16 of the Best Hikes in California

16 of the Best Hikes in California

If you’re looking for great hiking in California, you’re in luck. The state is huge, and its wide range of elevations and microclimates means there’s almost always a great trail to hike, no matter the season. While it’s nearly impossible to build a totally comprehensive list of the best hikes in California, here are some highlights from several distinct regions of the golden state.

From SoCal to the Sierra, use this list to help plan your next hiking adventure. Whether you’re looking for an easy walk that covers just a few miles, or a challenging, full-day trek, we’ve got you covered. Happy hiking!

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Southern California

1. Mount Hollywood from Trails Café

best hikes in california - griffith park hike

L.A.’s Griffith Park is one of the largest and most popular municipal parks in North America — it’s over four times the size of New York City’s Central Park and gets over 10 million visitors a year.

The hike to Mount Hollywood is not the highest point in the park, nor is it the home of the Hollywood Sign (that’s Mount Lee), but it has commanding views and offers up a beautiful way to soak in Los Angeles. Plus, you can end your hike with iced tea and a snack at Trails Café.

Location: Griffith Park (Los Angeles)

Mileage: 5.2 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Time: 2.5 hours

Best Time of Year: December–June

 

2. The Devil’s Chair

best hikes in california - devils punchbowl

The San Andreas Fault features prominently in Southern California mythos, but it’s also responsible for much of the region’s spectacular geology. One of the best places to get a good grasp of this is in Devil’s Punchbowl County Park.

Thanks to the grinding and tearing of the Pacific and North American Plates and wind and water erosion, there’s an otherworldly landscape of twisted rocks, angled slabs, and strange canyons, all visible from the perch of the Chair.

Location: Devil’s Punchbowl County Park

Mileage: 7.5 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Time: 3 hours

Best Time of Year: November–April

 

3. San Jacinto Peak

best hikes in california - san jacinto park

At 10,833 feet, San Jacinto Peak is the second-tallest peak in Southern California, featuring one of the most dramatic elevation reliefs in the country. You can take a tough, full-day slog to the summit from the desert floor, a more moderate trek from Idyllwild, or an easy tram ride up from Palm Springs.

From the tram station, it’s still a solid hike, and you’ll enjoy top-of-the-world views and significantly cooler temperatures than that classic resort town, making this a perfect summer getaway.

Location: Mount San Jacinto State Park

Mileage: 11.5 miles from Mountain Station

Difficulty: Challenging

Time: 5 hours

Best Time of Year: Summer and fall; winter with proper gear

 

4. Torrey Pines

best hikes in california - torrey pines

You shouldn’t hike in Southern California without hiking along the Pacific coastline at least once, and Torrey Pines State Reserve in San Diego might be the best place to do that. As one of the best hikes in Southern California, the landscape is unique, the park’s namesake pines are one of the rarest trees in North America, there are plenty of places to access the beach, and the park’s extensive trail network means you can make this as easy or tough as you’d like.

A relatively mild loop along Razor Point, beach, and Broken Hill Trails gives you a nice highlight of the park with plenty of places to explore, and comes highly recommended for all hikers.

Location: Torrey Pines State Reserve

Mileage: 3 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Time: 1.5 hours

Best Time of Year: Year-Round

 

Central Coast

5. Limekiln State Park Hare Creek Trail

best hikes in california - redwood park

It’s really difficult to pick just one exemplary hike in a place as stunning as Big Sur, but you could do much worse than little Limekiln State Park. It’s easy to drive past this park on the way to the more well-known areas, but you don’t want to miss this.

Those who stop here can enjoy some world-class forest bathing on a network of trails in dense coast redwoods and some surprisingly cinematic beach access. You can also camp here with a reservation — they’re recommended WELL in advance of your stay, and can be made up to six months in advance.

Location: Limekiln State Park/Ventana Wilderness

Mileage: 2.3 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Time: 1.5 hours

Best Time of Year: Year-Round

 

6. Point Lobos

best hikes in california - point lobos

If you like the Central Coast for the jagged coastline more than the towering trees, you’ll definitely want to spend a day at Point Lobos. This promontory on the south end of Carmel Bay is one of the most picturesque and unforgettable places in Big Sur (and that’s really saying something).

For some of the best hiking in California that’s not super strenuous, start at Whaler’s Cove, make your way up the small staircase on the parking lot’s north end, then follow the large loop through the park. Bonus: You can also SCUBA dive in the Point Lobos State Marine Reserve!

Location: Point Lobos State Nature Reserve

Mileage: 4 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Time: 2 hours

Best Time of Year: Year-Round

 

7. Junipero Serra Peak

best hikes in california - junipero peak

Hikes on the central coast aren’t all just beach strolls and dense sylvan glens. Deep in the Ventana Wilderness, you can trek up this challenging route to Junipero Serra Peak — the highest peak in the Santa Lucia Mountains at 5,856 feet.

An old radio tower awaits at the summit, but the real star of this hiking trail is the journey through rolling coastal mountains surrounded by wide-open vistas. To really make the most of your trip, stay overnight at a nearby campground to culminate your 12-mile adventure.

Location: Ventana Wilderness

Mileage: 12 miles

Difficulty: Strenuous

Time: 8 hours

Best Time of Year: January–May

 

8. Cerro Alto

best hike in california - cerro alto

One of the remnants of volcanic plugs that dot San Luis Obispo County, Cerro Alto is a 2,624-foot tall high point that offers up some of the best views in the county — even when the region is socked in with its iconic marine layer fog.

For a more gradual ascent, take the trail leaving from the east end of the campground. And don’t forget some hiking snacks to enjoy at the peak!

Location: Los Padres National Forest

Mileage: 5.3 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Time: 3 hours

Best Time of Year: December–April

 

Northern California

9. Sunol Grand Loop

best hikes in california - sunol loop

Who says you have to spend hours driving way from a city to get to some spectacular outdoor areas? The Sunol Regional Wilderness is part of the East Bay Regional Park District and it sits just outside the Silicon Valley sprawl east of Fremont.

You could do some solid backpacking here, or you could just opt for a day trip on the Sunol Grand Loop. It’s a challenging 8.2-mile trail, but it’ll be an unforgettable hike, especially when the wildflowers are putting on a good show!

Location: Sunol Regional Wilderness

Mileage: 8.2 miles

Difficulty: Challenging

Time: 5 hours

Best Time of Year: December–April

 

10. Cataract Creek-Benstein Loop

best hikes in california - mount tamalpais

Mount Tamalpais is an iconic hike in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and there are lots of different ways to enjoy it. So how do you choose out of all the great hiking trails? We love this loop on the mountain’s western flank, which really highlights the wetter aspects with a series of shady, rocky creeks and cascades.

Prep yourself with the hiking essentials in your backpack, then set out to enjoy the views. It’s a great California hike at any time of the year!

Location: Marin Municipal Water District/Mount Tamalpais State Park

Mileage: 6.4 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Time: 3 hours

Best Time of Year: Year-Round

 

11. Castle Crag to Castle Dome

best hikes in california - castle crags

If you’ve ever driven north toward Oregon on the 5 (that’s Interstate 5 for those not used to California-speak), you’ve likely been enchanted by a stunning, jagged formation on the west side of the freeway. This is Castle Crags State Park, home of some of the best hikes in Northern California.

If you only do one trail here, it should be the hike to Castle Dome. Although it’s a challenging trail that covers nearly 6 miles, the views of nearby Mount Shasta to the north are unforgettable.

Location: Castle Crags State Park

Mileage: 5.7 miles

Difficulty: Challenging

Time: 4 hours

Best Time of Year: May–November

 

Sierra Nevada

12. Emerald Lakes via Sabrina Basin Trailhead

best hikes in california - john muir

Just outside the town of Bishop, California, you’ll find Emerald Lakes. They’re stunning during the warm months, but they’re best enjoyed in the fall — that’s when the already jaw-dropping scenery is highlighted by huge groves of aspen turning various shades of orange and gold.

You know that beautiful contrast of California poppies and those perfect blue California skies? It’s like that, but 100 times better. Soak it all in with this challenging, yet plenty rewarding hike.

Location: John Muir Wilderness/Inyo National Forest

Mileage: 7.2 miles; option to go further into the wilderness

Difficulty: Challenging

Time: 4.5 hours

Best Time of Year: July–October

 

13. Methuselah Trail

best hikes in california - bristlecone pines

Although not technically in the Sierra Nevada (these are the White Mountains), the Methuselah Trail is off-the-beaten-path on the other side of the Owens Valley through the world’s oldest living (non-clonal) trees in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

Some of the beautiful Bristlecone pines on this California hiking trail are over 5,000 years old! Oh, and the views on this loop aren’t anything to sneeze at either. You can’t ask for much more out of a 4.5-mile outing!

Location: Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest/Inyo National Forest

Mileage: 4.5 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Time: 2 hours

Best Time of Year: July–October

 

14. Rae Lakes Loop

best hikes in california - kings canyon

Here lies the longest trail on our list of best hikes in California. But there’s a reason why it’s on here. To truly get a sense of the “Range of Light,” you need to dive deep inside and spend a few days here, and you’d be hard pressed to find someplace better than the Rae Lakes Loop.

Snagging a permit is half the challenge, but it’s worth every headache as you trek through almost every single major biotic zone of the Sierra on an unforgettable journey.

Location: Kings Canyon National Park

Mileage: 41 miles

Difficulty: Strenuous

Time: 4 days

Best Time of Year: May–September

 

Deserts

15. Keane Wonder Mine

best hikes in california - death valley

Mining has a huge history in California’s desert, and it’s best experienced on Death Valley‘s recently reconstructed trail to the Keane Wonder Mine. It’s a terrific place to get a feel for the scope of Death Valley itself, but it will also make you marvel at the ingenuity and sheer will of the miners who lived and worked in this inhospitable landscape.

Although it’s a shorter trail, this is definitely a California hike you’ll want to do in the cooler months. And don’t forget your sunscreen!

Location: Death Valley National Park

Mileage: 3.3 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Time: 2 hours

Best Time of Year: December–April

 

16. Mastodon Peak

best hikes in california - joshua tree

The wildflowers usually pop up in the southern portion of Joshua Tree National Park first, and if California has a good, wet winter, you can expect the trails around Mastodon Peak to be some of the best popping-viewing in the state.

On this trail, you’ll meander through the ruins of an old, forgotten boomtown. And if you want a slightly longer hike, you have the option to extend your trip to a native California palm oasis, too.

Location: Joshua Tree National Park

Mileage: 3 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Time: 2 hours

Best Time of Year: March–April

casey schreiner - author

About

Casey Shreiner is an award-winning television producer who has developed and launched several shows for broadcast and the web. He is also the founder of Modern Hiker, one of the American West’s oldest and most-read hiking blogs. He has been featured in the “Los Angeles Times,” “New York Magazine,” “Good Morning America” and others, and is a regular guest on several shows on NPR. He has written two books on hiking and the outdoors, “Day Hiking Los Angeles” (2016) and “Discovering Griffith Park” (2020). Find him on LinkedIn.

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