best hikes in california yosemite falls

The ultimate guide to the best hikes in California

California, the most populated state in the nation, has always been known for its fantastic weather, beaches, and scenery. Wonderful and numerous, California hiking trails draw millions each year. After living in California and nearby Arizona, which allowed me to tackle so many of these epic hikes, 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.

the towering sierra nevada mountains in california
Photo Caption: Alec Sills-Trausch/ @AlecOutside

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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The Top Hikes in California

Stout Grove – Redwood National Park

Stout Grove Redwood National Park best hikes in california
Redwoods | California hiking trails

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.

Learn all about hiking attire

Half Dome – Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Valley Hikes Half Dome Glacier Point

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

sequoia national park congress trail hiking trails in California

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

hiking trails in california hot springs

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

best hikes in california big pine lakes north fork

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

best hikes in california yosemite falls

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

heart lake best hikes in California
Shasta National Forest | best hikes in California

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

hiking trails in california mt whitney
Mount Whitney Trail | best places to hike in California

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

best places to hike in california potato harbor hiking trails in California
Potato Harbor | hiking trails in California

Distance: 4 miles from lower scorpion campground. It’s 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

mesquite sand dunes best places to hike in california
Death valley | best places to hike in California

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

mist trail best hikes in california
Yosemite falls | hiking trails in California

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

Rae Lakes photography best hikes in california

Distance: 25 mile RT from Onion Valley. 40 miles from Roads End

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

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 while 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.

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 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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Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside