The 8 Best Hikes in Southern California

Stretching from the northern borders of San Luis Obispo and San Bernardino counties all the way to the bottom of San Diego and Imperial counties on the U.S.-Mexico border, Southern California has an almost mystical draw all over the world due in large part to its fair weather and wonderful natural landscapes. With a population of almost 24 million, it is home to the country’s second-most populous city, Los Angeles, as well as Hollywood and San Diego.

The wealth of natural features appealing to hikers in Southern California is unprecedented. Divided into two general regions, one coastal region with a nearly Meditteranean-style climate and the other a desert region with an arid climate and mountain ranges like the Santa Ana, Southern California has some of the best hikes in the world

Hikers flock in droves to SoCal destinations like Malibu, the San Gabriel Mountain Range, Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino National Forest, Palm Springs, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Mt. Wilson and Mt. Baldy, Cucamonga Peak, and the Angeles National Forest. Hiking along the Pacific Coast Highway adds breathtaking aquamarine ocean views to hiking trails that range from incredibly challenging to very simple for hikers of every skill level.

Prompting Tony, Toni, and Tone to sing “It Never Rains (In Southern California),” the weather all across SoCal is notoriously fair so hikers can almost always plan on leaving behind their rain gear, even if waterproof pants, hiking boots, and gaiters might be handy for river crossings and preventing debris from entering.

 

A beach along the ocean in California.

Hiking trails cut through pine tree forests and impressive sandstone formations in La Jolla, an area of San Diego.

 

A hiking trip to Southern California will showcase wildflowers, rock formations, and unique features like the Joshua Tree that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Popular hikes can be found in Malibu along the Pacific Coast Highway and in Los Angeles and the surrounding county, but a real Southern California hiking trail that’s not plastered all over tourist brochures and packed with crowds of trekking enthusiasts is more likely to be found in the Idyllwild-Pine Cove unincorporated communities in the San Jacinto Mountain Range in Riverside, California. There, hikers can find evergreen forests and rock formations along canyon trails that may not require a permit to hike. With enough preparation, the desert region of Southern California can be just as enriching as the coastal hiking trails.

There’s tons about SoCal that turns visitors into lifelong return hikers and sometimes even permanent transplants. Read on to see in more detail what exactly is so appealing in the southern region of the Golden State. You’ll be sure to add one or all of these best hikes in Southern California to your bucket list.

 

1. San Jacinto Peak from the Tramway

This 10.5-mile hiking trail in San Jacinto State Park near Palm Springs, California, is not for hikers who are faint-of-heart. With its 2,644-foot elevation gain, this hiking trail will take your breath away in a literal way and hikers should be aware of the high elevation and the risk of altitude sickness before they set out.

Snowshoes are an absolute necessity in the wintertime when snow covers this hiking trail; microspikes aren’t going to afford enough purchase for hikers on these steep inclines. Wildflowers adorn this trail all the way up. Hikers are likely to enjoy scrambling over rock formations to reach the summit of San Jacinto. Make sure you go early to make sure you can get back down before sunset, especially if you want to make the full round-trip hike in the winter. 

The trailhead for this hiking trail is only accessible via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which costs $25 and can have wait times of up to an hour if there’s a large crowd. It’s well worth the wait and the ticket price to traverse the river and see the mountain views from the top of San Jacinto. Hikers who also enjoy a bit of rock climbing on their hiking trail will love this one. It’s one of the most popular hikes in San Jacinto State Park, and for good reason – it’s also one of the best hikes in the park.

 

Pros:

  • Challenging elevation gain
  • Wildflowers and unique rock formations
  • Beautiful views
  • Rock climbing and rock scrambling

 

Cons:

  • Access via Palm Springs Aerial Tramway only
  • Snowshoes required in snowy conditions

 

2. Mount San Antonio via Baldy Bowl Trail

With an elevation gain of almost 4,000 feet spread over its 8.8-mile length (over 1,000 feet of elevation gain per mile for about 4 miles!), this hiking trail is only for very experienced hikers. It features a waterfall and stupendous views of the tree-covered valleys of the surrounding Angeles National Forest. This is a faster and more difficult route to the top of Baldy than the nearby Devil’s Backbone hiking trail, which can also have a fairly severe wind blowing across it.

There’s a ski hut with an outhouse and a small stream, although hikers should be sure to bring enough water with them so as not to depend on water from the stream. Hikers who are winded by the hike up and have $20 to spare can take the ski lift down and save their knees some serious strain. Trekking poles and 2+ liters of food and water are recommended for this grueling hike. 

 

Pros:

  • Waterfall
  • Great views of Angeles National Forest
  • Faster hiking trail to the summit of Baldy
  • Some water and an outhouse available
  • Ski lift available

 

Cons:

  • Very challenging elevation gain
  • Not for amateurs

 

3. Bridge to Nowhere via East Fork Trail

This is one of the best hikes in the San Gabriel Mountain Range. Along its 9.3-mile length with a 1,276-foot elevation gain, hikers will find the wooded river banks of the San Gabriel River and scrub brush abutting the pinkish granite walls. Make sure to bring waterproof hiking boots because there are more than 6 different river crossings on this hiking trail. That also means there are plenty of swimming holes, so be prepared to cool off with a quick swim during or after a hike here.

The surrounding Sheep Mountain Wilderness is filled with powerful canyons that are filled with green trees in the warmer months. Past storms have unfortunately washed out some sections of this hiking trail, but it’s still quite passable for those hikers who have the ability and the right equipment. Hikers will have to go over boulders, rocks, loose gravel, and dirt that is part sand which can be quite slick. 

Undeniably the largest attraction of this beautiful hiking trail is the Bridge to Nowhere, a 130-foot span bridge that was intended to make a road through the canyon in the 1930s but was washed away by a flood in 1938. The canyon itself is breathtaking and the Bridge to Nowhere is always filled with people bungee jumping.

There’s a company at the top who runs a private business catering to these bungee jumpers and they do have a restroom, but it isn’t going to be free. The best path on this hiking trail that leads to the Bridge to Nowhere is on the right side of the creek, so make sure you cross the creek in time. Follow the red ribbon up to make sure you’re keeping to the right path.

 

Pros:

  • Challenging elevation gain
  • Bridge to Nowhere for bungee jumping
  • 6 river crossings
  • Restroom possibly available at the bridge
  • Various conditions to traverse
  • Swimming holes

 

Cons:

  • Private business at the end
  • Some sections are washed out

 

Aerial view of mountains.

Incredible rock formations dot the landscape in SoCal’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

 

 

4. The Slot

This comparatively short hiking trail through the arid sands of the Anza-Borrego State Park is far off the beaten track and not near any other tourist destinations, making it an ideal hike for hikers who want a personal experience far from the selfie-sticks of other more famous national parks in SoCal. It’s completely unmaintained but it is still passable and the rugged condition of the trail is actually an additional source of challenge and rigor for hikers who want to try something with fewer guidelines than other hiking trails.

The natural feature for which this hiking trail is named is The Slot, a beautiful slot canyon with up to 40-foot walls soaring over the desert floor adorned with natural patterns from flash floods causing erosion over thousands of years. Some of the hiking trail is fairly narrow and difficult to get through, but nothing like cave diving or anything remotely dangerous of that sort. 

There’s a parking lot here which is handy since the location is so remote. Our pro tip is to enter the hiking trail to the left of the parking lot instead of entering to the right. Entering to the left of the parking lot will delay the gratification of seeing The Slot until the end of the hike rather than seeing the main attraction immediately and then walking the long way back to end up at the parking lot.

Entering to the left just makes more sense for an enjoyable day hike. Although it’s only about 2.2 miles in length, there are also a couple of miles of dirt road to access it, so plan on spending a few hours here at least. Adventurous hikers might consider camping out here for some brilliant stargazing in the evening hours. 

 

Pros:

  • Wonderful slot canyon
  • Far from tourist hotspots
  • Brief day hike
  • Possible campsite
  • Parking lot available

 

Cons:

  • No amenities
  • No shade
  • Unmaintained hiking trail

 

5. Malibu Lake Trail

Just 25-miles from downtown Los Angeles, Malibu Creek State Park is home to the Malibu Lake Trail, a 6.5-mile hike with an approximately 400-foot elevation gain that is accessible year-round and features a lake. Malibu Creek State Park is a 10,000-acre area surrounding the 25-mile long Malibu Creek, which is the largest watershed in the Santa Monica Mountain Range.

The Malibu Lake Trail doesn’t provide access to a lake despite its name, but it does give hikers access to wonderful vistas of a landscape that is in many ways a cross between the desert and coastal genomes. This is a fairly easy hike that’s even stroller friendly. Parking is available for a small fee, up to $12 per day. There’s a bridge at the trailhead that lets hikers access a shooting location for the classic TV series “M*A*S*H,” in case all the natural scenery caused you to forget that you were in Southern California, the home of Hollywood. Sometimes that bridge is out but the creek is traversable either way if you’re daring enough.

Tons of wildflowers and wildlife adorn this trail. Dogs are not allowed. Hikers can enjoy the hard volcanic rock that’s exposed along the course of Malibu Creek, a feature unique to this and only a few other creeks and rivers in the area. For hikers who want to keep hiking after this trail is over, there are 30 total miles of hiking trails in Malibu Creek State Park that can be paired with this one to make a full day or even a few days of fulfilling hiking. Swimming and fishing can also be done here. The Malibu Lake Trail is a classic slice of Southern California that no hiker should miss if they are ever in the area. 

 

Pros:

  • Near downtown Los Angeles
  • Open year-round
  • Malibu Creek adjoining
  • Easy terrain
  • Parking lot
  • More hiking trails nearby

 

Cons:

  • No lake access

 

6. Echo Mountain via Sam Merrill Trail

Located in Altadena in the Angeles National Forest, this 5.4-mile trail has 1,417 feet of elevation gain and features wonderful views of the surrounding nature as well as the Los Angeles skyline. A river runs through it and it’s one of the most popular hikes in Angeles National Forest. If you go near enough to sunset, you can occasionally hike this trail without running into too many people and the color of the sky at sunset is really something.

There are almost no flat areas anywhere along this hiking trail, so get ready to climb and keep climbing until you reach the top. There’s a picnic area once you reach the top, which means if it’s not too crowded then you can make this a nice lunchtime hike. Remember to bring plenty of coverage since it can get really hot and you’ll be exposed for most of the hike on this trail. 

Trail runners can probably tackle this trail in about 35 minutes, but it’s a very narrow trail so if it’s crowded you may find yourself having to stop to let other hikers and trail runners pass. In some parts the trail is even a single lane. The loose shale on the ground can be pretty slick when you make the descent so be careful not to take a tumble or roll your ankle. There’s easy free street parking which makes trekking out to this trailhead really easy if you only have a couple of hours and want to get some hiking in. It’s switchbacks all the way up with this hiking trail, which allows for lots of pauses and wide open vistas that you can enjoy as you make your way up and then back down again. 

 

Pros:

  • Free street parking
  • River
  • Switchbacks and beautiful views
  • Moderately difficult

 

Cons:

  • Very little shade
  • Loose shale on the ground
  • Crowded sometimes

 

A green mountain range.

Challenge yourself with tough elevation gains and reap lush green scenery as your reward in the Santa Monica Mountains.

 

7. Mount Wilson Loop via Sturtevant and Winter Creek Trails

At a little over 14 miles in length and offering a whopping 4,291-foot elevation gain, this is a great hiking trail for hikers who want a really challenging workout amongst the wonderful nature in the Chantry Flat Recreation Area in Sierra Madre, California. The hiking trail features a waterfall and the high elevation makes it ideal for camping overnight. Waking up to a sunrise at that height is a rare treat that will fill you with awe.

The summit of Mount Wilson sports an observatory and great views of Los Angeles. On the way there, the trail will take you on a detour to see Sturtevant Falls and then rise up 4,200 feet as you climb to the summit. This is the first in the California 6-Pack of Peaks, which is a series of increasingly tall summits that can help thru-hikers and adventurous climbers train for daring hikes like Mt. Whitney or Half Dome. 

Bring snow spikes as there can sometimes be snow and ice near the summit of Mount Wilson. We recommend going counterclockwise on this loop trail to experience all the features of the hiking trail in a satisfying order. The trail is pretty easy up until the 4th mile, where there is a water fountain to refill your water bottles. There are also plenty of streams where you can get drinking water if you bring some kind of water treatment system with you. 

 

Pros:

  • Waterfall
  • Very challenging
  • Views of Los Angeles
  • Drinking water available

 

Cons:

  • Lots of gnats
  • Sun exposure

 

8. Icehouse Canyon to Cucamonga Peak Trail

This is another really challenging hiking trail, this time clocking in at 11.6 miles and 4,314 feet of elevation over its course. There’s a waterfall on this trail and it’s near Mt. Baldy so there’s lots of sweeping valley views for hikers to take in while they hike. Southern California’s Inland Empire is visible at a distance from this hiking trail. The north-facing slope of Cucamonga Peak holds snow much later in the season than the surrounding area.

In addition to getting an up-close experience of Cucamonga Peak, hikers will be able to see the Saddleback mountains from the summit, which include Santiago and Modjeska Peaks, as well as Mt. San Jacinto, San Gorgonio, and Mt. San Antonio, also known as Mt. Baldy. This is the second in the 6-Pack of Peaks. Continuing beyond this second peak in the 6-pack is only for hikers who are specifically trying to tackle them all. In terms of the best hikes in Southern California, the two of the 6-packs on this list have made it on their own merits. 

Despite being closed briefly at the end of 2019, this trail still attracts many hikers who are really trying to put their skills to the test. Make sure to bring trekking poles and crampons, especially if you plan on dealing with icy or snowy conditions, which is likely on such a high-altitude trail. You can cut it short by only hiking to the Saddleback if you feel the need to do so. 

 

Pros:

  • Waterfall
  • Great views of famous peaks
  • Challenging elevation gain
  • Snow later in the season

 

Cons:

  • Strong wind gusts sometimes
  • Winter gear required

 

A cove in California.

The Pacific Coast Highway connects some of the best hiking trails in Southern California.

 

Final Verdict:

The hiking trails and nature trails in Southern California are great challenges and excellent practices for longer hikes to the highest point of world-famous mountain ranges or just hiking in general. Mount Baldy is definitely one of the most famous hikes in Southern California but it’s far from the only one. Plenty of others are scattered throughout the state parks, national parks, and wilderness areas.

Los Angeles County has its fair share, but there are yet other brilliant hiking trails in other parts of Southern California. Malibu has many hiking trails that offer ocean views and other landmarks such as Sandstone Peak. Hikers looking for a great hike need not look too far in SoCal.

Favorite hikes for SoCal hikers might include a Hollywood connection, like a shooting location for a popular TV series, or they might be full of other outdoor activities like the area around Big Bear Lake. There’s no end to the number of outdoor adventures that are possible in Southern California and hiking there might cause you to wonder why you hike anywhere else, and that’s without accounting for the fact that we’re only looking at half of the Golden State.

We could go on and on about all the unique features in SoCal, but it’ll never be the same as the real thing. So now that you know the best hikes in Southern California, get out there and start your next outdoor adventure. 

 

Bonus tip: Having trouble visualizing SoCal? Check out this video of the Echo Mountain Sam Merrill Trail!

 

Riley Draper

Riley Draper

Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.