Dreamy pink boulders, cloudy mountains, and Avatar blue waterfalls cover California’s landscape, all of which make it hard to pick the best hikes in California. However, we’re sure going to try.
Although California is known more for its movie sets than it is for its national parks, the true beauty of the state sits in its natural wonders. Grab your pen and paper and let’s get into the 15 best hikes in California.
Places to Hike in California
- Note: Some activities and trails may be affected by COVID-19. Check for closures and restrictions before planning your trip to any national park. Please Check with the NPS website for current conditions. Additional details are available at www.nps.gov/coronavirus.
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John Muir Trail
If you want to go trail hopping, you can via the John Muir Trail. You can start from Yosemite National Park trailhead, through Sequoia National Park, and King’s Canyon National Park. Along your trail climbs you’re going to be going through Ansel Adams Wilderness as well as John Muir Wilderness.
It is a 211-mile trail so you can do a part of it or take some vacation time to do a full trek through all of it. If you do go through all of it, you’ll end at Mount Whitney, which is the tallest mountain in the (continental) US.
Regardless of whether you do a short hike or a long one, you’re going to find glassy lakes, mysterious caverns, and other mountains that rival Mount Whitney’s almost 15,000 feet. This park trail is pretty difficult with an elevation gain of 46,000 feet.
Note: When hiking the John Muir Trail you will be drinking out of lakes, rivers, and streams on the John Muir Trails, so it is important to pack a water filter system.The Sawyer Squeeze System, or the SteriPen are good options for purifying water. Read more Tips for Hiking the John Muir Trail
Pacific Crest Trail
The Pacific Crest Trail can take you all the way from California right into Canada. It is 2650 miles (4265 km) long and lets you see the gorgeous gradient of North America’s landscape as you traverse it from south to north. Of course, most people aren’t going to be doing the full hike into the northern territory, but it’s romantic to think about doing so just the same.
The trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail is in Campo, which is a town that sits on the US/Mexico border. From the Campo trailhead you can take the 20-mile trail to Lake Morena.
It is a difficult trail due to the length of it. Along the way, you’ll see Morena Butte, one of the most stately mountains on the trail. There is an elevation gain of 857 feet. See details about hiking the Pacific Coast Trail at Discover the Trail
See more amazing hikes in America
Mist Trail – Yosemite
If you decide to visit Yosemite National Park, then you absolutely need to head out to the Mist Trail. You will take this all the way up to the Half Dome. Just the names alone of these places can get you excited about your hiking adventure. You will need to get a wilderness permit from the park if you actually want to hike up to the Half Dome.
The trip is 17 miles long round trip and you will be hiking up the Mist Trail and down the Muir Trail. The hike up the Half Dome will be done with the help of cables and you will need hiking boots. Be prepared for 5475 feet elevation gain. This is one of the most famed hikes in California national parks and when you get to the top you get the best view of Yosemite National Park.
Upper Yosemite Falls Trail
The Upper Yosemite Falls trail is a 7-mile trail in the stunning Yosemite Valley. It is a difficult trail but well worth it thanks to the gorgeous scenery including a jaw-dropping waterfall along the way. You can find the Upper Yosemite Falls Trailhead at Sunnyside Campground.
The trek is steep with a lot of switchbacks, however, if you go all the way to Yosemite Point, you get an awesome view of the Half Dome and the entire Yosemite Valley. There is a 3218-foot elevation change along the way so you should avoid hiking it if you have any respiratory issues.
Curry Village has a range of canvas tents and wooden cabins plus hotel rooms. Accommodation range from basic tents with shared bathrooms to private hotel rooms with bathrooms. Check out TripAdvisor for prices. Yosemite Valley Lodge is a great location to make a base in Yosemite. There’s free parking, free Internet and a pool.
Joshua Tree National Park Hiking Trails
Joshua Tree is one of California’s most famous national parks and takes about 2 hours to get to from Los Angeles. The park is huge and would take you more than a day to explore, but for a quick and enjoyable hike you should check out the Hidden Valley Nature Trail.
The Hidden Valley Nature Trail is a 1-mile loop trail that takes you through one of the most gorgeous parts of the park with stunning peach and pink boulders and the famed Giant Burrito, which local climbers love to tackle. If you stick to the trail, this is an easy hike and in turn great for families with young children.
Hikes in Joshua Tree National Park
- Hikes range from .25 miles long to 8 miles.
- Some hikes are wheelchair accessible
- Elevation Gain: 250 ft
- See the National Park’s website for a list of all the hiking trails in Joshual Tree National Park.
Lost Palms Oasis Trail
The Lost Palm Oasis Trail sits in Joshua Tree National Park which is in the city of Mecca. The trail is 7.3 miles long and has an elevation gain of 1026 feet. You’ll start your hike out near the Cottonwood Visitor Center which is not far from the Cottonwood Campground. It is a pretty moderate hike until the rock scramble.
You need to do the scramble to get into the actual oasis. If that’s too difficult for you, you can avoid the longer hike and just view the oasis from the outlook point.
The Joshua Point Oasis is considered the best oasis in Joshua Tree Park. We should note that there aren’t a whole lot of Joshua trees in the park but there is a beautiful Palm grove.
Gray Butte Trail – Northern California
The Gray Butte trail is a moderate trail located in northern California in the city of McCloud. It is a 3.3 mile out and back trail with fluctuations in elevation resulting in 646 feet. It’s a shady hike and the trail is very well marked.
You’ll start out your hike at Panther Meadows Campground. Please note that there are many delicate wildflower species abound so stick to the trail. You get some wonderful aerials of Castle Crags as well as Mount Shasta.
Sea Lion Point Trail – Carmel by the Sea
The Sea Lion Point Trail is a super-duper easy trail at just barely half a mile long. The scenic trail is located in Point Lobos Reserve in Carmel, California. You can just park your car at the Sea Lion Point parking lot and walk toward the point.
Chances are you’re going to hear the seals barking before you see them basking on the rocks. You can expand your trip here and head to Whaler’s cabin, which houses ancient relics from the days of whalers in the area. Read more at 17 Mile Drive – What to See on the Scenic Drive and Big Sur Road Trip – The Best Viewpoints
Rubicon Trail – Lake Tahoe South
Just east of Sacramento in the Sierra Nevada mountain range is the famed Rubicon Trail. It’s 22-miles long and the original trailhead is found when you head north in Georgetown. The trail is part hiking trail and also a haven for off-roading. On your trek, you’ll traverse a rock valley floor, and follow that with a rocky climb.
From Georgetown, you’ll take Wentworth Springs Road to Ice House Road to Loon Lake where the unpaved Rubicon Trail begins.The route ends at Tahoe Staging Area or if you’re in Tahoe City, you can start your hike from there. Either way, there’s a 1400 feet elevation gain.
The Soup Bowl is ledge after ledge of difficult climbing. You’ll hit major switchbacks on the way to Observation Point and overall, there’s a lot of rugged terrain, perfect for off-roading outdoor adventures to be found along the trail. There are campsites on private property along the trail.
Where to Stay in Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe North
- Cedar Crest Cottages – Great for large families or couples. It has its own kitchen and outdoor firepit. It’s a little far away from everything, but that is exactly what most people are looking for when coming to Lake Tahoe.
- Sunnyside Resort – We only ate here, but the dinner was fabulous and the owner was super friendly. It has a more central location and you feel that you are in more of a ski village feel when in this area.
Lake Tahoe South
- Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel – This is the most convenient location right next to the Heavenly Gondola. It’s a busy hotel with lots of families and I think it could definitely use an upgrade. But you can’t go wrong with the location or price. Search Booking.com for Accommodation in Lake Tahoe
- North Star has some of the best views of Lake Tahoe and is a complete family resort with a village and our personal favorite the Ritz Carlton Hotel.
Lighthouse Trail – D. L. Bliss State Park
The Lighthouse Trail is located in D.L. Bliss State Park and is one of the most romantic little trails in California parks. The hike is 2.5-miles long with an elevation gain of 485 feet. It sits on the west side of Lake Tahoe and to get to the very beginning, you’ll want to enter Bliss Park and follow the road to the first parking lot you see to hit the trailhead.
You’ll feel like a chipmunk scampering through a world of wildflowers surrounded by the Sierra Nevada Mountains on your hike. You’ll hit upon the Rubicon Point Lighthouse halfway through your trek. The views of Lake Tahoe are stunning from the lighthouse and you can even take a swim if weather permits. Please note that you can only use the trail in the summer months and very early fall as it can get snowy and slippery fast. Get more details on the hike
Solstice Canyon Trail Loop – Malibu
Malibu isn’t just about fancy cars, drinks, and shopping, you can explore California by hiking it too. The Solstice Canyon Loop is in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area near the Pacific Coast Highway. The Solstice Canyon Trail is a 3-mile round trip hike with a 612 feet elevation gain.
Besides the waterfalls and shady greenery along the hike, you’ll also see remnants of some very old buildings and even the oldest standing stone building sits in the canyon. You’ll definitely feel transported from Malibu upon entering the trail.
The Santa Monica Loop Trail is considered moderate but there are some opportunities for spur-trail activity. The trailhead for this southern California gem is on Corral Canyon Road near the National Park Service Amphitheater.
Boy Scout Tree Trail – Crescent City
For the best day hike among California redwoods, you’ll have to head to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park to experience the easy Boy Scout Tree Trail.
You can find the trailhead to this popular hike close to a pullout on Howland Hill Road (unpaved). The trail is about 3.5 miles long and has an elevation change of 300 feet.
What you’re going to love about this trail is that it starts out flat and gradually takes you into the beauty of old-growth redwood. Besides the enjoyment of old redwoods is the enjoyment of the absolutely peaceful nature of this trail.
At the end, you’re going to discover Fern Falls where you’ll see cascades and tide pools surrounded by all sorts of fauna. In case you’re wondering – the trail is named in honor of a boy scout troop leader who discovered a particularly huge type of redwood in the forest.
Grotto Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains
With more than 154,000 acres of exploration to be had, the Santa Monica Mountains offer too many trails to choose just one. For an easy and beautiful hike, try out the Fossil Falls hike which is just a half-mile hike with little change in elevation.
However, if you want to be adventurous then you should definitely check out the Grotto Hike. The whole hike is so colorful you’d think you’d entered a Disney cartoon. But the colors shouldn’t fool you into thinking the hike is easy. If you want to get into the grotto, you’re going to have to rock climb.
The rugged terrain will keep you on your toes while the meadows and creeks on the way there will make you feel like a child in a storybook.
It’s 6.2 miles of all sorts of adventure when you take the Pomo Canyon trail from Pomo Canyon Campground to Shell Beach. A good hiking tip for Pomo Canyon is to hike early so you can avoid having to see the canyon filled to the brim with crowds. Pomo Canyon is located near Jenner, California.
It is a moderate early summer trail that will have you meandering among redwood groves wildflowers as you listen to birds singing. The trailhead is located on Highway 1.
Batteries to Bluffs Trail – San Francisco
San Francisco has some of the best hikes in California as you can see the Pacific Ocean from many of them. The Batteries to Bluffs Trail is one of the easiest day hikes and you definitely don’t need hiking shoes for this day hike. The trailhead can be found on Lincoln Boulevard and from there you can see beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the glistening Pacific Ocean. This is an under-a-mile round trip hike.
On this hike, you’ll be greeted by lush vegetation and when you get to the shoreline there is a good chance you’ll see dolphins splashing about. This is considered a very easy hike.
Check out more of San Francisco – Where to Stay in San Francisco – A Guide To The Best Neighborhoods
Explore More US National Park Hikes
Frequently Asked Questions
California has many gorgeous hiking trails as we’ve mentioned above. Besides the truly stellar hikes mentioned above, you can also check out Kings Canyon which is beautiful but wasn’t included in the list.
Hiking Kings Canyon in Sequoia Park is similar to hiking the Yosemite Valley but you’ll notice a little more activity in the canyon. That’s because there is a lot of camping, horseback riding, and numerous trails that keep the park pretty busy in the summer months.
The tallest waterfall in California is the Yosemite Waterfalls in Yosemite Park. It is 2425 feet tall.
Big Sur is a long stretch of coastal highway in central California that is known for its ruggedness as it is undeveloped. You will see massive redwoods and pink cliffs that look straight out of the Jurassic era as you drive California’s Big Sur coastline
When it comes to choosing the best hike in California the decision is difficult. We think it all depends on what kind of hike you are looking for, what level of difficulty you are comfortable with, and how much time you have.
One thing is for sure, each one of these hikes offers incredible views and is the perfect way to get out and enjoy all that California wilderness no matter what time of year it is.