California, the most populated state in the nation, has always been known for its fantastic weather, beaches, and scenery. Wonderous and numerous, California hiking trails draw millions each year, and today we’re diving into the best hikes in California.
Spanning the spectrum from easy to strenuous, these hiking trails in California will leave you stunned and itching for more. Furthermore, they range in diversity from the lush green forests of Redwood National Park to the lowest, most desolate points in Death Valley National Park. Overall, these are, in my opinion, the best places to hike in California. (Caveat, I haven’t done everything, and I know there are still amazing ones not on this list.) I hope you enjoy this list of California hiking trails!
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A Guide to The Best Hikes in California
What you need to know about California Hiking Trails
Hydrate like crazy
No matter the season, always be drinking water and staying hydrated. California is a drier state than many are used to, and it’s crucial to not get dehydrated whiling hiking in California.
Weather changes rapidly in the mountains
As the saying goes, ‘Mountains create their own weather.’ And it’s true. You should aim to be off summits by early afternoon in case an afternoon thunderstorm arrives. Additionally, carry safety gear just in case incidents do occur.
Have good hiking gear
Having good to great hiking gear is paramount. I have a lot of hiking gear guides to choose from, but also buying quality gear at REI is my top recommendation. While pricey in some cases, it’s an investment into your future and safety.
The Top Hikes in California
Stout Grove – Redwood National Park
Distance: 1-mile loop
Location: Jedidah Smith State Park
Best Part: While the trail is short and flat, it has excellent symmetry, so photos like the above line up perfectly. Additionally, a few smaller tangent trails are great for extra exploring. The parking lot isn’t big, so you might want to come early, late, or on a weekday. Luckily, most people won’t spend more than 45 minutes here, so the turnover is frequent.
Half Dome – Yosemite National Park
Distance: 17 miles
Location: Yosemite National Park
Best Part: There are few words to describe what it feels like to stand on top of Half Dome with the entirety of Yosemite in a 360-degree circle around you. It’s honestly like being on Cloud 9. Anyone who has done it will say it’s one of the best California hiking trails.
Congress Trail – Sequoia National Park
Distance: 3-mile loop
Location: Sequoia National Park
Best Part: This is honestly one of the best hikes in California. The first 3/4’s of a mile is steepish (add in altitude, and you’ll be breathing hard going up). After that, the rest is primarily flat and stunning. No matter how often you visit Sequoia, you’ll never get over how massive the trees are.
Santa Barbara Hot Springs – Los Padres National Forest
Distance: 3 miles
Location: Santa Barbara, California
Best Part: While the hike is meh at best, the destination is what counts. The Santa Barbara Hot Springs is terrific and one of my favorite California hiking trails. With six or seven pools at different temperatures (the hottest at the top), it continues to be remodeled after being destroyed in a mudslide a few years back. Please follow Leave No Trace and try to keep the place as lovely as you found it. Lastly, parking is minimal. I’d suggest a sunrise or sunset hike to beat the crowds.
Related: Things to do in Santa Barbara
Big Pine Lakes, North Fork – Inyo National Forest
Distance: 10 miles RT to the second lake. 20 miles RT to Palisade Glacier.
Location: John Muir Wilderness
Best Part: This is one of the best places to hike in California. The lakes are mindblowing, and the area is peaceful. I backpacked here for two nights and loved it. A couple of things to note: The first two miles are exposed. I’d recommend not doing this in the middle of the day because it’s brutal (from experience). If you go to the Palisade Glacier, the last half mile is off-trail, so anticipate slower hiking speeds.
Upper Yosemite Falls – Yosemite National Park
Distance: 8 miles
Location: Yosemite National Park
Best Part: One of my favorites and easily one of the best hikes in California. You gain a new appreciation for the tallest waterfall in the US as you hike up next to it. This, too, is exposed, and hiking up in the afternoon is rough. Again, try to do this earlier in the day to save your body. If you want to push yourself, hike to Eagle Peak or El Capitan.
Related: Guide to Wild Camping
Heart Lake – Shasta National Forest
Distance: 3 miles
Location: Castle Crags Wilderness
Best Part: Once I learned of the location of this stunning lake, I had to go. On a PNW road trip, I was able to squeak in a sunset, and as you can tell, it’s picturesque. The trail is moderately challenging, especially if you take it past Heart Lake to the top of the overlook. I just went to the back of the lake for this photo. It’s definitely one of the hiking trails in California you need to put on your bucket list.
Mount Whitney – Sequoia National Park
Distance: 22 miles
Location: John Muir Wilderness/Sequoia National Park
Best Part: The most strenuous hike on the list is easily one of the best hikes in California. Rising over 14,500 to be the tallest point in the lower 48, Mt. Whitney is a technically easy hike but quite rigorous. This means it doesn’t require any mountaineering and is a walk-up hike. However, at 11 miles up, it’s long and soul-crushing. Plus, you must deal with the altitude, making me break every 20 steps near the top. Lastly, you can’t ‘just hike Whitney.’ You have to get a permit – either in the preseason by lottery or find a remaining one available. This is one of the California hiking trails to add to your bucket list!
Potato Harbor – Channel Islands National Park
Distance: 4 miles from lower scorpion campground. Closer to five miles if you go to Cavern Point too.
Location: Channel Islands National Park
Best Part: This is an epic place for the sunset and one of my favorite hiking trails in California. It’s easy to moderate and a must-do if you have a day/overnight on the Channel Islands. If you are camping, I suggest going to Cavern Point Overlook first before heading to Potato Harbor. The walk shouldn’t take more than 90 minutes.
Mesquite Sand Dunes – Death Valley National Park
Distance: Two miles RT to the highest point
Location: Death Valley National Park
Best Part: While it’s less of a “hike” and more of a “walk,” it’s still one of the best hikes in California. Even though you can see the highest point, getting there can be a struggle. Walking on sand uses 50% more energy, meaning you’ll feel it after a while.
If you’re looking for great shots, hiking away from everyone is smart, as it will remove people from your scene and give you undisturbed sand.
Mist Trail – Yosemite National Park
Distance: 7 miles RT (I recommend coming back via the JMT and Clark Point as AllTrails shows here.)
Location: Yosemite National Park
Best Part: The Mist Trail is at its best in spring, with snow melt turning the waterfalls up to the max! This is one of those hiking trails in California where the description doesn’t do it justice. If you go at the right time, you will get soaked. Bring a rain jacket and sturdy shoes, and keep your kiddos close.
Rae Lakes Loop – Kings Canyon National Park
Location: Onion Valley Campground (via 395 on the eastern side) or Roads End (via Kings Canyon National Park on the western side)
Best Part: Saved the best for last. This backpacking trip is phenomenal yet challenging. I write about the entire trip here, but the shorthand is you have to traverse two passes on the Onion Valley side while there’s only one on the ‘normal route.’ I couldn’t recommend Rae Lakes more as one of the best places to hike in California.
Torrey Pines Beach Trail – San Diego
Distance: 2.5 miles
Location: Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Best Park: The beauty of the coastline at Torry Pines is remarkable! There are only a few places with that level of serenity and beauty. It’ll boggle your mind, AND it’s a pretty easy hike that’s good for the entire family. That’s a good double whammy for the best hikes in California!
California Hikes I left off as I haven’t done them:
- Lassen Peak
- Trails in Trinity National Forest
- High Sierra Trail
- John Mur Trail
FAQ: Best hikes in California
What is the hardest hike in California?
In terms of single-day or overnight hikes, it’s Mount Whitney. As you read above, it’s a daunting trail that requires you to really train for. While it is hard, it’s very doable, and you should set your sights on it if you can!
What is California’s famous hiking trail?
This is likely the John Muir Trail that starts in Yosemite and ends at Mt. Whitney. It’s a 220-mile trail that cuts through the Sierra’s and offers hikers some of the most magical views imaginable.
Is hiking in California dangerous to do alone?
Not at all, but it’s important to be safe and bring the proper equipment/gear to make it back. Having a comms device such as the Garmin inReach2 will help in case of emergencies.
What are the best national parks for hiking in California?
They’re all great, but the best would be Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks. These offer some of the best hikes in California, hands down.
Wrapping Up – Best Hikes in California
Now it’s time to hit the trails and find some stunning locations along the way! Thanks for taking the time to read my favorite California hiking trails article!
See you on the trails and in the mountains.
Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.
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