Last Updated on November 11, 2021 by

A round-up of the best hikes in California, from hiking expert Allison Boyle who blogs at She Dreams of Alpine.

One of the best parts about living or traveling in California is that you are never far away from a really beautiful hiking spot. The  hiking options are unlimited in California. From the beautiful California coastline to the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains and even to the dry desolate desert, California has some of the best hikes in USA.

The following guide details 7 of the best hiking trails in California, and reviews not only their practical details, but also what makes them so special. Some of these California hikes can be easily accomplished in a day, and others require several days of your time in order to backpack them.

If you don’t have enough time to dedicate to backpacking the entire trail, many of the hikes can be shortened into day hikes that are still excellent in their own right. This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the excellent hiking trails in California, but rather, is a highlight of some of the best hikes in California.

California Road Trip: My 2-Week Itinerary

best hiking trails in california

7 of the Best Hikes in California

1. The Lost Coast Trail

best hiking trails in california - lost coast trail

Location: Northern California, King Range Wilderness

When to go: Year-Round

Total Mileage: ~25 miles

Time Needed to Hike: 3-4 days

Type of Trail: Point-to-Point

Total Elevation Gain: 50 feet total gain

Permit Required: Yes, all visitors camping overnight must have a permit

The Lost Coast trail lies along California’s beautiful rugged coastline and follows some of its most isolated and breathtaking beaches. This coastline is so rugged, in fact, that they were unable to continue the well-known Highway 1 road along this stretch of California and instead had to continue the highway inland.

The trail takes a bit of planning and coordination since most people backpack it point-to-point, but it is worth the trouble. The entire hike stretches along dark sandy and pebble beaches, and you will have to plan your hiking time accordingly in order to avoid high tide where parts of the trail will be completely impossible to cross at certain times of the day. 

The trail takes about 2 to 3 days to complete depending on your level of physical fitness, but there are plenty of excellent spots to camp at along the way. Watch the seals bobbing around in the ocean waves, sea-lions sunbathing along the coast, and the occasional star fish washed ashore all while hiking The Lost Coast Trail. 

Pro Tip: Unless you have two cars to leave at each trailhead make sure to plan ahead and book a shuttle to drive you to your starting trailhead. Also, consider bringing some comfortable in-soles for your hiking boots. The sandy and pebbled beaches are beautiful but can be a real pain on your feet.

2. The John Muir Trail

best hiking trails in california - john muir trail

Location: Central California, Sierra Nevada Mountain Range

When to go: July to September

Total Mileage: ~211 miles

Time Needed to Hike: 20-30 days

Type of Trail: Point-to-Point

Total Elevation Gain: 47,000 feet total elevation gain

Permit Required: Yes!

best hiking trails in california - john muir

It’s hard to talk about the best hikes in California without mentioning its iconic thru-hike, the John Muir Trail (also known as the JMT), which travels across some of the Sierra Nevada’s most beautiful and rugged trails and mountain passes. Coming in at around 211 total miles long and studded with spectacular landscapes, this is definitely one of the best treks in the world.

Most thru-hikers opt to do this hike from the North in Yosemite Valley to the South at Mount Whitney. Getting permits to start hiking from South to North can prove to be more challenging since permits entering the Whitney Portal area are much harder to compete for. A thru-hike like the John Muir Trail takes a lot more planning and advanced coordination than other hikes, but if you’re lucky enough to have the time to take off for the hike it is probably one of the most beautiful hikes in all of North America. 

Pro Tip: If you don’t have time to dedicate to the full 211 miles of the John Muir Trail, consider hiking some of the JMT’s most beautiful sections. Hiking 43 miles from Onion Valley to Whitney Portal will take you along some of the most beautiful sections of the JMT and reward you with the option to summit California’s highest peak, Mount Whitney.

3. Yosemite’s Half Dome

best hiking trails in california - half dome in yosemite

Location: Central California, Yosemite National Park

When to go: June to October

Total Mileage: ~14-16 miles round trip (depending on the trail taken)

Time Needed to Hike: 1 full day or 2 days backpacking

Type of Trail: Out-and-back

Total Elevation Gain: ~4,800 feet total gain

Permit Required: Yes! Anyone planning to hike up the Half Dome cables must have a permit. Permits are very competitive, so be sure to plan in advance.

Yosemite National Park is one of the most beautiful national parks in the US, and it’s an essential stop if you’re doing a California road trip. Half Dome stands tall in the valley as its most iconic feature. Hikers come from all across the world to hike up the steep granite slopes via the harrowing cables toward Half Domes summit. 

Upon reaching the top of Half Dome, you will be rewarded with epic 360 views of Yosemite Valley, and it is an accomplishment to be celebrated! Many people do this hike in a day (you can even do it on a weekend trip in San Francisco), hiking up either the Mist Trail or part of the John Muir Trail, but you can also do this hike as a 2-day backpacking trip and camp at Little Yosemite Valley. Either way, it’s a beautiful and challenging hike, one of the absolute best things to do in northern California.

Pro Tip: This trail is extremely popular year-round. If sharing the hike up the cables intimidates you, plan to start your hike very early so you can try to avoid the crowds. Also, be sure to bring a pair of gloves for ascending the cables to the summit!

Best Places to Visit in Winter in USA

4. Mount Langley via Cottonwood Lakes Trail

best hiking trails in california - raes lakes

Location: Central California, Sierra Nevada Mountain Range

When to go: July to September

Total Mileage: ~ 26 miles roundtrip

Time Needed to Hike: 2-3 days backpacking

Type of Trail: Out-and-Back

Total Elevation Gain: 5,900 feet total elevation gain

Permit Required: Yes, Wilderness Permit Required if overnight camping

Many people know about Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 United States and the tallest peak in California, but less people think about hiking Mount Langley, another tall 14,000-foot peak just South of Mount Whitney. Mount Langley often gets overlooked, but it is equally, if not more, beautiful than hiking the Mount Whitney trail, and is much easier to get permits to.

Sitting at 14,026 feet tall, hikers will typically attempt the summit over 2-3 backpacking days, although some are known to do the trail in one day! Starting on the Cottonwood Lakes Trail you will hike an easy 6 miles to the Cottonwood Lakes area, which make a great spot to set up camp before the next day.

Hikers can choose to summit Mount Langley via the New Army Pass or Old Army Pass, and will be challenged as they make their way to Langley’s summit. So do yourself a favor, skip the crowds and go explore the Cottonwood Lakes trail and attempt a summit of Mount Langley.

Pro Tip: If backpacking the trail in 2-3 days, consider hiking to the base of Old Army Pass first and explore the lakes in this area, and then hop across on a connecting trail to Long Lake at the base of New Army Pass. Old Army Pass is more direct, but steeper, so many choose to climb up New Army Pass instead.

20 Best Treks in the World

5. Trans-Catalina Trail

best hiking trails in california - trans-catalina

Location: Southern California, Santa Catalina Island

When to go: Year-Round

Total Mileage: ~38 Miles

Time Needed to Hike: 3-5 days backpacking

Type of Trail: Point-to-Point

Total Elevation Gain: ~8,300 feet total gain

Permit Required: No, but Campsite reservations are required in advance

Many people visit Santa Catalina Island while traveling in Southern California, but most visitors overlook the many amazing hiking and backpacking opportunities there are on Catalina Island. Instead of opting for a traditional visit to Catalina Island, consider hiking the Trans-Catalina-Trail to get the best tour the island has to offer. Most hikers start their hike in Avalon and end it at Two Harbors and camp at the many established campgrounds along the trail.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this trail will be easy island hiking. The Trans-Catalina trail is rugged and tough. At over 38 miles long, it also has about 8,300 feet of total elevation gain. Many parts of the trail are steep, and there is little-to-no shade along the entire length of the trail. However, after all that hard work, you can wait for your ferry back to the mainland in style, cold beers and food in hand at one of the islands best local restaurants in Two Harbors.

Pro Tip: Wear moisture wicking hiking clothes with long sleeves to protect yourself from the sun on this trail, and consider bringing hiking poles with you as portions of this trail can be very steep.

6. The Raes Lake Loops

best hiking trails in california - raes lakes

Location: Central California, Sequoia Kings Canyon Wilderness

When to go: July to September

Total Mileage: ~37 miles

Time to Needed Hike: 3-4 days

Type of Trail: Loop

Total Elevation Gain: 7,500 feet of total gain

Permit Required: Yes!

It’s hard to find a good loop backpacking trail, where you don’t have to fuss with shuttles or having multiple cars, but the Rae’s Lake Loop is one of the best Loop trails in California. Starting on the Western side of the Sierra Nevada’s, you will hike into the backcountry until eventually you are sharing the trail with John Muir Trail thru-hikers.

If you are hiking counter-clockwise you will trudge up and over Glen Pass and down into the beautiful stretch of alpine lakes for which the Raes Lake Loop is known for. After you descend from Glen Pass, the hike is pretty much downhill from there. The whole hike takes about 3-4 days depending on your fitness level, but it’s an excellent hike in the Sequoia Kings Canyon Wilderness area! 

Pro Tip: Mosquitos can get bad in the summer. Be sure to pack bug spray, and plan to camp at higher elevations so you can avoid the bugs.

Best Things to Do in Alberta, Canada for Outdoor Lovers

7. Mount Baldy

best hiking trails in california - mount baldy

Location: Southern California, Los Angeles Area

When to go: May to November

Total Mileage: ~10 miles roundtrip

Time Needed to Hike: half day

Type of Trail: Loop

Total Elevation Gain: 3,900 feet total gain

Permit Required: National Parks Adventure Pass Required

If you find yourself in the Los Angeles area and are looking for an excellent and challenging day hike in the area then you won’t be disappointed hiking to Mount Baldy’s summit, Los Angeles County’s highest peak. For locals, Mount Baldy is more than just a beautiful day hike, it also serves as one of the most popular training hikes in Southern California due to its steep elevation gain.

The best way to hike Mount Baldy is via a loop trail that starts up the Baldy Bowl Ski Trail and descends down the narrow Devil’s Backbone Trail. The trail is steep, but rewards you with excellent views of Los Angeles county. Mount Baldy sits at 10,064 feet tall, which makes it a fantastic summer and fall hike, and an excellent way to escape the heat in LA County. Definitely be mindful of the weather though during the winter and the spring months. Snow on the Devil’s backbone trail can be very dangerous and hikers are strongly urged to stay away.

Pro Tip: This trail is one of the most popular trails in Los Angeles, so get to the trail early so it is easier to find parking. Better yet, go on weekday!

About the Author: Allison Boyle

Allison is the founder and primary voice behind She Dreams of Alpine. She started her blog in 2014 as a place to share her adventures with friends and family as she made the move from Texas to California. With this transition, she found herself venturing into and connecting with the outdoors for the first time.

Fast forward to today, and her blog has transformed. It’s now a place where she and her boyfriend share all kinds of adventures and tips for outdoor-minded explorers. They write about hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, and adventure travel tips as well as advice for digital nomads and van life. But, her blog is more than just itineraries and tips, it’s about empowering readers to find their adventure. Follow her journey on Facebook or Instagram.

best hiking trails in california - allison boyle

Inspired? Pin it!

best hiking trails in california