California is an excellent state for hiking. From camping in Southern California to the Redwood Forest, there are countless miles of hiking trails winding throughout every county in the state. Yosemite National Park alone holds a breathtaking 77-mile section of the famous Pacific Crest Trail. Californian backcountry is diversely varied, from the majestic mountainous coastline in Big Sur to the barren and arid Mojave Desert. Hikes for all levels of experience are on offer in California, each one showing a new part of a state so overflowing with natural attractions.
Several records are held by national parks in California; one such attraction is Yosemite Falls. This jaw-dropping cascade of water is the tallest in North America, and it’s just one of many world-famous natural wonders to see in the sunshine state. Between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and blah, hikers in California are spoilt for choice. To help, we’ve rounded up the best hiking trails in California, some were even featured on the best hiking trails in all of America. (Link when posted)
Visit the tallest trees in the world in the Redwood National Forest, or hike parts of the most famous trails in the world. California is home to the PCT, the John Muir Trail, and an expanse of other hiking trail options, from mild nature trails to strenuous and even dangerous endeavors. For the best hiking experience, whether it’s a short day hike or a multi-day backpacking trek, choose one of these best hiking trails in California.
1. Solstice Canyon Trail, Santa Monica Mountains
A perfect day-trip distance from the city of Los Angeles is the wilderness of the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area. This United States recreation area isn’t only a beautiful natural area- it’s also a site of historical importance for the Chumash Native Americans. This is an excellent 3.2-mile trail loop and an ideal location for history buffs as well as nature lovers.
Most of the trail is a shady canyon hike through the Santa Monica Mountains, but this short walk is packed with fascinating attractions. Highlights of the Solstice Canyon Trail include the oldest stone building still standing in Malibu, a small but picturesque waterfall, and several interesting ruins. Plant life in the Santa Monica Recreation Area is varied and abundant, and multiple exotic flora can be seen from this scenic trail.
This hike is suitable for all levels of experience, and it holds a few optional extra challenges for the more adventurous hiker. When the trail reaches the 30-foot waterfall, an extremely steep trail leads up to the top where there are several picturesque water pools. With wonderful views of the ocean and some interesting ruins to explore, this day hike is one of the best in California.
2. John Muir Trail, Sierra Nevada Mountains
The John Muir Trail is one of the most famous hiking trails in the world, it’s a household name all over. This huge 211-mile trail stretches across all of Yosemite National Park, to Sequoia country, and then concludes at Mount Whitney. This 14,496-foot peak is the highest point in the continental United States, a rewarding climb to cross off your bucket list. The John Muir Trail is widely regarded to be the best way to see Yosemite; by hiking it, Califonia’s most popular national park can be enjoyed the way it was intended.
There are numerous sights to see along this multi-day trek, and hikers who are privileged enough to walk it can take in ancient glaciers and dramatic mountainous landscapes. The trail features seven mountain passes, as well as fast-moving streams to be crossed. This wilderness trail rarely crosses paths with civilization, it’s a true escape from the modern world. For hikers looking for a historic and epic trail, we can recommend this one easily.
This month-long hike is no easy undertaking, as there are plenty of physical and mental challenges to keep you occupied. Many hikers of the John Muir Trail go long periods without any human interaction, in the wilderness it’s just you and your thoughts. Combined with the physical challenges that come with such a hike, this means that the John Muir Trail is for only the most adventurous. With a total elevation gain of 46,700 feet, this strenuous hike is one of the most challenging but also one of the most rewarding in California.
3. Mist Trail, Yosemite Valley
The Mist Trail is a 6.4-mile trail in Yosemite National Park, where you can see two absolutely stunning waterfalls. The Vernal and Nevada Falls are some of the most breathtaking sights in Yosemite Valley, huge waterfalls that create the clouds of mist from which the trail takes its name. As one of the most popular trails in this national park, you can expect to see plenty of other hikers, so this isn’t the most wild or peaceful trail.
This picturesque hike starts as Happy Isles trailhead, where it first takes hikers for a scenic riverside stroll. Then, after a steep ascent, you’ll catch your first glimpse of the cascading Vernal Falls. After this, hikers get a more up-close view of the awe-inspiring cascade of water, before moving on to see the glimmering Emerald Pool. Nevada Falls follows shortly after, with more fantastic views and photo opportunities of course.
This difficult trail involves a lot of climbing, with much of the path being uphill or stairs. Hikers with a good level of physical fitness will reap the rewards though, as, after all that climbing, the views are legendary. We recommend taking your time with this scenic hike, as there’s a lot to see in a relatively small area.
4. Rubicon Trail, Lake Tahoe
The Rubicon Trail is a varied and interesting out-and-back hike, which means hikers will have to double-back at the trail end to make the full round-trip hike because it isn’t a loop trail. Located in the D.L. Bliss State Park, this is about a 16-mile hike and so probably a bit long for a single day-hike. But backpackers and campers will find plenty to fill up two days of hiking along this trail, including trees, wildflowers, and nesting areas for eagles.
The elevation gain isn’t too severe on this trail so it’s pretty easy-going and hikers will be able to take in the surrounding nature since the hiking itself isn’t so exertive. There’s a nearby lake to offer some variety in the views as well. The trail features cliffs overlooking the water, but make sure to come prepared because there are no bathrooms or water available.
This is a year-round trail but it’s best used between April and September. Beginning in mid-October, the park is closed to vehicle traffic so hikers will have to use the parking lot at the nearby visitor’s center and hike about a mile to reach the trail start.
5. Mount Whitney Trail, Lone Pine
Although this is a very difficult trail that should only be attempted by very experienced hikers, it merits a mention because the views on offer are simply stunning. The Mount Whitney trail offers hikers the opportunity to camp and even do some ice climbing. It’s an out-and-back trail and about a 45-mile hike round trip, so be prepared to tackle a small section of the total trail or else be out in the backcountry for more than a day hike. This trail summits Mt. Whitney, which is the highest point in the contiguous United States, so the elevation gain is quite steep and sure to take your breath away if the views on the way to the top don’t do so already.
For really experienced hikers, it is possible to hike this trail in a day provided the journey is started super early, between 2 and 4 A.M. Walking poles or some other form of traction are strongly recommended. Dogs are allowed, but make sure your dog can handle this rigorous hiking trail! Acclimation to the high elevation will make your mountainous hike much more enjoyable, so make sure to take some time getting used to the heights before you start on your way.
There’s ice along the trail from spring into early summer, so make sure to come prepared with appropriate hiking gear. Less experienced hikers can try hiking part of this trail, up to the trail crest where the going gets really tough, and then turn back. But the Mount Whitney Trail is a really tough climb, so don’t try it unless you’re a seasoned expert.
6. Trans-Catalina Trail, Catalina Island
This 40-mile hike offers just about everything you can hope to find out hiking in California. Named for the island it traverses, the most popular way to tackle this trail is to spread out the hike over four days. If you’re up for it, make sure you bring all the camping gear you’ll need for those three nights. Great views of the surrounding ocean and Catalina Island itself are visible all along the hike, and there’s wildlife on view as well. Dogs are allowed on this trail but must be kept on a leash. While this trail is moderately trafficked, most of the trail hikers will find themselves in serene isolation.
It’s best to start from Twin Harbors, which can be reached by ferry from San Pedro. Bear in mind that permits are required for everyone entering the island, so plan enough time in advance of your hike to contact the Catalina Island Conservancy and get the required documents.
The final 8-miles or so of this trail is extremely rewarding and not too challenging, so think of it as a kind of reward for the difficulty of the rest of the trail. The good news is if this trail takes everything out of you, it’s point-to-point so you won’t have to turn back the way you came to return to the trail start. The Trans-Catalina Trail is one of those wonderful hikes whose length and location make it a destination in and of itself.
7. Gold Canyon Trail to Red Cathedral, Death Valley National Park
This out-and-back trail is a favorite among the many available hiking trails in California’s Death Valley National Park. Death Valley is an unforgiving environment, as the name implies. Whatever time of year or time of day, make sure to bring plenty of water because it’s always going to be absolutely scorching. That being said, this is only a 3-mile trail and a moderate hike so capable hikers might find this to be a great way to see Death Valley without committing to a longer hike.
There are beautiful wildflowers and caves along this trail, including slot canyons. The main attraction is Red Cathedral, a beautiful massive red rock formation that shows off a spectrum of red earth colors. The trail starts in a canyon and intersects a second hiking trail, so adventurous hikers may be able to traverse more than one trail if desired. You will have to scramble over some rocks at one point on this trail, and while it isn’t as intense of an effort as rock climbing, make sure to wear proper footwear. This is a great hike for people who want to see Death Valley National Park on a day hike.
8. Bearpaw Meadow to Hamilton Lake Trail, Sequoia National Park
This 36-mile hike in Sequoia National Park offers stunning views around Hamilton Lake, which is surrounded by mountains that are often covered with snow in the spring. The best time to see it is from June to October when the wildflowers will be in bloom and the wildlife out and active.
The trail is well-marked and easy to follow. The first half is mostly downhill and the second half is uphill over hard granite rock, so hikers prone to knee pain will want to bring walking poles or something similar to make sure they can maintain their balance. It’s out and back, so hikers will have to go back the way they came if they want to return to the trail start. However, the lakes along the way offer an opportunity to stop and relax for a while, so a return trek is enjoyable.
The length of this hiking trail means you can complete it as a day hike, but if you plan to return to the trail start you’ll need to plan to camp somewhere overnight. There are many water features along this trail, including a waterfall. The elevation gain is fairly substantial so don’t expect to make it through this moderate hike without breaking a sweat. No dogs are allowed on this trail, but horses are, so keep an eye out for riders while you’re out hiking. The views from this trail are really magnificent and the lake itself is well worth the hike.
9. Redwood Canyon Sugar Bowl Trail, Kings Canyon National Park
This 10-mile loop trail offers great views of giant sequoia trees up close and features a river that makes for a very diverse landscape to take in during the hike. It’s one of three trails that explore the Redwood Mountain Grove, the largest grove of giant sequoias in the world. There’s plenty to see, from birds and wildlife to wildflowers, making this one of the best hikes in California for nature enthusiasts.
Some of the giant sequoias have fallen over, making for natural river-crossing bridges and great angles for light to filter through the treetops. Experiencing this amazing beauty on this lightly-trafficked trail is an unmatchable experience. The sequoias are the star of the show here, and they will surely fill you with awe. If you’re lucky, you may even find some wild strawberries along the trail.
There’s an interesting log cabin marked on the trail markers. No longer used as a living space, hikers are still able to step inside this cabin, which was constructed inside the hollow end of a fallen sequoia. Hikers can also get great views of Big Baldy and Little Baldy, two mountains visible from various vantage points throughout Redwood Canyon.
There are also several interesting sequoia-related landmarks along this trail, including the Fallen Goliath, a massive sequoia that toppled over long ago and is reachable on this trail. No dogs are allowed on this trail. There is no permit required to hike in the national park but there is a small admission fee. It’s well worth it to see the massive sequoias in Redwood Canyon.
10. Lost Palms Oasis, Joshua Tree National Park
The Lost Palms Oasis trail is one of the best hikes through Joshua Tree National Park, a national park established by Congress in 1976 and named after the Joshua Tree, a wonderfully unique tree species that grows in impossibly adverse conditions. Hikers can see joshua trees up close without running into a crowd on this moderately trafficked trail.
Many wildflowers and wild animals can be seen on this trail, like jackrabbits and even the occasional desert tortoise. The whole trail only takes about three hours so hikers will have plenty of time to wander around and take in the wonderful semi-arid landscape.
This trail is best hiked between March and October, but be careful when hiking in the summer. Dried up river beds create a haze in the air and the temperatures can reach very high levels. Make sure to bring plenty of water and pay attention to the trail markers, because this trail can get a little confusing if you don’t know where you’re going. Tons of brilliant landmarks in the semi-desert environment will give hikers a great up-close view of the famous joshua tree.
California has some of the most breathtaking views and diverse hiking trails in the United States. The many national parks all offer vistas and landscapes you simply cannot find anywhere else. Tree species like sequoias and joshua trees are famous around the world and will fill hikers and backpackers with awe at their sheer size or beauty. Lake Tahoe and Sequoia National Park both offer really tranquil water features. Death Valley National Park offers an almost other-worldly view of the opposite climate, where the reds of the earth beneath the crust are plainly visible.
Catalina Island is a hike completely self-contained and worth a dedicated trip just to see the cliffs above the ocean water beneath you. All in all, hiking in California is sure to be a serene and beautiful trek that will leave a lifelong impression on even the most seasoned hikers.
Bonus tip: Check out this cool video of a drive through Sequoia National Park!