17 Best Hikes in California in 2023 (By a Local)
With desert, mountain, forest, and coastline landscapes, there are endless opportunities for spectacular hikes in California.
In fact, as a California local, I’d have to say that California is one of the best places for hiking in the U.S. (I’m totally not biased). Sure, visiting big cities like Los Angeles is great, but exploring the Sierra Nevada and lower Cascade Mountains are highlights for nature lovers.
There are so many trail options in the golden state, so I’ve created this epic list of the best hiking trails in California to help get you started.
Table of Contents
- 17 Best Hikes in California
- Mt. Baldy
- San Gorgonio
- San Jacinto
- Deep Creek Hot Springs
- Ryan Mountain, Joshua Tree National Park
- Mt. Baden Powell
- Lost Coast Trail
- Mt. Whitney
- Mt. Langley
- Big Pine Lakes- Second Lake
- John Muir Trail
- Tokopah Falls, Sequoia National Park
- Half Dome Cables
- Vernal and Nevada Falls
- Tahoe Rim Trail
- Matterhorn Peak
- Mt. Shasta
- FAQs About Hiking Trails in California
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17 Best Hikes in California
Climb Los Angeles’s tallest mountain
🥾 Difficult | 4 miles | 4,000 feet elevation gain | 📍 Google Maps | Drive Time from Los Angeles: 1 hour | Cost: Free
Mt. Baldy is the highest mountain in Los Angeles County at 10,064 feet. There are four popular trails to the top but the most frequented trail is the Ski Hut/Baldy Bowl Trail.
The Baldy Bowl trail starts on a fire road but steeply cuts left into the side of the mountain. This trail is shaded by pine trees ⅔ of the time as opposed to the Baldy Backbone trail which is exposed the whole way. You can also take the 3-mile, 3,000-foot gain Register Ridge trail but be prepared for a very hard hike.
Another hard ascent trail is the Bear Canyon trail to the summit, which starts from Mt. Baldy village and gains 6,000 feet in 6 miles. This is a long and grueling hike but you are almost guaranteed to see bighorn sheep.
⛰️ Up for a Winter Hike? Mt. Baldy is also a popular mountaineers route in the winter with a thousand-foot alpine climb up the bowl. You must have mountaineering experience to attempt this route in the winter.
The highest mountain in SoCal has amazing views
🥾 Difficult | 19 miles | 5,400 feet elevation gain | 📍 Google Maps | Drive Time from San Bernardino: 40 minutes | Cost: Free
Welcome to the highest peak in SoCal! At 11,503 feet, San Gorgonio has some of the best summit views of all the hikes in California.
The Vivian Creek trail is 19 miles long and there are no shortcuts, so only attempt this mountain if you are okay with endurance hiking. You may also summit via the South Forks trail, a less crowded, yet longer, 22-mile trail. The South Forks trail also makes a great winter mountaineering and ski mountaineering route.
👉Pro Tip: Bring at least 3 liters of water on this 19-mile hike because natural water sources are limited. I recommend using this water bladder for hiking to carry it along.
The mountains in Idyllwild are welcoming any time of the year
🥾 Difficult | 11.5 miles | 4,600 feet elevation gain | 📍 Google Maps | Drive Time from Riverside: 1 hour, 5 minutes | Cost: Free
Located in Idyllwild, this beautiful California hike takes first-timers around 8-10 hours to complete. A great day trip from San Diego, The San Jacinto Mountains heat up fast so you should plan on starting before 8 am.
The Marion Mountain trail to San Jacinto’s 10,834-foot summit is a beautiful trek through the quiet of the forest. You will see awe-inspiring sunrises and sunsets and, if you’re lucky, some deer too.
You can also hike to the summit via the Palm Springs Tram, which makes for a much easier 2,620-ft trek. However, The Palm Springs Tram is $29.95 for adults and $17.95 for children, plus $12 for parking.
I recommend the Marion Mountain trail to San Jacinto’s summit because it’s free, less crowded, and in my opinion, more beautiful.
Deep Creek Hot Springs
Take a soak for ultimate relaxation in these high desert hot springs
🥾 Easy | 5 miles | 📍 Google Maps | Park Website | Drive Time from Los Angeles: 2 hours | Cost: $10
One of the best hikes in California for relaxation, Deep Creek Hot Springs in Southern California isn’t your typical hike. As the name suggests, the trail leads you to a series of hot springs.
The hike is 2.5 miles one way and you have to cross the Mojave River at one point, so wear something that can get wet, such as these water shoes. I recommend going during the weekday to avoid the many weekend campers and thru-hikers and have the most relaxing hot spring soak.
To get to the hot springs, you can either pay $10 to park at the Bonita Ranch parking lot area or you can hike 7 miles in (one way) from the Pacific Crest Trail.
👉 Pro Tip: Keep yourself hydrated by purifying your water on the go. The Grayl Geopress is a great water bottle for dipping into California’s lakes and streams and having an endless supply.
Ryan Mountain, Joshua Tree National Park
Experience views of the Mojave and Colorado deserts from this Joshua Tree mountain summit
🥾 Moderate | 3 miles | 1,050 feet elevation gain | 📍 Google Maps | Park Website | Drive Time from San Bernardino: 1.5 hours | Cost: $30 National Park entrance fee/ $55 annual pass
Joshua Tree National Park in southern California is an outdoor oasis with hundreds of hikes, including the famous Lost Palms Oasis trail and Ryan Mountain. You are guaranteed to view rock climbers during your visit to the park and perhaps bighorn sheep and jackrabbits too.
Ryan Mountain is the highest peak in the park. This moderate 3-mile roundtrip hike is only 5,457 feet tall but the views from the top are immaculate. This is one of the only hikes in California where you can see the Mojave desert on one side and the Colorado desert on the other.
If you plan on visiting Joshua Tree National Park, then time your visit to California carefully. I recommend going in the spring, fall, or winter because the summers are over 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day. See our guide to staying in Joshua Tree for more tips on picking the ideal places.
Mt. Baden Powell
Hike the most popular mountain in Wrightwood, California
🥾 Moderate | 8.3 miles | 2,800 feet elevation gain | 📍 Google Maps | Drive Time from Los Angeles: 1.5 hours | Cost: Free
Mt. Baden Powell is a beautiful wooded forest trail in Wrightwood, California. The trail was named after the founder of the Boy Scouts of America, Lord Baden-Powell, and crosses the Pacific Crest Trail on the way to the 9,399-foot summit.
Like many other SoCal hikes, this trail heats up quickly in the summertime. Hike early in the day or plan your visit in a season other than summer.
For more adventurous hikers, you can turn Mt. Baden Powell into a multi-peak hike. To do this, take a long but fun traverse from the summit to the neighboring Dawson or Pine peaks. You can even trek all the way to Mt. Baldy but be prepared for a very long hiking day if you do.
Lost Coast Trail
Camp on the beach while hiking this 25.5-mile trail on the pacific ocean
🥾 Difficult | 25.5 miles | 1,000 feet elevation gain | 📍 Google Maps | Park Website | Drive Time from San Francisco: 5 hours | Cost: Free
The Lost Coast Trail is in the remote King Range National Conservation Area of Northern California. It takes 1-5 days to complete and you must have a permit to hike it, available through Recreation.gov.
This classic, beautiful beach hike is usually done from Mattole Beach to Shelter Cove so the wind is at your back. You’ll want to arrange a ride beforehand or take the shuttle back because the trail is one way.
Most of the Lost Coast Trail is on soft sand and rocky terrain, which makes the going a bit slower and tougher. Take your time, relax, and breathe in the fresh pacific ocean breeze. Most people hike this trail from April to September when the weather is warm and storm-free.
The highest mountain in the lower 48 states is located in Central California
🥾 Expert | 21.5 miles | 📍 Google Maps | Park Website | Drive Time from Los Angeles: 3.5 hours | Cost: Permit $15
Mt. Whitney is the tallest mountain in the lower 48 U.S. States, and is one of the most beautiful hikes in California.
The views from Mt. Whitney are unlike anything else you will see in the state and this hike will definitely be the highlight of your central California trip. But, to do so, you must apply for a climbing wilderness permit in March from Recreation.gov.
Because the hike is so long, I recommend camping on the mountain overnight and packing for your hiking trip appropriately. This is a great way to adjust to the high 14,508-foot altitude and witness some incredible sunrises and sunsets. Just keep in mind that Mt. Whitney receives a lot of traffic in the summer months when it is safer to climb without snow.
👉 Pro Tip: Marmots are very common at the campsites and they love human food. Don’t leave any unattended food in your tent because they will claw their way in if they smell it.
One of the most scenic mountain landscapes in the Eastern Sierras
🥾 Difficult | 22 miles | 4,000 feet elevation gain | 📍 Google Maps | Drive Time from Los Angeles: 3.5 hours | Cost: $15 permit
Neighboring Mt. Whitney, 14,032-foot Mt. Langley is one of the highest mountains in the Eastern Sierra Mountains. It’s less crowded than Whitney but still a challenging endurance hike.
Many hikers camp overnight to break up the 22 miles and help acclimatize to the elevation. Cottonwood Campground or the base of New Army Pass are perfect spots to camp on the mountain.
You’ll also need a permit to hike this mountain from Recreation.gov. The lottery starts in March and, the sooner you apply, the more likely you are to snag a spot.
Big Pine Lakes- Second Lake
Experience one of the most gorgeous hiking trails in central California
🥾 Moderate | 10.5 miles | 3,000 feet elevation gain | 📍 Google Maps | Drive Time from Los Angeles: 4 hours | Cost: $15 permit
The Big Pine Lakes trail is one of the most beautiful hikes in California. This hike is still somewhat of a hidden gem and not nearly as crowded as the high mountain peaks in the sierras.
There are many places to stop along the Big Pine Lakes trail, but the beauty and crystal-clear color of Second Lake is worth the break.
Just beyond Second Lake, you have the options of a day hike to the 3rd, 4th, and 5th lakes loop, or to continue straight to the Palisade Glacier trail. From the Glacier, there are even more difficult mountains to climb such as Mt. Sill and Middle Palisade Mountain.
For a true pristine mountain experience, visit Second Lake in the winter. You’ll need good winter gear like this winter-rated sleeping pad, but the views are breathtaking and you’re almost guaranteed to have it to yourself.
John Muir Trail
211 miles of pure wilderness, from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney
🥾 Difficult | 211 miles | 📍 Google Maps | Park Website | Drive Time from Los Angeles: 4.5 hours | Cost: $11 in permit fees
The John Muir Trail is a thru-hike that starts in Yosemite Valley and ends on Mt. Whitney (or vice versa). It usually takes hikers 10-14 days to complete this enjoyable hike but many others simply section-hike the trail if they don’t have that much time.
The John Muir Trail is a great opportunity to experience the remote wilderness of the park and escape the summertime crowds. However, you must apply ahead of time to hike the 211-mile trail with a $10 non-refundable fee, and then pay another $5 if you are granted the permit.
Good re-supply stops on the trail to stock up on food and toiletries is either Tuolumne Meadows or Kearsarge Pass.
🛎️ Looking for cheap accommodation along the trail? Take a rest day at The Hostel California before continuing with your thru-hike.
Tokopah Falls, Sequoia National Park
Cool off on a hot day in Sequoia’s Tokopah Falls
🥾 Moderate | 3.8 miles | 📍 Google Maps | Park Website | Drive Time from Los Angeles: 4 hours, 45 minutes | Cost: $35 National Park entrance, $70 annual pass
Visit the refreshing Tokopah Falls in Sequoia National Park to cool off from the summer heat. Only 3.8 miles, this is one of the best hikes in California that is suited for the whole family.
The moderate trail typically takes less than 2 hours but I recommend spending some time at the falls or going swimming in the nearby river.
This is a very popular hiking and California camping spot in one of the most popular national parks in California, so prepare to share it with others. And keep in mind that dogs aren’t allowed on the trail.
Half Dome Cables
This Yosemite National Park trail is filled with steep, high-adrenaline fun
🥾 Expert | 17 miles | 5,200 feet elevation gain | 📍 Google Maps | Park Website | Drive Time from Los Angeles: 5.5 hours | Cost: $35 National Park Entrance
Want to hike Half Dome but not a rock climber? Then you’re in luck! The Half Dome Cables hike in northern California is one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done, but the views from the top are absolutely worth it.
The out-and-back trail is about 17 miles long and starts at the Mist Trail Trailhead. This is the same trailhead for the Yosemite Falls trails, two other popular hikes in Yosemite, and so the parking lot fills up quickly.
The approach to the base of the cables is long and moderately steep. Climbing the cables, however, is one of the hardest and steepest hikes in California. Because of this, it’s recommended to bring gardening gloves or other grippy rubber gloves so you can grasp the cables better.
There are fatalities every year on this hike and you may want to bring a hiking harness to clip into the cables for extra protection.
👉 Pro Tip: Like most other Sierra Nevada hikes, you’ll need a Recreation.gov permit to climb Half Dome, so don’t forget to apply in early March!
Vernal and Nevada Falls
Get a good workout on the Yosemite falls trail steps
🥾 Difficult | 7 miles | 1,840 feet elevation gain | 📍 Google Maps | Park Website | Drive Time from Los Angeles: 5.5 hours | Cost: $35 National Park Entrance
This Yosemite falls trail is incredibly popular and insanely steep. It is also a great workout and you can see the entire Yosemite Valley from the top.
Starting at the Mist Trail Trailhead, this tough 7-mile out and back hike climbs almost 2,000 feet. After the first Vernal Falls, the crowds thin out as only a few people hike to Nevada Falls. I recommend hiking this Yosemite falls trail in the early fall when all the leaves are changing colors.
This will be a Yosemite National Park trip that you won’t forget, but good hiking shoes make all the difference on the trail. These are my favorite hiking shoes and one of the most popular shoes on the market today.
Tahoe Rim Trail
Thru-hike 165 miles around the stunning Lake Tahoe
🥾 Difficult | 165 miles | 24,400 feet elevation gain | 📍 Google Maps | Park Website | Drive Time from San Francisco: 3 hours, 40 minutes | Cost: Free
The Tahoe Rim Trail is a thru-hike around the entire circumference of Lake Tahoe. It’s 165 miles in total, but many people section-hike the trail if they don’t have that much time.
The trail takes an average of 2 weeks to complete, with one resupply stop in the middle. Most thru-hikers will resupply in Tahoe City. Of course, if you want to hike around Lake Tahoe but don’t have 2 weeks, then I recommend day hiking the tallest mountains in Lake Tahoe – Sonora Peak, Freel Peak, or Rose Peak.
For an easy hike around Lake Tahoe with the whole family, the Spooner Lake Loop is a great hike to start with. It is 2.1 miles round-trip and follows an easy, maintained trail the whole time. There are opportunities for the perfect Tahoe Rim Trail photo everywhere along the lake.
Exercise your route-finding skills on this hard-to-find trail in Northern California
🥾 Expert | 14 miles | 5,100 feet elevation gain | 📍 Google Maps | Drive Time from San Francisco: 4 hours, 45 minutes | Cost: $15 overnight parking, free day parking
You don’t have to travel to the European Alps to climb the Matterhorn! California has its very own Matterhorn Peak. It’s rated as expert and is for experienced climbers only.
Made famous by Jack Kerouac’s book The Dharma Bums, Matterhorn Peak in Bridgeport, CA is a steep rock scramble with no trail. The trail follows a maintained path for about 2 miles, leads you up steep boulder fields, and eventually leaves you to your own devices to find the route.
This incredibly challenging climb appeals to seasoned climbers because it’s a great mountain for practicing remote climbing skills before attempting bigger international mountains.
There are class 2, 3, and 4 scrambling routes, gear-required rock climbing routes, and winter mountaineering routes.
👉 Pro Tip: Never attempt a winter climbing route without an ice axe and crampons.
Put your mountaineer skills to the test on this Cascade mountain
🥾 Expert | 11 miles | 📍 Google Maps | Drive Time from San Francisco: 4 hours, 30 minutes | Cost: Free
Mt. Shasta is an active volcano in the southern Cascade mountains that gives mountaineers an adrenaline fix.
Due to the Avalanche Gulch Trail, this mountain is rated as expert and should only be attempted by experienced climbers. It encompasses a 3,000-foot vertical snow and ice climb that requires winter mountaineering equipment.
For those wanting to day hike the mountain, however, it’s possible in the later summer months. Start at the same Bunny Flats trailhead and follow the Clear Creek trail through scree and boulder fields to the top.
There are also some great California hiking trails around the base of the mountain, or you can hike to the Clear Creek Hut – approximately two miles into the trail.
🥾 Read Next: Best Hikes Near San Francisco
FAQs About Hiking Trails in California
What is the best hike in California?
Mt. Whitney is the best and most popular hike in California because it is the highest mountain in the contiguous U.S.
What is the hardest hike in California?
Mt. Whitney and Iron Mountain are the hardest hikes in California. Both of these hikes have 6,000 feet of gain and are very steep.
Is California good for hiking?
California is great for hiking. There are hundreds of hiking trails in the state, including mountain hikes, beach hikes, and hiking in the desert.
What is the best hike in Southern California?
Mt. Baldy is the best hike in Southern California. It is one of the highest mountains and is only a quick 4 miles to get to 10,000 feet.
What is the famous hike in LA?
Mt. Baldy is a famous hike in LA because it is the highest mountain in Los Angeles county.
Thanks for reading my picks for the best hikes in California! Up next, check out this great list of the best beaches in Southern California. Have fun on the trails!
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