Hiking is one of the best ways to get out in nature, get a bit of exercise in and reboot in between our busy lives.
Many people live in California for years without realizing how many incredible hiking trails our Golden State has to offer! We didn’t step foot into the wilderness until we were in our late 20s and since then we have been hooked.
There are so many incredible hikes in California to choose from that it can feel overwhelming if you’re new to hiking and unsure where to start.
In this post, we have rounded up 20 of the best hiking trails in California to add to your bucket list – that we have personally done!
The trails that we cover in this guide range from shorter day hikes to more challenging treks for various skill levels.
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20 Best Hikes In California:
1. Yosemite Falls In Yosemite National Park
Yosemite Falls is one of the most popular hikes in all of California and it’s easy to see why! If you’re planning a trip to Yosemite National Park, visiting this waterfall up close is an absolute must.
The Lower Yosemite Falls Trail follows a short and mostly paved trail that leads to the base of the waterfall. The path ends at a footbridge where you can observe the sheer force of the towering 320-foot-tall Yosemite Falls crashing down from a granite cliff.
The Lower Yosemite Fall Trail is open all year long, so it’s a great hike to do in any season, even in the winter. The waterfall typically flows full of water in spring after snowmelt and slowly diminishes towards the fall months (unless you get lucky with some unexpected rain).
If you’re up for a challenge, you can take a 3.6-mile-long trail to the top of Yosemite Falls and enjoy some amazing views from above where the waterfall plunges over the edge. But with a 2700 elevation gain and steep uphill climb, the Columbia Rock and Upper Yosemite Falls Trail is a strenuous hike that can take all day to complete.
Another popular day hike at Yosemite National Park is the Vernal and Nevada Falls via Mist Trail which leads to multiple gorgeous waterfalls within Yosemite Valley.
- Location: Lower Yosemite Fall Vista Point
- Length: 1.2-mile long loop to Lower Yosemite Falls
- Elevation gain: flat
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2. Ryan Mountain Trail At Joshua Tree National Park
With a 360 viewpoint overlooking Joshua Tree from the summit, Ryan Mountain Trail is one of the top day hikes at Joshua Tree National Park.
Gaining over 1000 feet of elevation in just 1.5 miles, the Ryan Mountain Trail is both challenging and strenuous, but the reward at the summit is well worth it! If you have hiking poles, it’s a great idea to bring them along on this trek for assistance.
Ryan Mountain is a popular hike so it’s best to do it early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid the crowds. This trail offers no shade so it can get very hot during the day, even in the cooler months.
At the top of the mountain, you can enjoy sweeping panoramic views of Joshua Tree as far as you can see. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a bighorn sheep roaming around nearby.
Hiking Tip: The best months for outdoor adventures at Joshua Tree are February, March, April, October, and November when the weather is at its best. Due to the frequent heat warnings, be sure to bring plenty of water and download an offline hiking map from AllTrails ahead of time to avoid getting lost.
- Location: Ryan Mountain Trail
- Length: 3 miles out and back
- Elevation gain: 1000 feet
Here are a few other popular Joshua Tree hikes that you may enjoy:
- Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail At Joshua Tree
- Skull Rock Trail At Joshua Tree National Park
- Barker Dam Nature Trail In Joshua Tree
3. Moro Rock At Sequoia National Park
Giant Sequoia trees, waterfalls, rugged landscapes, and jaw-dropping mountains – there is a reason why Sequoia National Park is one of the top places for hiking in California!
If you’re visiting Sequoia National Park for the first time, the Moro Rock Trail is a must-do. Moro Rock is one of the best day hikes at Sequoia National Park which follows 350 narrow stairs carved into a giant rock slab – something you don’t get to experience very often!
The path that leads to the top of Moro Rock is 0.5 miles long and will provide you with incredible views of the park and the surrounding landscapes. But to give you a fair warning – this trail might not be easy for those with a fear of heights and should be avoided in poor weather conditions.
During the climb up, you may also experience vertigo or dizziness from the strenuous climb and high altitude. As always – prioritize your safety and turn around if needed.
A few other popular trails at Sequoia National Park include General Sherman Tree Trail, Tokopah Falls, and the Congress Trail.
- Location: Moro Rock Trail
- Length: 0.5 miles out and back
- Elevation gain: 180 feet
Be sure to check out these posts next:
- 15 Amazing Hotels Near Sequoia National Park
- 15 Incredible Things To See & Do In Sequoia National Park
- Guide To Visiting Sequoia National Park In The Winter
4. Crystal Lake Trail In Inyo National Forest
Crystal Lake Trail is one of the best wilderness hikes in California that offers incredible views for somewhat little work. This is a popular trek situated within Inyo National Forest so it can get quite crowded.
Crystal Lake Trail is 3 miles long and overlooks Lake George and Lake Mary along the way. At the highest point, you will be rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views of Mammoth Lakes.
The hike ends at Crystal Lake, a stunning alpine lake that’s known for its pristine, clear water earning it the fitting name. Once you reach the lake, you can jump in for a refreshing swim in the summer, but be warned that the water here is icy cold!
This trail is not very technical although parts do cross over rocky terrain and tree roots so having good hiking shoes are highly recommended. The hike is also family-friendly so many people bring their kids and dogs.
- Location: Crystal Lake Trailhead
- Length: 3 miles out and back
- Elevation gain: 800 feet
Read More: Crystal Lake Trail In Inyo National Forest
5. Badwater Basin Salt Flats At Death Valley National Park
Badwater Basin Salt Flats Trail is one of my favorite hikes at Death Valley National Park. Here you can explore and walk amongst unique geometric formations made of endless salt fields.
The Badwater Basin Salt Flats are located at the lowest point in North America sitting at 282 feet below sea level. Due to the setting, water has been collecting here for thousands of years and evaporating with the summer heat. When all the water is gone, only large quantities of salt are left.
The trail starts on a wide path but soon after leads into a large field with interesting salt formations as far as you can see. The further you go in, the more distinct the geometric shapes will look which is great for photography.
Pssst! I use the Sony a7c camera for my travel photos. This is the smallest and lightest full-frame camera available on the market – perfect for traveling, hiking, and outdoor trips.
Visitors are allowed to walk across the Badwater Basin Salt Flats freely, but be careful of where you step as these formations are very fragile and can break apart easily.
- Location: Badwater Basin
- Length: 2 miles long
- Elevation gain: flat
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6. Mist Falls Trail At Kings Canyon National Park
The Mist Falls Trail is on top of the list for just about everyone heading into Kings Canyon National Park! This gorgeous 9-mile-long hike features waterfalls and offers an option to extend the hike to Paradise Valley for jaw-dropping views of the surrounding mountains.
The Mist Falls Trail starts at the Rae Lakes Loop Trailhead. This part of Kings Canyon gets very hot in the summer months so plan to head out early to avoid the hottest parts of the day.
The hike begins on a flat trail and passes through a gentle forest surrounded by massive granite peaks. A long time ago this entire area used to be covered by glaciers and as they receded, the glacier ice scraped away rock leaving exposed cliff walls and wide valleys that we can now experience at Kings Canyon.
The trail ends at the Mist Falls which earns its name from the 100 feet of misty cloud from the sheer force of the water crashing down the cliff.
After seeing Mist Falls, you can keep hiking up to Paradise Valley. If you decide to continue, be prepared for leg-burning switchbacks that will make you work for those beautiful panoramic views!
- Location: Bubbs Creek and Rae Lakes Loop Trailhead
- Length: 9 miles out and back to Mist Falls
- Elevation gain: 900 feet
7. Solstice Canyon Loop In Malibu
The Solstice Canyon Loop Trail is around 3 miles long and travels next to creeks, waterfalls, bridges, and old house ruins in Malibu. This is one of the easiest and most popular hikes in the Santa Monica Mountains that offers spectacular views right by the ocean.
The Solstice Canyon Trail is a wonderful option for beginner hikers, families with kids, and dogs. With stunning views and shaded sections, this is a great weekend adventure for those looking to enjoy a bit of nature on the coast!
About halfway into the trail, you will come across the ruins of Roberts Ranch House. This elaborate house was built by Fred Roberts and his wife Florence in 1952 as part of their dream to live in Solstice Canyon.
Unfortunately, the house burned down in 1982 due to a canyon fire. Now visitors can walk around the house ruins, explore stone terraces, a lush jungle garden, and visit a nearby waterfall.
- Location: Solstice Canyon Education Shelter
- Length: 3-mile-long loop
- Elevation gain: 700 feet
8. Castle Rock Trail In Big Bear Lake
The Castle Rock trail is a highly visited 2.7-mile-long hike in Big Bear that offers incredible panoramic views overlooking the lake and the surrounding mountains. This trail is perfect for those who are looking for a dog-friendly day hike to stretch their legs for a couple of hours while visiting Big Bear Lake.
The trailhead for the Castle Rock hike is located off Big Bear Blvd. Parking here is very limited so it’s best to arrive early in the morning to secure a parking spot. Once you head onto the trail, it is very steep and gains 800 feet of elevation gain in just a mile, but the panoramic views from the summit are well worth it!
The Castle Rock Trail is especially stunning in fall when trees along this trail start changing colors into various hues of yellows and oranges – a rare treat for Southern California locals!
- Location: Castle Rock Trail 1W03
- Length: 2.7 miles out and back
- Elevation gain: 800 feet
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9. Mariposa Grove Of Giant Sequoias Trail In Yosemite
When people think of Yosemite National Park, the first things that come to mind are towering granite cliffs, waterfalls, meadows, and the famous Half Dome rock formation. But interestingly Yosemite is also home to one of the largest sequoia groves in California!
Along the Mariposa Grove Trail, you can explore miles and miles of giant Sequoia trees that are thousands of years old. Mariposa Grove is home to over 400 mature Sequoias that you can visit and see up close which is a very special experience.
The trail ends at Wawona Point which offers some of the best views of the surrounding Yosemite National Park landscapes and the mountains. Other popular attractions of Mariposa Grove include The Fallen Monarch Tree, Grizzly Giant, and the California Tunnel Tree which has a hollow, carved-out center that you can walk through.
- Location: Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza
- Length: 6.7 miles out and back
- Elevation gain: 1200 feet
Read more here:
- Hiking Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias Trail In Yosemite
- How To Visit And Snowshoe Mariposa Grove In Winter
10. Eagle Lake Trail In South Lake Tahoe
Eagle Falls & Eagle Lake Trail is an amazing wilderness hike in Lake Tahoe that you should add to your California bucket list! Eagle Lake Trail is only 2 miles long and features stunning panoramic views of Emerald Bay, the Upper Eagle Falls Bridge, and ends at a beautiful alpine lake.
The trail to Eagle Lake is short but it steadily climbs up and gains around 450 feet in elevation. During this hike, you’ll be walking on slippery rocks and uneven ground so wearing slip-resistant hiking shoes with a good grip is a must!
About 0.2 miles into the trek you can stop by an amazing vista point of Emerald Bay and its stunning blue water. Emerald Bay looks best on sunny days when the sun reflects off the water giving it that beautiful turquoise color that it’s known for.
Shortly after you will reach the scenic Upper Eagle Falls. At the waterfall, you can cross the bridge and continue on into the wilderness. Once you reach the lake, you can enjoy a snack break before turning back around and leaving the same way that you came.
- Location: Eagle Falls Trailhead
- Length: 2 miles out and back
- Elevation gain: 450 feet
11. Inspiration Point In Santa Barbara
Inspiration Point is a stunning day hike within the foothills of Santa Barbara. Living on the Central Coast, I’m always searching for local trails to do on the weekends with my dog, and Inspiration Point is at the top of my list!
The Inspiration Point Trail leads to a stunning viewpoint of Santa Barbara and the Pacific Ocean from up top. This hike is best done on a clear day to enjoy views of the surrounding landscapes.
The trailhead for Inspiration Point is located off Tunnel Road, just north of Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. This is a popular day hike with limited parking, but people are constantly walking in and out of the trail.
The hike is moderate in difficulty and takes a couple of hours to complete. It gains around 950 feet in elevation and steadily climbs up a hill until you reach a small overlook of the Santa Barbara coastline.
- Location: Inspiration Point Trailhead
- Length: 3.4 miles out and back
- Elevation gain: 950 feet
12. Trans-Catalina Trail On Catalina Island
With rolling green hills, blue water, hidden beach coves & jagged ocean cliffs, the Trans-Catalina Trail is one of the most epic trails in Southern California. It’s best to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail in early spring when the Catalina Island landscape turns green and blooms with beautiful wildflowers.
The entire Trans-Catalina Trail is 38 miles long and is best done as a multi-day backpacking trip, but you can also tackle shorter sections as day hikes.
To reach Catalina Island, you will need to take the take Catalina Express Boat that departs from San Pedro, Long Beach, or Dana Point. Most people start the hike in Avalon city on Catalina Island upon arrival, but you can also start it at Two Harbors town.
Hiking the Trans-Catalina trail is truly an unforgettable and rewarding experience from the moment you set your first step on the trail! Along the way, you can enjoy views of rugged coastlines, hidden beaches and even spot some wild buffalo (just be sure to keep a safe distance from the wild animals as they are very unpredictable and easily provoked)!
- Location: Trans Catalina Trail
- Length: 38 miles total
- Elevation gain: 7900 feet
13. Barney Lake Trail In Mammoth Lakes
Barney Lake Trail is a stunning wilderness hike in Mammoth Lakes that leads to several different alpine lakes. I’ve done this trail multiple times over the past few years and there’s always something new to discover that keeps me coming back!
The ease of accessibility and the gorgeous landscape makes this route one of the best trails in Mammoth. Along the way, you’ll get to experience great views of Skelton Lake, Barney Lake, meandering creeks, and lots of opportunities for taking photos.
This hike starts at the Duck Lake Pass Trailhead and goes for about 5.5 miles to Barney Lake out and back. This trail is not very difficult or technical, but it is quite long.
Barney Lake is recognizable for its bright turquoise color that looks especially stunning on sunny days. While most lakes in Mammoth have a deep blue tone to the water, Barney Lake is much lighter in color.
- Location: Duck Lake Pass Trailhead
- Length: 5.5 miles long out and back
- Elevation gain: Around 1200 feet
14. Mobius Arch Loop Trail In Alabama Hills
Situated at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Alabama Hills is one of the most underrated places for hiking and camping in California. Due to the unique desert landscape, more than 400 movies have been filmed in this area including the Jericho Missile Test from Ironman, Django Unchained, Godzilla, Gladiator, and many more!
Alabama Hills offers lots of scenic trails and easy access to geological wonders like Mobius Arch and Boot Arch which were formed over 100 million years ago. If you plan to visit Mobius Arch, there is a designated visitor parking area where you can leave your car and hike into the trail.
Mobius Arch Loop Trail is only 0.6 miles long and takes less than an hour to complete. About halfway into the hike, you will reach the stunning Mobius Arch. This is a very impressive rock formation and a great place for photos, especially during sunset!
Visitor tip: Alabama Hills is located in a dry, desert area where the summer temperatures spike past 100 degrees. Fall and spring are the best times to visit Alabama Hills when temperatures are much cooler.
- Location: Mobius Arch Loop Trailhead
- Length: 0.6-mile long loop
- Elevation gain: flat
15. Trail Of 100 Giants In Sequoia National Forest
Trail of 100 Giants is one of the most impressive hikes within Sequoia National Forest that features some of the biggest trees in the world. This hike is a great alternative to visiting the nearby Sequoia National Park, especially if you’re looking to save on entrance fees and avoid crowds.
Trail of 100 Giants is easily accessible and makes for the perfect quick getaway from nearby cities like Bakersfield, Fresno, and Visalia. We love to visit this trail in the summer especially to escape the heat into the mountains where temperatures are much cooler.
The Trail of a Hundred Giants goes in a loop for a total of 1.5 miles and is mostly paved & flat. It’s estimated that there are over 700 sequoias at this grove, some of which are more than 1500 years old!
- Location: Trail of 100 Giants Trailhead
- Length: 1.5-mile long loop
- Elevation gain: flat
16. Historic Loop At Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
Enchanting redwood forests, waterfalls, charming wooden bridges, and historic logging sites are just a few of the things that you can experience along the Historic Loop Trail on the Central Coast. This hidden gem provides amazing scenery, a bit of solitude, and stunning views of Maple Falls.
Historic Loop Trail is located within The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, just a 15-minute drive from Santa Cruz. To reach the trailhead you can drive along the Aptos Creek dirt road to where it ends. There is a large visitor lot by Porter Family Picnic Area where you can park your car for the hike.
During this trek, you will need to do a few creek crossings that should be avoided during the rainy months. The trail ends at Maple Falls, a towering waterfall rushing down a tall cliff.
Along the Historic Loop Trail, you will also pass an old sawmill and logging sites. Between the years 1883 to 1923 this region was a major hub for logging redwood trees but not much of the logging sites remain anymore.
- Location: Porter Family Picnic Area
- Length: 7.5-mile long loop
- Elevation gain: around 600 feet
17. Cathedral Lakes Trail In Yosemite
Cathedral Lakes is that magical place in California where dramatic mountains, granite peaks, and alpine mountain lakes all exist within the same wilderness. If you’re looking for a stunning day hike, be sure to add Cathedral Lakes Trail to the top of your list!
The trailhead for Cathedral Lakes Trail is located off Tioga Road, about an hour’s drive from Yosemite Valley. This is a hike that’s best done from late spring to early fall because Tioga Road closes from November to May due to snow.
The first two miles of the Cathedral Lakes Trail are the hardest and gain nearly 1000 feet in elevation. Once you get past the difficult climb, the hike flattens out toward the summit.
There are two lakes that you can visit along this route – the Lower Cathedral Lake and the Upper Cathedral Lake. If you have the time, I highly recommend stopping by both lakes on your trek!
- Location: Cathedral Lakes Trailhead
- Length: 8.5 miles out and back
- Elevation gain: 1600 feet
18. McWay Falls In Big Sur
McWay Falls is one of the most popular stops on a Highway 1 road trip. This Big Sur attraction consists of a scenic 80-foot-tall waterfall that flows down an ocean cliff into a small cove next to the beach.
To visit this beachfront attraction you can park at the McWay Beach Parking Lot which costs $10 for day use. From there you can go on an easy walk to a viewpoint of the waterfall.
I’ve done this hike several times and sometimes it can be a hit or miss weatherwise. Be sure to come on a sunny day to avoid the waterfall being covered in heavy coastal fog.
- Location: McWay Waterfall Trailhead
- Length: 1 mile out and back
- Elevation gain: 100 feet
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19. Redwood Grove Trail At Henry Cowell Redwoods SP
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is a beautiful forest on the Central Coast that covers 4650 acres of protected old-growth redwood trees. This State Park is home to some of the oldest and tallest trees in the world that will simply leave you in awe!
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is just a short drive from Santa Cruz offering easy access to incredible trails and nature. If you have extra time, you can also explore the second part of this park called Fall Creek Unit which has additional hiking trails.
If it’s your first time visiting Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, we recommend starting with the Redwood Grove Loop Trail near the visitor center. This is a 0.9-mile-long loop that passes through an ancient redwood grove that was preserved in the 1800s instead of being logged. Some of the trees within this grove are over 270 feet tall and 1500 years old!
- Location: Redwood Grove Loop Trail
- Length: 0.9-mile long loop
- Elevation gain: flat
20. Redwood Trail At Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Big Basin Redwoods State Park is the oldest State Park in California that was created at the turn of the 20th century to protect the coastal redwood trees from being logged.
The Big Basin Redwoods State Park has multiple trails ranging from short half-mile-long hikes to longer treks such as the Skyline-To-The-Sea Trail which can take multiple days to complete.
Several of the top park trails including Berry Creek Falls and Sequoia Trail are currently closed for restoration due to a recent fire, but other trails such as the Redwoods Loop are open and accessible to day visitors. Along this path, you’ll pass towering redwood trees, opal-colored creeks, oak trees, and meadows.
The Redwoods Loop Trail is only 0.5 miles long and flat making it a great choice for families and little kids. The trailhead is located near the Big Basin State Park Headquarters where you can leave your car for the visit.
- Location: Loop Trail
- Length: 0.6-mile long loop
- Elevation gain: flat
Here are a few frequently asked questions about hiking in California:
What To Bring On Day Hikes
Not sure what to pack? Here are a few things that we recommend to bring on hiking adventures:
- Warm Puff Jacket. Weather in the outdoors can change drastically without much notice. With a windproof and moisture-repelling shell, the Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket will keep you warm by trapping your body heat and blocking the cold, especially in chilly places like the mountains.
- Danner Trail 2650 Hiking Shoes. A good pair of hiking shoes can make all the difference on hiking trips! I recommend getting a pair that are tough and have lots of traction so you don’t fall, especially when trekking across rough terrain. The Danner 600 boots are lightweight, durable, and made with Vibram Fuga outsoles for traction on slippery surfaces.
- Use trekking poles on tougher hikes with steep elevation gain. Trekking poles can help if you’re new to hiking or get winded easily from the altitude.
- I love to wear comfortable, stretchy The North Face leggings that are easy to move around in. I prefer ones with a side phone pocket so I can access my phone for directions and photos.
- REI Co-op Nalgene Water Bottle. Bring plenty of water bottles, especially in the summer. I love my reusable REI Co-op Nalgene bottle which is leakproof and so easy to clean!
- Anker Portable phone charger. I always bring a battery pack when going on longer day hikes. A portable phone charger can come in handy in case your phone runs out of battery and you need to use it to look up the hiking route or driving directions.
- Small Day Pack. I have a small lightweight day pack that fits all my hiking essentials, water, and camera gear. The Gregory Nano pack comes with a padded mesh back, several adjustable straps, and plenty of pockets where you can put small things like hand sanitizer, sunscreen, a headlamp, and a medical kit.
Is California Good For Hiking?
California is one of the best places for hiking adventures in the United States! This State offers a variety of landscapes and terrains from the mountains to lush forests and ocean-front trails.
California is also a great place for hiking year-round! In the summer we love to head to the mountains while the coast offers plenty of outdoor escapes in the winter when the weather starts getting colder.
Hikes in California With Waterfalls
Despite having a mostly dry, desert climate, California has a surprising amount of waterfalls. Yosemite National Park is home to some of the tallest waterfalls in North America making it our go-to spot for waterfall chasing.
A few of our favorite California hikes with waterfalls include:
- Lower Yosemite Falls
- Vernal Falls in Yosemite
- McWay Falls in Big Sur
- Escondido Falls in Malibu
- Rainbow Falls in Mammoth Lakes
We hope this post has inspired you to get out in nature and add a few new hiking trails to your California bucket list!
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