After living in the Golden State for thirty years, it’s easy to forgot how much natural beauty can be found here. Fortunately, hiking in California always reminds us of how lucky we are to live somewhere with thousands of miles of scenic trails in state parks, national parks and mountain ranges.
We’ve only experienced a small fraction of hiking trails in California, so I asked fellow bloggers and outdoor enthusiasts to share their thoughts on the best hikes. If we’ve missed one of your favorite trails, let us know in the comments below.
Jason and I always hike with a small daypack to carry a few essential items. Inside the pack is water, granola bars or nuts, sunscreen, bug spray, and a first aid kit.
Staying hydrated is so important while hiking. We take at least one filled, re-useable water bottle on our hikes. During hot weather we appreciate how the Hydro Flasks keep our water cool. If you need to refill your water bottle while hiking from a stream or lake, be sure to carry a bottle with a filter like those produced by LifeStraw.
Proper clothing is also important. We typically wear a light-weight shirt and hiking pants. Good hiking boots are especially helpful for rocky or muddy terrain.
Golden Canyon in Death Valley National Park
Shared by Empty Nesters Hit The Road
Our first stop in Death Valley National Park was the Visitor’s Center to get some recommendations for hiking. The ranger suggested the most popular trail in the park, Golden Canyon, which is 3 miles out and back. We were looking for a moderate challenge, so this trail seemed to be a good fit.
The trail parking lot was almost full, so we were concerned about how many hikers would be joining us. No need to worry. While dozens of people start this hike, very few finish it. The first mile is just a slight uphill slope, but the last quarter mile is a steep rock climb ending with a majestic view of the rock formation called Red Cathedral. At the very top we shared the view with just one family. There’s not much plant or animal life along the this trail, but the views of colorful rock formations provide great scenery. If you want to check-out this hike in advace, watch our one-minute video below.
The Golden Canyon trailhead parking lot is located on Badwater Road, 2 miles south of CA-190. Bathrooms are available. There is no food or water available at this location, so hikers should bring plenty of water and snacks.
Headed to Las Vegas after Death Valley? Then consider a hike at Red Rock Canyon.
Point Lobos State Reserve
Shared by It's Not About The Miles
Just a few miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea in California, Point Lobos State Reserve offers a network of stunning trails on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. For a longer hike, you can combine two or three contiguous trails. One of the best trail combinations you can do in Point Lobos State Park is the South Shore trail and the Bird Island trail. It's a total distance of about 2.8 miles out and back, and I would classify both trails as easy, although there are a few rocks here and there.
The South Shore trail hugs the coastline and offers stunning views out to the water, as well as beautiful shore landscapes. In the spring, the area is flush with wildflowers. You also have the potential of seeing whales spouting in the ocean, or sea otters bobbing up and down.
The Bird Island trail accesses some of the most scenic sections of Point Lobos State Park. You can gawk at the beauty of China Cove, with its pristine little beach and blue-green waters. The beach is off-limits, but from the trail you can take stunning photos. You may see harbor seals with their pups in birthing season. Further up the trail, you can see Bird Island, a rocky outcrop that is home to hundreds of sea birds.
If you are in the Carmel area, don't miss the opportunity to hike this fabulous set of trails by the ocean!
Convict Lake Trail Near Mammoth Lakes
Shared by Empty Nesters Hit The Road
I’ve hiked dozens of trails throughout the state, but if I had to vote for the best hike in California it would be the 2-mile trail around Convict Lake near Mammoth in the Eastern Sierras. It’s a fairly easy hike, but we were constantly awed by the views of the deep blue water and the snow-capped mountains.
About halfway around the lake the trail becomes a boardwalk due to the mud and dampness of the ground. However, the water levels of the lake were quite high while we were visiting, and even parts of the boardwalk were submerged. Needless to say, we ended up with damp shoes and socks, but it was a warm day so we didn’t mind.
Convict Lake is a fifteen minute drive from The Village at Mammoth Lakes. In addition to hiking, it’s a popular area for boating, so this area can become quite busy. We started our hike early in the morning to avoid the crowds and heat.
Vikingsholm Trail In Lake Tahoe
Shared by Wanderlust Crew
Our family’s favorite hike in California is the Vikingsholm trail in beautiful blue Lake Tahoe. The best kind of hikes are the kind that take you to a secret castle! This moderate trail guides you from the top of the mountain down to the pristine shores and a hidden castle where you can explore, play at the beach, rent kayaks, or tour the castle which was one of the first summer homes on the lake. This trail is an easy 1.7 miles down to the beach, and 1.7 miles back out at quite a steep incline, but on a well-worn path that is accessible to wheelchairs and strollers. It’s a great choice for hiking with kids who are small or inexperienced. Along the trail, there are some amazing trees with roots growing into the rocks. We love rock climbing along this hike.
Klamath Coastal Trail in Redwood National Park
Shared by The Discoveries Of
The Klamath Coastal Trail in the Redwood National Park is one of my favorite hikes in California. I read about the hike while planning my road trip up the west coast and knew that I had to make a stop to give it a go.
What’s so special about the hike? Well, it winds from Klamath down to a spectacular viewpoint out over the mouth of the Klamath river before winding into dense Redwood groves alongside the coast and down to a hidden beach.
You get a lot of contrast on this trail - coastal views, woodland hiking - sometimes popping out on the coast, at other times close enough that you can hear the seal colonies but can’t see them through the thicket of trees.
If you time your visit for the right time of year, this is also prime whale watching coastline - an added bonus on what is already a beautiful hike.
The trail forms part of the longer Coastal Trail in the Redwood National Park. To do the Klamath section you start at the Klamath Overlook car park. It’s 7.9 miles round trip and is a moderate trail - I’d allow at least five to six hours including some rest time at the beach.
Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls Trails, Yosemite National Park
Shared by Got My Backpack
You’ll be spoilt for choice for hikes at Yosemite National Park with over 11 of them, from easy routes for the whole family to longer strenuous hikes. On our visit, we took the Mist trail to Vernal Falls and on to Nevada Falls. You can take an alternative route down via the John Muir trail but this was not open when we visited.
Both Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls are amazing waterfalls and you’ll also get to see Yosemite Falls in the distance. The Mist trail is steep with lots of steps and a footbridge across Vernal falls. Its called the mist trail for a reason, the spray from the waterfalls is very refreshing as you climb but definitely take a coat in Winter.
The trail begins at shuttle point 16 and takes around 4-5 hours for a round trip. See one day in Yosemite itinerary for other activities to include.
Congress Loop Trail in Sequoia National Park
Shared by Travel Collecting
Sequoias are the largest trees on the planet and the Giant Forest area in Sequoia National Park has the largest collection of them. The biggest of the trees have been named, many of them after political or historical figures. The Congress Loop Trail is an easy, paved, wheelchair accessible trail about three miles long that goes through the Giant Forest past many of the named trees.
Start at the General Sherman Tree Trail parking lot and go along the Sherman Tree Trail through a tunnel carved out of the trunk of a fallen tree. The general Sherman Tree, the largest in the world, is off a short spur to the right.
Opposite this spur is the Congress Trail. You will pass the enormous Chief Sequoya and President Trees before getting to the Senate, a cluster of sequoias that you walk around. The scale of these trees is overwhelming and you will feel small and totally awe-struck at the same time. There are unpaved paths at several points along the main trail to other enormous trees. Next is the Congress, another group of giants. Nearby is a colossal uprooted trunk – the roots of the stump are a graphic and dramatic display of the enormity of these trees. Continue along the path through some pine first back to the Sherman Tree Trail.
Sequoia National Park is in California, about a 2.5-hour drive from Fresno (the nearest international airport) and a 5.5-hour drive from San Francisco (which has a much larger airport).
Hike to the Hollywood Sign in Griffith Park
Shared by Exploring Our World
Want to see the iconic Hollywood sign up close? This symbol of Tinseltown has perched high on a hill since 1923. It conjures up Hollywood’s history: The glamor, film stars, epic movies, and dreams. A winding dirt trail will bring you up the hills where you can enjoy not only the sign but also the view below. While you can’t touch the sign, you can stand amazed beneath the letters that soar 45 feet into the sky.
The easiest of three trails leads from the Griffith Observatory, where you can park. The Mt. Hollywood Trail is a three-mile loop route. It climbs to a 1,650 peak. Along the way, you’ll find the Berlin pine forest, planted by friends from Hollywood’s sister city. In the spring, colorful wildflowers decorate the entire trail. In the fall, red holly berries line the path.
Two longer trails wind behind the Hollywood sign and are perfect for a longer day-hike. The Brush Canyon Trail takes you 6.5 miles around the sign. The Cahuenga Peak Hike is only three miles but winds through steeper, more difficult terrain. Choose any of the trails to the Hollywood sign for a refreshing day hike.
Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail in Joshua Tree National Park
Shared By Empty Nesters Hit The Road
The Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail in Joshua Tree National Park offers a challenging hike to a scenic and secluded valley of palm trees. This grouping of large, thick trees is made possible by a rare spring.
From the parking lot, the trail immediately climbs uphill, and continues to do so for at least a mile, then it descends into the valley where you’ll see the palm trees. The large, lush trees provide terrific shade and a chance to cool off after the first half of the hike. Consider packing a lunch and making the most of this scenic spot.
After enjoying the views, it’s time to climb back up out of the valley. Fortunately the trail ends with a long, downward slope that offers views of the towns surrounding Joshua Tree NP.
The views along the trail make the effort worth it. Just come prepared with good hiking shoes and plenty of water.
This trail can be accessed without entering the park. From Route 62,, turn south on Canyon Road and drive 1.7 miles to the trail head.
Castle Rock in Big Bear
Shared by Our Kind of Crazy
One of our favorite hikes in California is in Big Bear. It’s a hike known as Castle Rock, and it ends with a spectacular view of Big Bear Lake. The hike itself is up a mountain, so some parts can be a little steep and rocky. During the summer, there are lots of people who hike Castle Rock, both young and old. Lots of dogs go up there too. It’s a beautiful hike through the National Forest, with beautiful views all the way up.
However, the biggest payoff is when you reach the huge rock where Castle Rock is. It is definitely a climb to get to the top of the rock, and a lot of people don’t necessarily bother to go all the way up. But, if you’re adventurous and up for a climb, we highly recommend you climb to the top. The views are completely worth it! Be sure to wear good shoes with traction on them, as the hike can be rocky and steep. There are also lots of smaller rocks to climb for those who don’t feel they can make it all the way up Castle Rock. There are tons of places for awesome photos, so you can enjoy the hike at your own pace.
Shared by Boarding Call
One of the best hikes in California is located just across the Golden Gate Bridge, on the other side of San Francisco. The Marin Headlands is part of Golden Gate National Park and shouldn't be missed by anyone who loves to hike--this is definitely one of the top things to do in San Francisco.
There are various hikes in the Marin Headlands, but my favorite is to take the Miwok Trail to Wolf Ridge, then to Coastal Trail, and back over Lagoon Trail. The total hike is 3.8 miles round trip and is a nice loop, so you won't see the same thing twice!
Begin this hike by parking at the Marin Headlands visitor's center. If you're heading out of San Francisco, take Highway 101 North across the bridge and take Alexander Avenue, the second exit after crossing the bridge. Continue and follow signs for Marin Headlands.
The great part about this loop is that you'll feel absolutely separated from the city of San Francisco, crossing into the world of California's beautiful rugged coast. As you hike remember to turn around, to see the Golden Gate Bridge peeking over the hills. If you're up for a longer hike, take Bobcat Trail shortly after beginning Miwok Trail, and follow that loop until it meets up with Miwok again--this will add 3.7 miles on to your hike--adding in more great views.
If you like to hike with your furry friend, parts of Marin Headlands do allow dogs--ask for details at the visitor's center. Fortunately the Bay Area offers many dog friendly hiking spots.
After your hike refresh by grabbing lunch or dinner in nearby Sausalito where you can enjoy views of the city from across the water.
Condor Gulch to High Peaks Loop in Pinnacles National Park
Shared by National Parks Obsessed
Pinnacles National Park is California’s newest and smallest national park and has a great collection of day hikes for all skill levels. One of the best parts of the Pinnacles is that most of the trails are loops or can be made into loops. My favorite loop is the 5.3-mile Condor Gulch to High Peaks Loop. The trail starts in the Bear Gulch Day Use area and then climbs up Condor Gulch past the famed Pinnacles rock formations. There is an overlook about a mile up the trail. Once the Condor Gulch connects with High Peaks, the real fun begins. Follow the loop towards the Steep and Narrow section of the High Peaks trail. This section is about a mile and as the name suggest its steep and narrow. It has several ladders to climb and a few scrambles. Keep an eye to the sky as you hike. Pinnacles has about 30 critically endangered California Condors and they are often seen circling in the High Peaks area. The trail descends back toward Bear Gulch. Here you have a choice to add 0.7 miles and visit the Bear Gulch Reservoir and Bear Gulch Cave.
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As a Californian, I love this post! We just booked a trip to Tahoe this summer, and I love hiking at Emerald Bay. I would love to go to Big Bear soon, where I haven’t been for years. It’s small and so inviting!
Aren’t we lucky to live in California? We have so many great hiking options.
I lived in California for close to 30 years so I was able to do a lot of these hikes – it is such an amazing state with tons of diversity and truly great hiking!
It is an amazing state, I couldn’t agree more!