests, Northern California is a nature lover’s paradise. Here are a few places to experience it in all its natural splendor.
Lands End, San Francisco
One of the state’s best-known hikes is actually within the city limits of San Francisco, offering postcard-perfect views of the Golden Gate Bridge — that is, when the fog hasn’t rolled in. The nearly three-and-a-half-mile loop gently meanders along clifftops through shady cypress stands and breezy grasslands. You can stop to see the historic Sutro Bath ruins and, depending on whether it’s open when you stop by, learn about the area’s native wildlife and plants at the Lands End Lookout Visitor Center. The one downside is you might encounter a lot of other hikers who have the same idea. But with 80,000 acres to explore, chances are, you can find a quiet corner or two.
Cataract Falls Trail, Mount Tamalpais State Park
Just an hour’s drive from San Francisco, in the wilds of Marin County, the Cataract Falls trailhead in Mount Tamalpais State Park is easy to find along Bolinas-Fairfax Road after you pass Alpine Lake. Hikers follow the rushing waters of Cataract Creek through a primordial forest of redwoods, live oaks, and Douglas firs, and past numerous small waterfalls along the out-and-back trail. Spring is the best time for wildflowers and to see the chutes at their full flow, but summer is great for finding relief from the heat under the trees. Meanwhile, the foliage in fall (look out for the bigleaf maple trees) is magnificent. The trail is not too long, but there are some steep climbs, so pack a good pair of hiking boots.
Rubicon Trail, Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe certainly isn’t short on breathtaking vistas, and some of the best can be found along this 13-mile hike, which traces the southwest shore from the aptly named Emerald Bay to D.L. Bliss State Park. Along the journey, hikers can skirt cliffs, dip into coves, cool down at waterfalls, and admire the profusion of wildflowers, all scented by Sierra juniper, cedar, ponderosa pine, and fir trees. One of the most interesting stops is Vikingsholm, an imposing Scandinavian-style summer home designed by Swedish architect Lennart Palme in the 1920s.
Pomo Canyon Trail, Sonoma
Flanked by the Russian River on one side and the Pacific on the other, Pomo Canyon extends from the heart of lush Sonoma Coast State Park down to the sands of Shell Beach. The six-and-a-half-mile trail is fairly strenuous and can get busy, but plentiful outlooks over the town of Jenner and the shore provide restful respites from fellow hikers along with views that unfold for miles up and down the coast. The stretch along Willow Creek is lined with giant ferns and soaring redwoods for a real NorCal feel. The round-trip adventure should take you just under four hours, depending on how well you handle hills.
Yosemite Falls Trail, Yosemite National Park
Immortalized by Ansel Adams’ photos, Yosemite Falls is one of the most iconic landmarks in Yosemite National Park. Rising 2,425 feet above the valley floor, it’s the tallest waterfall in North America. The park is bound to be busy this summer with city folk hankering for wide open spaces, but you should still be able to find a time to hike the trail (one of Yosemite’s oldest) to see this awe-inspiring sight for yourself. Your two options include the two-mile round-trip hike with a 1,000-foot elevation gain to Columbia Rock for the classic view of the falls and Half Dome, or the full 7.2-mile round-trip hike with a 2,700 feet of elevation gain to the top of the falls for unmatched vistas of the entire Yosemite Valley and its dramatic topography.
Boy Scout Tree Trail, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
So named because a troop leader supposedly discovered this 2,000-year-old double-trunked redwood in the 1930s, the Boy Scout Tree Trail is Northern California at its finest. Located in the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park along the coast (you can often hear foghorns from Crescent City) and near the border with Oregon, the five-mile in-and-out trail weaves through ancient redwood groves and lush, temperate rain forest terrain carpeted with lichens and ferns to a small, but beautiful, waterfall. The park is home to nearly a tenth of the old-growth redwoods that remain in the world today, so you won’t see something like it anywhere else.
Gray Butte Trail, Mount Shasta
The high point of this challenging jaunt is a staggering 8,100 feet, but if you start your three-and-a-half-mile hike from the Panther Meadows Campground, your ascent will only be 750 feet in elevation total. The path climbs past copses of mountain hemlocks and red firs, and through alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers in the spring and summer. The end point is the peak of Gray Butte with views of the Cascades and, of course, Mount Shasta itself.
Best Hikes in Southern California
You might come to Southern California for the fun of Disneyland, the sandy beaches, and the laid-back lifestyle, but the region also fields fantastic hikes for true adventurers.
Overlook Trail to McWay Falls, Big Sur
You don’t have to trudge too far to find one of the most spectacular sights in Big Sur. Simply head to one of the campsites in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (which was named after a respected pioneer woman), and take the half-mile trail to a lookout point with views of the McWay Waterfall. The 80-foot cascade tumbles from a sheer-faced granite cliff straight onto the beach of a sheltered cove. Just don’t try hiking down to the beach, as it’s very dangerous. The trail is currently closed due to severe storms in 2019, but stay tuned for opening updates, and if you are in the area, you can still see the falls from a pullout on Highway 1 near mile marker 36.2.
Lost Palms Oasis Trail, Joshua Tree National Park
Though this trail is a lengthy 7.2 miles round-trip and has a 1,000-foot elevation gain, the gentle terrain (with the exception of some massive boulders) make it a moderate mission through pool-dotted canyons bordered by cacti and native California fan palms. You might encounter some bighorn sheep grazing along the way, and can see all the way down to the Salton Sea on particularly clear days. Bring plenty of water and a picnic to enjoy at the Cottonwood Campground at the trail’s terminus, and start early to avoid the worst of the desert heat.
Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve
As you might have already spotted on Instagram, every spring, the fields of Antelope Valley outside L.A. come alight with saffron-hued poppy blossoms as far as the eye can see. In general, the best time to visit for a glimpse of this natural wonder as well as a myriad of other wildflowers (and even coyotes and mountain lions) is from mid-February through May. The reserve has over eight miles of trails, including a paved section for wheelchair access. The hike most folks opt for is around three miles long and takes 90 minutes with a 230-foot elevation gain, making it perfect for avid outdoor enthusiasts and weekend warriors alike.
Mount Baldy, San Gabriel Mountains
If you’re up for a challenge, this Los Angeles day hike is one of the best in the state. Rated as difficult, with a total ascent of nearly 4,000 feet (to a total elevation of 10,064 feet), the 11-mile trek takes around eight hours, but is dog-friendly and requires no permits or fees. If you’re not already huffing and puffing due to the strain and altitude, the views stretching from the Mojave to the Pacific will surely take your breath away.
Murray Canyon Trail, Palm Springs
Those staying in Palm Springs, but looking to escape the soaring temperatures of the Coachella Valley, can opt for this out-and-back trail (you can even go horseback riding here) in the nearby Agua Caliente Indian Reservation. The easy 4.7-mile walk wends through rocky scrubland, past palm clusters and cactus thickets, and over tranquil creeks to a crystal-clear pond. The water is fed by the Seven Sisters Waterfall, which swells from a trickle to a torrent once the snow begins to melt off the San Jacinto Mountains in the spring.
Mount Woodson Trail, San Diego
Just 30 minutes north of downtown San Diego, outside the town of Poway, lies one of SoCal’s most photographed natural formations. Potato Chip Rock is a slim, seven-foot stone cantilever jutting out from a massive boulder near the summit of Mount Woodson. The route from the Lake Poway trailhead is nearly eight miles, taking four hours to complete and climbing 2,000 feet in elevation, though there is a shorter (and steeper) walk along Mount Woodson Road, which is paved for easier access. No matter which way you go, bring water since there is little shade.