Top 10 Best Hiking Trails in California | Northern California | Southern California | Hike Map

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As the morning fog lifts off the majestic Sierra Nevadas, revealing the sun-kissed peaks, I lace up my boots, ready to embark on another adventure. Welcome, fellow trailblazers, to the golden state’s hidden gems – the best hiking trails in California.

Best Hiking Trails in California
Best Hiking Trails in California

Each path has its own story, etched in my memory, waiting to be shared with you. From the rugged coastline of Big Sur to the towering redwoods of Sequoia, I’ve traversed these trails, felt the crunch of leaves underfoot, and breathed in the crisp, mountain air.

This isn’t just a list; it’s a collection of personal experiences, of sunrises witnessed and challenges overcome.

Let me guide you through these paths less traveled, where every turn brings a new surprise, and every ascent, a new perspective.

Let’s discover together why California’s trails are more than just paths in the wilderness – they’re journeys into the heart of nature itself.

So, tighten your hiking boots and fill your water bottles. We’re about to embark on an unforgettable journey through California’s best hiking trails.

And who knows? By the end of this article, you might just find your next adventure.

List of Best Hiking Trails in California

Here are the Best Hiking Trails in California:

Trail NameLocationDifficultyDescription
Half DomeYosemite National ParkChallengingLeads to the top of an iconic granite rock formation with panoramic views of the valley and the High Sierra.
Yosemite Falls TrailYosemite National ParkStrenuousLeads to the top of North America’s tallest waterfall and offers incredible views of the park.
Mist TrailYosemite National ParkPopularBrings you close to two spectacular waterfalls, Vernal and Nevada Falls, and lets you feel the mist on your face.
Potato Chip Rock via Mt. Woodson TrailPowayModerateLeads to a unique rock formation that looks like a potato chip and is perfect for photo ops.
Lost Palms Oasis TrailJoshua Tree National ParkModerateLeads to a hidden palm oasis in the middle of the desert and offers views of the Salton Sea.
McWay Falls TrailBig SurEasyLeads to a viewpoint of a stunning waterfall that drops into the ocean and a turquoise cove.
Mount Tamalpais East Peak Loop TrailMount Tamalpais State ParkModerateCircles around the highest peak in Marin County and offers sweeping views of the bay, the city, and the ocean.
Mount Baldy Loop TrailAngeles National ForestHardTakes you to the summit of Mount San Antonio, the highest peak in Los Angeles County and one of the most prominent peaks in Southern California.
Fern Canyon Loop TrailPrairie Creek Redwoods State ParkEasyTakes you through a lush canyon lined with ferns and mosses and featured in Jurassic Park 2.
Bumpass Hell TrailLassen Volcanic National ParkEasyLeads to a geothermal area with boiling mud pots, steaming fumaroles, and colorful pools.
Best Hiking Trails in California

Half Dome – Conquering The Majestic Granite Giant

The Half Dome hike in Yosemite National Park is an odyssey, an adventure not meant for the faint-hearted but rewards you with an unparalleled vista of the High Sierra.

Half Dome Hiking Trail
Half Dome Hiking Trail – Best Hiking Trails in California

As I traversed this formidable trail, I felt an adrenaline-fueled awe. The scale of the massive granite monolith, and the sweep of the landscape below, all humbled me, making me realize how small we are amidst the grandeur of nature.

Consider reading: Best Hikes in Yosemite National Park

Key details of Half Dome Hike Trail:

Elevation of Half Dome above Yosemite ValleyNearly 5,000 feet
Elevation of Half Dome above sea level8,800 feet
Number of people reaching the summit of Half Dome annuallyThousands
Permit requirement for hiking Half Dome when cables are upYes
Availability of permits for day hikers by lotteryMarch
Availability of permits for day hikers two days in advanceLimited number
Length of the hike to Half Dome (round-trip)14 to 16 miles
Recommended fitness level for the hike to Half DomeNot recommended for those who are out of shape or unprepared
Notable views during the hikeVernal and Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, Half Dome, and panoramic views of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra
Well-broken-in boots with good ankle support, gloves with good grip, and plenty of waterAllows climbing the last 400 feet to the summit without rock climbing equipment
Recommended items to bring for the hikeDistance from the trailhead parking lot to Happy Isles
Temperature difference at the summit of Half Dome compared to Yosemite ValleyTypically 15°F (8°C) to 20°F (11°C) cooler
Wildlife encountered along the trailBlack bears, squirrels, Steller’s jays, and chipmunks
Guidelines for hikers regarding wildlifeKeep food within arm’s reach and never feed the animals
Starting point of the hikeHappy Isles (shuttle stop #16)
Distance from trailhead parking lot to Happy IslesAbout a half-mile
Distance from Curry Village to Happy IslesAbout 3/4 of a mile
Key details about Half Dome Hike

Tip: Grab your hiking poles, strap on your most comfortable hiking boots, and don’t forget a good pair of gloves for the cable section.

Yosemite Falls Trail – Dancing With The Falls

You haven’t truly experienced Yosemite National Park until you’ve hiked the Yosemite Falls Trail.

Yosemite Falls Trail
Yosemite Falls Trail – Best Hiking Trails in California

Ascending to the summit of North America’s tallest waterfall is a journey full of wonder.

The echoing roar of the falls is a constant companion, and the climax, the view from the top, is like a painter’s dream captured in real life.

Key details of Yosemite Falls Trail:

Key DetailsYosemite Falls Trail
LocationYosemite National Park
DescriptionHistoric trail leading to the top of North America’s tallest waterfall, Yosemite Falls
Elevation of Yosemite Falls2,425 feet above the Valley floor
Trail StartNear Camp 4
Trail Sections1. Columbia Rock: 2-mile round trip, 1,000 ft elevation gain, moderate difficulty, 2-3 hours
2. Top of Yosemite Falls: 7.2-mile round trip, 2,700 ft elevation gain, strenuous, 6-8 hours
ViewsSpectacular views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock
Seasonal ConditionsSpring: Peak waterfall; Summer: Hot and dry conditions; August: Low water levels; Winter: Snow-free lower trail
Safety TipsStart early; Stay hydrated; Stay on the trail; Watch out for steep drop-offs and ledges
AmenitiesNo drinking water along the trail; the Nearest restrooms in Camp 4; Trailhead is served by Valleywide Shuttle
Prohibited ItemsPets, bicycles, strollers
Key details of Yosemite Falls Trail

Tip: Start early to avoid the heat, and make sure you’re carrying plenty of water and some snacks. The way up is tough but worth every step.

Mist Trail – In The Veil Of Nature’s Shower

The popular Mist Trail provides an unforgettable, and yes, misty experience.

Mist Trail
Mist Trail – Best Hiking Trails in California

As I embarked on this adventure, I couldn’t help but revel in the beauty of Vernal and Nevada Falls up close.

With the exhilarating feel of the misty breeze on my face, the hike seemed more like a peaceful communion with nature rather than a mere walk.

Key details about Mist Trail:

Trail NameThe Mist Trail
LocationYosemite Valley
Hike Length to Vernal Fall3 miles (4.8 km) round trip
Hike Length to Nevada Fall7 miles (11 km) round trip
Additional Length from Curry Village1.5 miles (2.4 km)
Trailhead Elevation4,000 feet (1,200 meters)
Elevation Gain to Vernal Fall1,000 feet (300 meters)
Elevation Gain to Nevada Fall1,900 feet (580 meters)
Recommended Time to VisitPeak runoff (typically April to June)
Recommended Time of DayStart early morning or late afternoon
Duration2 to 5 hours, depending on the distance covered
Scenic ViewsVernal Fall, Nevada Fall, Liberty Cap, the back of Half Dome from the Muir Trail return segment
Difficulty LevelMedium (can be strenuous if hiking to the top of Nevada Fall)
Parking AvailabilityEastern half of Yosemite Valley with a free shuttle bus to the trailhead near Happy Isles
Nearest FacilitiesBathrooms and snacks available at Curry Village (3/4 mile west of the trailhead)
Trail ConditionsTrail can be wet and stone steps can be slippery, exercise caution near the river
Safety CautionMore fatalities occur on the Mist Trail than in almost any other area in Yosemite due to strong currents in the river. Exercise caution near the river.
Key details about Mist Trail

Tip: A rain jacket or a poncho is a must for this trail as things can get pretty damp. Also, watch your footing on the slippery rocks.

Potato Chip Rock via Mt. Woodson Trail – A Slice Of Unique Formation

Trekking to Potato Chip Rock in Poway is a fascinating journey. The thin, curvilinear rock formation resembling a potato chip is not only interesting but also instigates a sense of thrill.

Potato Chip Rock Trail
Potato Chip Rock Trail – Best Hiking Trails in California

While standing on the edge of the ‘chip’, with the expansive vista around me, I couldn’t help but capture this surreal moment with my camera.

Key details about Potato Chip Rock via Mt. Woodson Trail:

Key DetailsInformation
TrailPotato Chip Rock hike
LocationSan Diego County
DifficultyChallenging due to uphill climb
AmenitiesBathrooms, picnic tables, ample parking
Non-resident feeApplies on weekends and holidays
SafetyAct responsibly; risky behavior can lead to injuries
Water RequirementRecommended 1L (author suggests 3L)
Photo TipsHike with another person for better photos; selfies don’t work well
ViewsBeautiful views of Lake Poway and surrounding mountains
Popular RouteStarts at Lake Poway park
Ending PointSummit of Mt Woodson
Return RouteReturn the way you came
Additional ResourcesDetailed directions, maps, and video guides available on Hiking Guy website (by Cris Hazzard)
Potato Chip Rock via Mt. Woodson Trail

Tip: It can get crowded, so an early start is recommended. Also, be careful while taking pictures on the rock. Safety first!

Lost Palms Oasis Trail – A Desert Surprise

Hidden amidst Joshua Tree National Park’s rugged desert, the Lost Palms Oasis trail led me to a secluded palm grove, a contrast as refreshing as an oasis.

Lost Palms Oasis Trail
Lost Palms Oasis Trail – Best Hiking Trails in California

From the harsh desert to a sudden burst of lush palms, and the panoramic view of the Salton Sea, it was like living in a paradox.

Key details about Lost Palms Oasis Trail:

Trail NameLost Palms Oasis Trail
LocationJoshua Tree National Park
Length7.5 miles
Elevation Gain500 feet
Starting PointCottonwood Spring
Trail TypeOut-and-back
SceneryRolling desert hills, Lost Palms Canyon, Oasis
Final SectionRocky with a strenuous climb to exit
FloraFan palms, variety of desert plants
FaunaDiverse wildlife
Combined TrailMastodon Peak trail
Pet-FriendlyNo (Service animals permitted)
Best Times to HikeDay, dawn, or dusk in winter, spring, or fall
Trail SurfaceMix of dirt, sand, and rock with steep, rocky steps and scrambling required
Lost Palms Oasis Trail

Tip: Don’t forget to carry a hat, sunscreen, and lots of water. It can get hot in the desert.

McWay Falls Trail – Serenity in a Snapshot

One of Big Sur’s gems, the McWay Falls trail is like a postcard brought to life.

McWay Falls Trail
McWay Falls Trail – Best Hiking Trails in California

The short stroll to the viewpoint where a stunning waterfall meets a turquoise cove left me mesmerized. The pristine scene appeared to be straight out of a fantasy novel.

Key details of McWay Falls Trail:

LocationJulia Pfeiffer Burns State Park along Highway 1
Trail Length0.64 mile
Elevation Gain50 feet
Trail TypeFlat and wide
AccessibilitySuitable for beginners
Alternative RoutesPath leading to the area above the falls
ViewsSouthern and northern coastal views, panoramic views
WaterfallMcWay Waterfall
– Height: 80 feet
– Flows directly into the ocean
RuinsOld “Waterfall House” ruins
Name OriginsMcWay Falls named after Christopher McWay
Creek named after Julia Pfeiffer Burns
Park AccessOff Highway 1, 37 miles south of Carmel
12 miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
ParkingParking fee within the park
Free parking available outside along the west side of Hwy 1
CrowdsCan get crowded, especially during weekends and holidays
RecommendationsWear sturdy shoes
Stay away from the edge due to steep cliffs
Take time to enjoy the scenery
Conservation EffortsRemoval of invasive non-native plants
Time to CompleteUnder 30 minutes
Park Ranger ActivityWorking to remove invasive non-native plants
Key details of McWay Falls Trail

Please note that the table includes two sections for the “Waterfall” and “Name Origins” to provide separate details within those categories.

Tip: Bring your camera along, and make sure to arrive early or late to avoid the crowds. This place is a must-visit during sunset.

Mount Tamalpais East Peak Loop Trail – Where Land Meets Sky

As I tread around the highest peak of Mount Tamalpais State Park, the view left me spellbound.

Mount Tamalpais East Peak Loop Trail
Mount Tamalpais East Peak Loop Trail – Best Hiking Trails in California

The panoramic view of the bay, the city, and the vast ocean beyond was like watching a live aerial shot. This hike was truly a poetic experience.

Key details of Mount Tamalpais East Peak Loop Trail:

Trail NameMount Tamalpais East Peak Hike
LocationMarin County
Trail TypeLoop trail
Difficulty LevelEasy, suitable for beginners and kids
Altitude2,571 feet
ViewsMt. Diablo (East), Mt. Saint Helena (North), the Pacific (West), and San Francisco (South)
FacilitiesRestrooms, picnic tables, a gift shop, a museum, garbage cans, and drinking fountains
Dog PolicyDogs are permitted on a leash
NavigationEnter “Mt. Tamalpais Gravity Barn” into GPS, follow the route via Stinson Beach exit from Hwy 101, Hwy 1 west, Panoramic Highway, Pantoll Road, Ridgecrest Blvd
Trail Open Hours7 am to sunset
Parking Fee$8.00 (cash only)
Length of the Loop0.7 miles
AccessibilityWheelchair accessible
Special FeaturesMany benches and viewpoints along the path, plaques describing historical railway
Additional WarningsRattlesnakes and poison oak present, poor cell service
Extended Hiking OptionsOther trails available for an all-day hike
Key details of Mount Tamalpais East Peak Loop Trail

Tip: Pack a picnic and enjoy it with a view of the summit. And, of course, a good camera is essential to capture the stunning panoramas.

Mount Baldy Loop Trail – Conquering the Summit

The Mount Baldy Loop Trail in Angeles National Forest is an adventure that elevates you literally and metaphorically.

Mount Baldy Loop Trail
Mount Baldy Loop Trail – Best Hiking Trails in California

As I stood atop Mount San Antonio, the highest peak in Los Angeles County, the feeling of accomplishment was as thrilling as the panoramic vista.

The tough climb made the victory all the sweeter.

Key details of Mount Baldy Loop Trail:

Key Details
Mountain NameMt Baldy (Mt San Antonio)
LocationLos Angeles
Elevation10,064 feet
Hike Length11 miles
Total ClimbingAlmost 4000 feet
Guide Contents– When to hike
– Where to park
– Insider tips
– Trail maps
– Printable directions
– Checking for snow and bad weather conditions
– Training for the hike
– What to bring
ViewsFrom the Pacific to the Mojave on a clear day
Importance of Preparation and CautionPeople can die on Mt Baldy if not prepared
Trail LocationNew San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, Angeles National Forest
Key details of Mount Baldy Loop Trail

Tip: Be prepared for some tough sections. Remember to pace yourself and keep hydrated.

Fern Canyon Loop Trail – Into The Jurassic

The Fern Canyon Loop Trail in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is like stepping into a prehistoric world.

Fern Canyon Loop Trail
Fern Canyon Loop Trail – Best Hiking Trails in California

Meandering through the lush fern-lined canyon was a humbling experience. I found it hard to resist touching the age-old ferns and mosses that covered the canyon walls.

Parking Reservation RequirementYes (from May 15th – Sept 15th)
Parking Reservation ApplicationFree online application
Hiking Permit RequirementNot required for the 11-mile round trip
Trail Options1-mile loop or 11-mile round trip
Elevation Gain150 feet
Access to Fern Canyon via Prairie CreekYes, without any permit
Log Jams in Winter FloodsMay require climbing through log jams
Wooden FootbridgesInstalled from June to September
Recommended FootwearWaterproof with good traction
Suitable Vehicle TypeNot suitable for large recreational vehicles
Entrance FeeThe trail is not ADA accessible
Roosevelt ElkFrequently seen, maintain distance
Current Conditions CheckingRecommended before visiting
Restroom FacilitiesVault toilets available in the parking area
AccessibilityTrail is not ADA accessible
Pet PolicyPets are not allowed
Hiking Duration45-90 minutes
Key details about Fern Canyon Loop Trail

Tip: Bring waterproof shoes. There are small stream crossings along the trail. Also, keep your eyes peeled for elk in the park.

Bumpass Hell Trail – Nature’s Thermal Wonderland

Treading the Bumpass Hell Trail in Lassen Volcanic National Park was like walking on a different planet.

Bumpass Hell Trail
Bumpass Hell Trail – Best Hiking Trails in California

With its steaming fumaroles, boiling mud pots, and colorful pools, it’s an extraordinary demonstration of the Earth’s geothermal power.

The eerie yet captivating setting felt like exploring a sci-fi movie set.

Key details of Bumpass Hell Trail:

Trail NameBumpass Hell Trail
LocationLassen Volcanic National Park
Trail AvailabilityJune to October
Closure PeriodWinter and Spring due to snow
Round-Trip Distance3 miles
Time to CompleteApproximately 2 hours
Main AttractionLargest hydrothermal area in the park
Starting PointBumpass Hell parking area, 7 miles from the Southwest Entrance
Elevation8,200 – 8,400 feet
Trail SurfacePacked gravel
Width48″ to the basin overlook, narrower on trails into the basin
RisksLimited shade, winter conditions, unstable and dangerous ground in hydrothermal areas
Recommended GearHat, water, proper footwear, trekking poles
Closure InformationSubject to closure due to snowpack, opening dates vary each year
AlternativesSulphur Works hydrothermal area, Warner Valley Area, Cold Boiling Lake Trail
Pet PolicyPets are not allowed on the trail
ParkingParking often full mid-morning to early afternoon, especially on weekends
Key details of Bumpass Hell Trail

Tip: Stay on the designated paths. The geothermal area can be dangerous. And don’t forget to bring a hat and sunscreen – there’s little shade on this trail.

Final Thoughts on Best Hiking Trails in California

And there you have it, fellow trailblazers – my handpicked list of California’s most unforgettable hikes.

Whether you’ve been captivated by the majesty of the Redwood Empire, enticed by the wild allure of Yosemite, or mesmerized by the sun-kissed serenity of Joshua Tree, I hope my adventures and insights inspire you to lace up your hiking boots and discover these natural wonders for yourself.

Each of these trails has left an indelible imprint on my heart, as if to echo John Muir’s sentiment, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”

Now it’s your turn. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or just finding your stride, there’s a trail out there in the Golden State calling your name, offering more than just the exercise – it’s about the breathtaking views, the wildlife encounters, the whispering wind through the trees, and the memories you’ll cherish forever.

So, don’t just sit there scrolling. The best hiking trails in California are out there waiting for you to leave your footprints. Remember, every great journey starts with a single step.

Plan your hike, pack your gear, and let the boundless beauty of California’s trails become a part of your story. Who knows? Your next great adventure might just be a hike away.

Can’t decide which trail to start with? Well, that’s the beauty of it – there’s no wrong choice.

Whichever path you choose, I can assure you, it’ll lead to stunning vistas, life-affirming challenges, and an intimate connection with the very heartbeat of nature.

And don’t forget to drop a line in the comment section to share your experiences. After all, every hiker’s story adds a unique chapter to the grand book of California’s trails. See you on the trails, folks!

FAQs on Best Hiking Trails in California

What is California’s famous hiking trail?

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is California’s renowned hiking trail, stretching through the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. As a national scenic trail, it offers long-distance hiking and equestrian opportunities, spanning from the U.S. Pacific coast. Enjoy the stunning scenery and challenging adventure along this iconic trail.

What are some of the best hiking trails in California?

California is blessed with a diverse range of landscapes, making it a hiker’s paradise. Some notable trails include the Pacific Crest Trail, John Muir Trail, Mount Whitney Trail, and the Lost Coast Trail. These trails offer everything from mountainous terrains to coastal views, and from short, easy hikes to multi-day adventures.

What is the biggest hiking trail in California?

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is California’s largest hiking trail, stretching for more than 2,650 miles. Renowned for its breathtaking scenery, the PCT offers hikers a remarkable experience that goes beyond just elevation.

What month is best for hiking in California?

The best month for hiking in California is September to November. During these months, the weather remains warm and sunny, with the sun setting around 6:00 pm in October. This time also offers fewer tourists, resulting in less crowded trails. Enjoy the beauty of California’s trails during the fall season for an optimal hiking experience.

Are there hiking trails suitable for beginners?

Absolutely! There are plenty of beginner-friendly trails in California. An example is the Land’s End Trail in San Francisco which offers stunning coastal views or the Joshua Tree’s Hidden Valley Nature Trail, which offers a gentle, scenic loop.

Do I need permits for hiking in California?

Permit requirements vary based on the trail. For some trails, like the Mount Whitney Trail, permits are required due to the high volume of hikers. Other trails, like those in local parks, typically do not require permits. It’s best to check with local park services or the trail’s website before setting off.

What should I pack for a hiking trip in California?

Your packing list will depend on the trail you choose, the season, and the length of your hike. However, general essentials include a good pair of hiking boots, a map and compass, water, snacks, sun protection, and a basic first aid kit. For longer hikes, consider a backpacking stove, tent, and sleeping bag.

What is the best time of year to go hiking in California?

California’s diverse climates mean that there’s good hiking to be found year-round. Coastal hikes are great any time of year, while mountain hikes are best tackled in summer and fall to avoid snow. In spring, you can enjoy blooming wildflowers in the desert regions.

Are dogs allowed on hiking trails in California?

While many trails in California are dog-friendly, not all allow pets. It’s important to check specific rules for each trail. When dogs are permitted, they are often required to be on a leash. Some popular dog-friendly trails include Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles and the Point Isabel Regional Shoreline in Richmond.

Is there any danger from wildlife while hiking in California?

California is home to various wildlife, including bears and mountain lions. While encounters are rare, it’s important to take precautions such as carrying bear spray in bear country and not leaving food out overnight. Always check local wildlife advisories before setting off on your hike.

Are there accessible trails for individuals with disabilities?

Yes, California offers numerous accessible trails. These include the El Dorado Nature Center Trails in Long Beach and the Guy Fleming Trail in San Diego, which are designed to accommodate wheelchairs. Always check ahead for specific trail information and accessibility.

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