Hemmed in by the coast and dressed in both rugged mountain peaks and desert canyons, California is truly a patchwork of natural wonders. Between its desert parks, the Sierra Nevada Mountains and waterside cliffs, hikers of all skillsets will find blossoming fields and breath-stealing treks. The cool relief of leafy canopies and trickling creeks urge you forward; the dense scent of forests a sure sign you’ve left the city. And the reward at the end of a difficult hike – stunning panoramas over glacial lakes, the bumps and unusual plant life in drylands, the misty spray of waterfalls. We’ve pulled together a list of the best hiking trails in California; plan for a half-day, full-day or even days of outdoor venture.
McWay Waterfall Trail, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Easily accessible and rewarding hikes are often overshadowed by epic stories that cross over majestic mountains, but the McWay Waterfall Trail simply insists on being seen. Within the lush wooded respite of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, this short half an hour hike will lead you through the blended copse of redwood, oak and chaparral to an overlook. As expected of a Big Sur coastline, the dramatic ridges facing the Pacific Ocean are a glamorous stretch of scenery. It is the 80-foot waterfall that will hold your gaze however; it thunders down granite to rejoin the ocean, one of the most breathtaking sites in the region.
Yosemite Falls Trail, Yosemite National Park
Anyone remotely interested in the wild outdoors have heard of Yosemite National Park and its gorgeous valley-everything. The Yosemite Falls Trail picks out the most spectacular points, starting with an ascent to Columbia Rock. The sheer drop-offs are tricky to maneuver but the resulting panoramic sweeps over the meadows and Merced River is more than worth it. When you’re able to tear your eyes off the Half Dome and Sentinel Rock (taking photos help), rugged terrain waits in form of a 7-hour trek uphill. The desserts: some of the world’s tallest cascades, the triad of Upper Yosemite Fall, Middle Cascades and Lower Yosemite Fall. Mist from the thunderous waters settles over you during the final stretch to the summit; exhilarated, you’ve reached the peak.
If it’s too challenging of a hike but you’d like a glimpse of this natural wonderland, sign up for a San Francisco to Yosemite tour. This half-day endeavor brings you straight to viewpoints and gentle waterfall walks. Yosemite is truly one of the best hiking trails in California.
Joshua Tree National Park
Life blooms within the relatively barren Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park has two main trails that will take you through its distinctive topography. While famous for the Joshua Tree, whose branches reach up to the sky in supplication, the oasis trails feature unexpected greens against the tan backdrop. For a moderate 7.2-mile loop, take the Lost Palms Oasis Trail. It is exactly what the name suggests, a canyon trek that offers refreshing water pools and leafy palms to end at the Cottonwood Campground. Seasoned hikers may prefer the strenuous 49 Palms Trail with a 300-foot elevation factor. While a particularly grueling ascent in arid conditions, there are shaded pools along the way for well-deserved breaks.
Pomo Canyon Trail, Sonoma Coast State Park
Wildflowers bloom headily under the sun and salt-scented breeze of the Sonoma coastline. For 6 miles, you have unfiltered beauty that pans through a dense redwood forest and a ridge that peeks over the Pacific Ocean and Russian River. It’s not all woodlands either; seasonal flowers cluster in sweeping grasslands to the soundtrack of bubbling creeks. At one point, the trail joins up with the highway but breaks through to the shoreline of Shell Beach. The Pomo Canyon Trail is by far one of the most diverse in terms of natural vistas, with the beach acting as a natural break. Enjoy a relaxing picnic and cool off with your feet in the waves before lapping back to the trailhead.
Muir Woods National Monument
Take it easy with a half-day tour to Muir Woods and nearby Sausalito; beauty doesn’t always come at a price. Just 30 minutes away from San Francisco central is the ancient grove of Muir Woods’ brick-red, towering inhabitants. You’re free to roam the clean trails that wind around the world’s tallest trees, a veritable museum of California’s home species. We recommend this park visit for those who want to take in nature comfortably or for families with toddlers. To complement the deep forest exploration, the second half of the tour routes you to quaint Sausalito. The Mediterranean-style town is a study in seaside charm, clearing the sinuses of tree musk and replacing with refreshing breezes.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
North of Eureka is an old-growth reserve of coastal redwood trees, one of the many within California. Pairing ancient forest with serene beaches and spreads of meadows, Prairie Creek Redwood State Park offers blended landscapes that are at once private but open. The transition from amber-hued giants to the thinner but no fewer towering firs and pines within Fern Canyon is striking; the spillover tresses of ferns softens up the canyon walls in shades of green. Visitors may also recognize some of the scenery from the acclaimed Jurassic Park film – in fact, redwoods can trace familial roots to that exact era. As you enjoy this gentle walk, remember that you’re also treading through history. Definitely one of the best hiking trails in California.
San Jacinto Peak, Mt. San Jacinto State Park
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway not only gets you to the trailhead of 54 miles of hiking routes – it is also your first glimpse of the pristine wilderness that is Mt. San Jacinto State Park. Skimming over the levelled transitional zones that start with warm desert and ends with alpine forest, the 10-minute intro ride is also the window for layering up; expect the mountains to feel a good deal chillier. From the station, embark on a challenging but stunning hike towards San Jacinto Peak. Little traffic trickles through the idyllic forest which later opens up. Your ultimate reward lies at the peak; 360-degree views from San Diego to San Gabriels, Mojave Desert to the Pacific.
Do pack microspikes if you’re attempting the hike during winter months as the trails ice over and are covered with snow. For optimal weather, visit between March to November.
Tahoe Rim Trail, Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe’s Tahoe Rim Trail collects natural beauty like picking sand off the beach – you name it and you’ll find it, be it volcanic rock formations, dense valleys, mirror-calm lakes and fluttering meadows. The perimeter totals 265 kilometers in a 10 to 15-day hike with plenty of one-day trails to choose from. Because the terrain varies, research is essential in finding the right trek for you. A pleasant combination of water and forestry point towards one of the many glacial lakes; Watson Lake and Star Lake are popular features for campers. Its versatility puts it at the top of the list for hikers of all skill levels.
If your main purpose is to update your landscape portfolio, we recommend joining a photographic scenic tour that juggles seasonal sights. From secluded beaches gone wild to bear sightings to the wildflower carpets of Taylor Creek, you’ll be brought to some of the most photographed locations and best hiking trails in California.
North Fork of Big Pine Creek
The mint hue of Big Pine Creek’s glacial lakes is mesmerizing so get up there for some much-needed shots. The trail offers pleasantly diverse scenery due to frequent switchbacks; from the get-go, you look back onto South Fork. Follow the tinkling creek to a copse of thin but fluffed up trees; this part of the trail is particularly gorgeous in fall when the foliage turns yellow and terracotta. Do pack enough water because the middling trek opens up to an unshaded canyon, though Lon Chaney’s cabin is great for a brief break. When you finally come upon the teal colored First Lake, continue onto the larger Second Lake. Backed by jagged Temple Crag, it’s an impossibly beautiful spot to camp out or relax.
Coastal Trail, Fort Bragg
Soft plains line the stunning sprawl of Fort Bragg’s Coastal Trail while the salt-tinged air of the Pacific urges you on. Depending on where you cut into the trek, make your way to Glass Beach or through nature rich MacKerricher State Park. Informative plaques dot the hiking path to educate us about the local ecosystem as well.
What makes this hiking trail so precious however, has more to do with the all-in-one stop nature of its location. Whether before or after your refreshing hike, spare some time for a historic Skunk Train ride for prime Pudding Creek Estuary appreciation. Blue herons and ospreys are few of the many bird species within the redwoods reserve; scenery aside, this 1800s logging route is one of long history. Complete the set with free admission into the Model Railroad museum and better understand how the town developed alongside abundant wilderness.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our top recommendations for the best hiking trails in California!