City Hiking Guides

Exploring the Best Hikes in California: A Nature Lover’s Guide

POSTED ON December 2, 2020 BY Ralph S.


California, a state renowned for its diverse landscapes ranging from the lush coastlines to the arid California desert, offers some of the best hikes in California for enthusiasts.

For those drawn to the expanse of the stark yet beautiful deserts, the Mojave Desert, the Colorado Desert, and the Great Basin Desert present unique hiking experiences. Meanwhile, southern California boasts trails with breathtaking ocean views, and northern California offers paths through dense forests and mountains.

Not to be overlooked, the state’s national parks provide some of the most iconic treks, where the magnificence of nature is on full display.

Whether you are strapping on your hiking boots to explore the towering redwoods near San Francisco, or the serene waters of Lake Tahoe, this guide will lead you through some of the most spectacular landscapes the Golden State has to offer.

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Northern California Hikes

Northern California

Northern California is a haven for adventurers seeking the best hikes in California. From the misty trails of the coastal redwoods to the rugged paths in the Sierra Nevada, the region offers a wide array of experiences for every type of hiker.

Whether you’re looking for challenging day hikes or leisurely strolls, Northern California’s trails will not disappoint.

Lost Coast Trail

Punta Gorda Lighthouse - Lost Coast

  • Location: Northern CA, Humboldt County, within the King Range National Conservation Area
  • Distance: Approximately 25 miles (40 kilometers)
  • Hiking Duration: 3–4 days
  • Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
  • Trail Type: Point-to-point

The Lost Coast Trail is a renowned hiking destination within the breathtaking confines of the King Range National Conservation Area. This point-to-point trail is acknowledged for its moderate to strenuous difficulty, primarily due to its challenging terrain featuring steep ascents and descents, alongside the rugged beauty of rocky and secluded beaches.

Over the course of 3-4 days, hikers can immerse themselves in the unparalleled beauty of towering cliffs and vast, breathtaking vistas that define this untouched slice of California coastline.

One of the trail’s most compelling attributes is its striking isolation, offering adventurers an unparalleled sense of seclusion and immersion in nature.

The Lost Coast Trail provides a unique opportunity to experience the raw power of the Pacific Ocean, with numerous spots along the trail offering moments of reflection amid the natural grandeur of California’s rugged coast.

Pacific Crest Trail

Pacific Crest Trail

  • Location: Runs from Mexico to British Columbia, Canada, through California
  • Distance: Approximately 2,650 miles (4,265 kilometers)
  • Hiking Duration: 5–6 months (For the entire trail) at 14–17 miles (22–27 km) per day
  • Difficulty: Challenging
  • Trail Type: Point-to-point

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) stands as a monumental challenge and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for avid hikers from the southern border of Mexico to British Columbia, Canada.

The trail traverses the length of California, showcasing the sheer diversity of landscapes, from desert terrain in the south to alpine forests and meadows in the north. Here is the interactive map.

While most folks may only hike segments of this vast trail, its entirety offers a comprehensive glimpse into the diverse ecosystems of the Western United States. Throughout its run through California, hikers are treated to some of the most breathtaking views and challenging terrain the state has to offer.

Boy Scout Tree Trail

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

  • Location: Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte County, CA (direction)
  • Distance: 5.5 miles round-trip (about 9 kilometers)
  • Hiking Duration: 3–4 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate-to-challenging
  • Trail Type: Out and back

The Boy Scout Tree Trail, nestled within the lush expanse of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, offers an immersive trek into the heart of old-growth redwoods. This moderately challenging hike is lauded for its stunning display of ancient trees, some towering over 300 feet (91 meters) tall. The path leads hikers through a serene, verdant tunnel of flora, punctuated by ferns, rhododendrons, and a rich understory, culminating at the remarkable Boy Scout Tree, an impressively large and iconic redwood.

What makes the Boy Scout Tree Trail particularly noteworthy is the sense of tranquility and timelessness it offers. Along the way, visitors are treated to the soothing sounds of nearby streams and the occasional sightings of local wildlife, providing a complete and enriching outdoor experience.

Redwood National and State Parks

Redwood National and State Parks

  • Location: Northern CA, USA
  • Size: Approximately 138,999 acres (560.88 km2)
  • Number of Hiking Trails: more than 20
  • Total Length of Hiking Trails: About 200 miles (322 kilometers)

Redwood National and State Park is famed for its towering redwood forests, which include some of the tallest trees on Earth. This unique ecosystem is not only home to ancient redwoods but also features diverse habitats such as prairies, oak woodlands, and nearly 40 miles (64 km) of rugged coastline. Among the must-visit sites within the park is the Fern Canyon Loop Trail, a mesmerizing gorge lined with lush, verdant ferns that have adorned the walls for millennia, creating a natural masterpiece that’s accessible via a short hike from the nearest parking lot. (Location)

A notable trail includes the easy, family-friendly walk to Lady Bird Johnson Grove, an ideal starting point offering informational displays about these giant trees. For those seeking a deeper connection with nature, overnight camping is available, allowing visitors to immerse themselves fully in the tranquil and awe-inspiring surroundings.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Peak and Manzanita Lake, Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

  • Location: Northeastern CA, USA
  • Size: Approximately 106,372 acres (171 sq. mi.)
  • Number of Hiking Trails: about 69 (AllTrails)
  • Total Length of Hiking Trails: More than 150 miles (241 km)

Lassen Volcanic National Park is a dynamic landscape shaped by the powerful forces of the Earth’s interior. Most folks come here not only to witness the park’s volcanic features but also to explore its diverse ecosystems on hikes such as the Lassen Peak Trail (direction) and the Brokeoff Mountain Trail (direction). These trails, along with over 150 others, offer adventurers more than 200 miles of paths through striking volcanic landscapes, serene mountain lakes, and stunning vistas.

One of the park’s highlights is the Lassen Peak Trail, a strenuous 5-mile (8 km) round trip that rewards hikers with panoramic views from one of the largest plug-domed volcanoes in the world. Meanwhile, the Brokeoff Mountain Trail offers a challenging but rewarding ascent, featuring spectacular vistas of the park’s volcanic rock formations and abundant wildlife.

Besides hiking, visitors can explore hydrothermal areas like Bumpass Hell or enjoy kayaking on Manzanita Lake.

Sierra Buttes Trail

Pacific Crest Trail, Sierra Buttes, California

  • Location: Sierra Buttes, Northern California, USA (location)
  • Distance: 3.3 miles (5.3 km)
  • Hiking Duration: Approximately 3-4 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate to challenging
  • Trail Type: Out and back

The Sierra Buttes Trail offers hikers an exquisite adventure from its commencement at the 12e30 Tamarack Connection to the ultimate vista at Sierra Buttes Lookout. This moderate-to-challenging hike is renowned for its breathtaking panoramic views that reward those who make the ascent. The trail’s pathway, marked by diverse terrains, guides adventurers through a series of stunning natural landscapes before culminating at the iconic lookout, which provides an unparalleled view of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

One of the trail’s highlights includes the historic fire lookout atop the Sierra Buttes, which offers a 360-degree perspective of the majestic surroundings, including views of mountain lakes and distant peaks. Despite its moderate length, the climb can be strenuous, but it promises an unforgettable outdoor experience filled with photographic opportunities and moments of awe-inspiring beauty.

Central California Hikes

San Francisco Bay Area

Central California is a treasure trove of outdoor beauty and adventure, offering some of the most rewarding hikes in California. For those seeking day hikes, the region has several trails that cater to every level of hiker. The San Francisco Bay Area alone boasts an incredible variety of landscapes, from coastal paths to forested hills.

Among its gems, the Lands End Trail provides hikers with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and the rugged coastline, making it a must-visit for anyone exploring central California’s outdoors.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

  • Location: Central CA, USA
  • Size: Approximately 747,956 acres (1,169 sq. mi.)
  • Number of Hiking Trails: About 10 designated trails
  • Total Length of Hiking Trails: over 750 miles (1200 km) of official trails

Yosemite National Park is renowned for its stunning granite cliffs, dramatic waterfalls, and diverse ecosystems. The park’s iconic Half Dome and the serene Tuolumne Meadows are among the highlights, attracting adventurers and nature enthusiasts alike. The Yosemite Mist Trail offers a spectacular hike past Vernal and Nevada Falls, providing breathtaking views and an exhilarating experience of the mist from the falls. This trail showcases the natural beauty of the little Yosemite Valley and its surrounding peaks.

The Panorama Trail (Panorama and Poho Trailheads) offers hikers incredible views from the breathtaking Glacier Point down to the serene Happy Isles in the heart of Yosemite National Park. This marked trail takes adventurers on a descent along the south wall of Yosemite Valley, providing unique opportunities to witness diverse wildlife, including mountain lions, in their natural habitat.

Hikers on the trail to Half Dome face a challenging final push but are rewarded with panoramic views from the summit. The valley floor presents an easier yet equally rewarding experience with its meadows, rivers, and towering cliffs.

For those seeking tranquility, a hike through Tuolumne Meadows reveals a different aspect of Yosemite’s beauty, with its vast alpine landscape dotted with granite domes and pristine lakes.

For longer excursions, the storied John Muir Trail can take hikers through some of the most remote and ruggedly beautiful sections of the park.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

  • Location: California, USA
  • Size: Over 461,901 acres (722 sq. mi.) combined
  • Number of Hiking Trails: about 15 (combined)
  • Total Length of Hiking Trails: Undefined

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are nestled within the southern Sierra Nevada range, adjacent to the Inyo National Forest. These parks are home to some of the world’s tallest trees, the Sequoia sempervirens, which draw visitors from all over the globe. Among the numerous beautiful hikes, the parks feature the trail to Mt. Whitney from Whitney Portal stands out. This strenuous 22-mile (35 km) trail leads adventurers to the highest peak in the contiguous United States, offering unmatched vistas of the High Sierra.

Another highlight is the Congress Trail, an easy but immensely rewarding hike located within the Giant Forest. This loop introduces hikers to the park’s majestic giants, including the General Sherman Tree, acknowledged as the largest tree on earth by volume.

For those seeking a longer endeavor, the High Sierra Trail spans across the park’s vast wilderness, encompassing stunning views and diverse ecosystems.

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park

  • Location: Central California, USA
  • Size: Approximately 26,606 acres (42 sq. mi.)
  • Number of Hiking Trails: Over 10
  • Total Length of Hiking Trails: more than 30 miles (48 kilometers)

Pinnacles National Park, nestled in the heart of Central California, boasts a unique landscape shaped by volcanic activity millions of years ago. The park is renowned for its spectacular hikes through rugged terrain, providing incredible views of spire-like rock formations and deep canyons. Two of the most notable trails include the High Peaks Trail (direction) and the Balconies Cave Trail (direction), each offering distinct experiences of the park’s geological wonders and breathtaking panoramas.

Besides hiking, Pinnacles National Park serves as a critical habitat for wildlife, including the California Condor. The park’s varied ecosystems support a rich diversity of flora and fauna, making it a prime location for bird-watching and nature photography. Adventure seekers can also enjoy rock climbing on the park’s iconic formations, adding another layer of excitement to the exploration of this extraordinary landscape.

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park

  • Location: Eastern California, USA
  • Size: About 3,373,063 acres (5,270 sq. mi.)
  • Number of Hiking Trails: About 21
  • Total Length of Hiking Trails: Approximately 95 miles (153 km)

Death Valley National Park, straddling the California-Nevada border, is recognized for its stark beauty, extreme temperatures, and diverse landscapes ranging from salt flats to sand dunes and mountains to canyons. The park offers a variety of activities, including hiking, photography, and stargazing.

For most hikers, the trek to Telescope Peak is a highlight, standing as the park’s highest point and offering expansive views of Death Valley below.

Despite its foreboding name, Death Valley National Park is full of life and geological wonders. From the colorful, mineral-rich hills of the Artist’s Palette to the below-sea-level basin of Badwater Basin, the diversity of this land is staggering. Visitors are also drawn to the mystifying sailing stones of the Racetrack Playa and the historic ruins of the Borax mines, making Death Valley a unique fusion of natural beauty and human history.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

  • Location: San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA
  • Size: 82,116 acres (332.31 sq. km.)
  • Number of Hiking Trails: about 250
  • Total Length of Hiking Trails: More than 140 miles

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area spans from Marin to San Mateo, offering a diverse array of activities and sights across a scenic expanse of national parkland. With over 250 trails winding through more than 140 miles, the area caters to hikers of all levels, inviting them to explore the natural beauty and stunning viewpoints of the San Francisco Bay Area. Key attractions include breathtaking coastal spots like Lands End, where visitors can enjoy rugged cliffs and views of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

Furthermore, the recreation area is a haven for history buffs and outdoor enthusiasts. The comprehensive network of trails leads adventurers through varied landscapes, including historic sites, lush woodlands, and open spaces, offering something for everyone.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

  • Location: Big Sur, California, USA
  • Size: About 1,006 acres
  • Number of Hiking Trails: about 8
  • Total Length of Hiking Trails: Approximately 38 miles (61 km)

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, nestled in the heart of Big Sur, is a state park known for its majestic views, towering redwoods, and the Big Sur River that winds its way through the park. This park provides a gateway to many of the area’s natural treasures, including the Andrew Molera State Park, a relatively undeveloped park offering miles of trails through meadows and beaches, and the iconic Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, famous for the McWay Falls that plunge into the Pacific Ocean.

Within Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, visitors can explore a variety of hiking trails, such as the popular Valley View Trail (street view) or the more tranquil Pine Ridge Trail, each offering unique vantage points of Big Sur’s spectacular rugged coastline, lush forests, and flowing rivers.

The last standout feature is the Pacific Valley Bluff Trail (direction), which boasts breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and Big Sur’s dramatic coastal landscape, making it a favored spot for photographers and nature lovers alike.

Little Lakes Valley Trail

Little Lakes Valley Trail

  • Location: Eastern Sierras, California, USA (Direction)
  • Distance: 3.6 miles (5.8 km)
  • Hiking Duration: 1-2 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trail Type: Out and back

The Little Lakes Valley Trail in the Eastern Sierra region is a picturesque hiking trail that winds through alpine meadows and glacier-fed lakes. It’s a popular destination for day hikes, offering stunning views of the surrounding peaks and opportunities to spot wildlife such as marmots and bighorn sheep.

The trail starts at the Mosquito Flat Trailhead and continues through various scenic lakes, including Mack Lake and Marsh Lake. Hikers can also extend their trip by continuing on to Gem Lakes or Mono Pass. The Little Lakes Valley Trail is a must-do for anyone seeking an idyllic alpine hiking experience in California.

Rubicon Trail

Rubicon Trail

  • Location: Sierra Nevada, western United States, due west of Lake Tahoe (location)
  • Distance: 22 miles (35 km)
  • Hiking Duration: Variable, depending on activity level
  • Difficulty: Moderate to challenging
  • Trail type: Point-to-point
  • Trail Map

The Rubicon Trail is a 22-mile-long route that serves as both a scenic road and a rugged 4×4 trail, nestled in the heart of the Sierra Nevada of the western United States. Positioned west of Lake Tahoe and roughly 80 miles (129 km) east of Sacramento, this trail is prized as much for its historical significance as for its appeal to off-road enthusiasts. Skirting the southwest shore of Lake Tahoe, it traverses stunning forests, mountainous landscapes, and granite peaks, providing ample photographic opportunities and challenging terrain for visitors.

Many hikers and off-road adventurers seek out the Rubicon Trail for its unique combination of natural beauty and technical challenges.

Southern California Hikes

San Jacinto Mountains

Southern California’s landscape is as diverse as it is stunning, offering a unique blend of soaring peaks and expansive sandy beaches. Hikers can ascend the rugged trails of the San Jacinto Mountains, where breathtaking vistas await at the summit.

Alternatively, a leisurely day hike along the coastal trails reveals picturesque views of the ocean, set against the backdrop of iconic sandy beaches.

Murray Canyon Trail

Top of the Murray Canyon Trail

  • Location: Near Palm Springs, California, USA
  • Distance: 3.7 miles (about 6 km)
  • Hiking Duration: Approximately 2–3 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trail type: Out and back

The Murray Canyon Trail (location) offers a serene yet adventurous hike nestled just adjacent to the Andreas Canyon Trail in Palm Springs, California. This moderately challenging trail is a sanctuary for nature lovers, winding through a vibrant landscape adorned with lush palm trees and rugged rocks, leading hikers toward a captivating waterfall and alongside a gently flowing stream.

Ideal for those seeking a balance of scenic beauty and physical activity, the trail presents an opportunity to explore the unique desert ecosystem. The path is well-defined, guiding explorers through breathtaking vistas, which are especially picturesque during the early morning or late afternoon when the light casts a golden hue over the desert flora.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

  • Location: Southern California, USA
  • Size: 790,636 acres (3,199.59 sq. km.)
  • Number of Hiking Trails: About 28
  • Total Length of Hiking Trails: Approximately 191 miles (307 km)

Joshua Tree National Park is a vast and entrancing landscape renowned for its stark desert beauty, characterized by the iconic Joshua trees that stretch across the horizon. With over 300 hiking trails, adventurers of all levels find themselves amidst the rugged beauty of the desert.

Popular trails, like the Hidden Valley Trail, offer easy access to the park’s unique rock formations and the Joshua trees themselves.

For those seeking a more secluded experience, the Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail leads many hikers through more challenging terrain to a hidden oasis, providing a surprising contrast to the surrounding desert. Nearby, the Salton Sea State Recreation Area (location) offers a broader perspective on the region’s diverse ecosystem.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

  • Location: Borrego Springs, California, USA
  • Size: 585,930 acres (2,371.2 sq. km.)
  • Number of Hiking Trails: about 7
  • Total Length of Hiking Trails: about 10 miles (16 km)

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park stands as California’s largest state park of diverse desert terrain near Borrego Springs and within a short driving distance from San Diego. This spectacular park is a haven for hikers, nature enthusiasts, and photographers seeking to immerse themselves in the beauty of the desert landscape. The park’s hiking trails allow visitors to explore a variety of terrain, from vast sandy deserts to rugged canyons.

One of the highlights within Anza-Borrego is the 3-mile (4.8 km) Palm Canyon Trail. This popular hike leads adventurers through a scenic canyon to a hidden oasis of California fan palms, offering a lush contrast to the surrounding desert expanse. The park’s proximity to the Salton Sea State Recreation Area further broadens the opportunities for exploration and insight into the diverse ecosystems of Southern California’s desert regions.

Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park

  • Location: Off the coast of Southern California, USA
  • Size: approximately 249,576 acres (1,010 sq. km) of land and water.
  • Number of Hiking Trails: approximately 44 across the 5 islands.
  • Total Length of Hiking Trails: about 244 miles (393 km)

Channel Islands National Park, accessible only by boat, presents a unique coastal experience far removed from the hustle and bustle of mainland life. With several trails stretching over 393 km, the park offers a diverse array of landscapes, from rugged sea cliffs to serene beaches and canyons.

Among the highlights is the Anacapa Island Trail, a 2-mile (3.2 km) loop that showcases extraordinary sea cliffs and sea cave formations, providing visitors with a glimpse into the rich maritime and natural history of the area.

Mt. Woodson Trail

Mt. Woodson Trail

  • Location: Poway, California, USA  (location)
  • Distance: 6.4 miles (10.3 km) roundtrip
  • Hiking Duration: Approximately 4-6 hours
  • Difficulty: Challenging
  • Trail Type: Out and Back

Mount Woodson Trail, beginning at the west approach from Lake Poway Park, presents a challenging yet rewarding excursion for avid hikers. This challenging hike showcases the rugged beauty of Southern California’s landscape, offering panoramic views of downtown San Diego and the Pacific Ocean. En route, hikers encounter unusual rock formations and dense chaparral.

The trail’s most iconic landmark, Potato Chip Rock, provides a unique and photogenic challenge near the summit. This thin, jutting rock formation has become a popular spot for daring photos against the backdrop of the vast landscape below.

Alongside the remarkable views and geological features, the Mount Woodson Trail allows hikers to immerse themselves in the natural beauty surrounding Lake Poway, making it a memorable adventure for those willing to tackle its steep ascents.


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California’s beauty is not confined to its urban landscapes; the true spirit of the state lies in its untamed wilderness. Each of the hikes we’ve explored here offers a different facet of this natural grandeur, from the serene majesty of the redwoods to the stark beauty of the desert.

Whether you’re tackling the Half Dome in Yosemite or witnessing the sunrise over the Pacific from a remote trail, the hikes in California will imprint lasting memories on the hearts of any nature lover. The only question that remains is: which trail will you choose to explore first?

Find other interesting destinations in our City Hiking Guide.


Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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