12 Top-Rated Hiking Trails in California

Written by Lisa Alexander

California is a hiker's paradise, with an incredible diversity of landscapes. The nature sites are so sublime that simple descriptions only hint at their grandeur: the magnificent glacier-carved valley of Yosemite, a breathtaking mountainous coastline in Big Sur, the serenely barren Mojave Desert, the majestic snow-capped Mount Shasta, and a rugged, untamed wilderness in Solstice Canyon. Many of the national parks also boast record-breaking statistics. Yosemite National Park has the tallest waterfall in North America, while Mountain Whitney has the highest summit in the continental United States, and the tallest trees in the world are found in the Redwood National and State Parks. This list of top-rated hikes covers the highlights of California's nature trails, mostly moderate to strenuous hikes at famous sites like Yosemite and Mount Shasta. For those ready to take on an extreme challenge, the list includes two epic hikes at legendary nature sites, Mount Whitney and the Lost Coast, that should only be attempted by advanced hikers.

1. Yosemite Falls Trail: A Spectacular Hike to North America's Tallest Waterfall

Yosemite Falls Trail: A Spectacular Hike to North America's Tallest Waterfall

Yosemite Falls Trail: A Spectacular Hike to North America's Tallest Waterfall

This famous trail rewards hikers with views of Yosemite's most spectacular waterfalls as well as sweeping panoramas of the valley floor. The trail includes two parts: The two-mile section to Columbia Rock, a moderate hike that ascends 1,000 feet through a switchback trail. Be sure to stay on the path, since wandering off can lead to dangerous sheer drop-offs near the trail. Most hikers will be satisfied with completing the Columbia Rock portion that takes two to three hours round-trip. From here, hikers are awed by the bird's-eye view of Yosemite Valley's meadows, with the Merced River winding its way down the center, enclosed by Half Dome and Sentinel Rock.

The second part of the trail up to Yosemite Falls is more difficult. This strenuous seven-mile round-trip hike ascends 2,425 feet, up rugged terrain and steep hillside staircases. To complete this round-trip hike takes another six to eight hours from Colombia Rock. One of the world's tallest waterfalls and the tallest in California, the Yosemite Falls actually has three parts: the 1,430-foot Upper Yosemite Fall, the 675-foot Middle Cascades, and the 320-foot Lower Yosemite Fall. The trail lies thrillingly close to Yosemite Falls. While climbing the trail, hikers often feel mist from the waterfalls, and after reaching the summit of this challenging trail are rewarded with incredible vistas. The panoramic outlook from the top of Yosemite Falls extends over the entire valley.

Hiking Tips: The best time to hike Yosemite Falls is in the spring, when the waterfalls are abundantly flowing. By August, the water levels are lower, and the falls are less impressive. In summer, begin the hike early in the day because the trail can be very hot by noon, and the upper portion is exposed, with no shade by the late afternoon. In spring and autumn, consider the length of the round-trip hike and the time of sunset; be sure to set out early enough to complete the round-trip in daylight. Bring bottled water because drinking water is not available on the trail. Watch out for areas of loose sand and rocky terrain that can be slippery. Do not stray from the trail, some areas lead to dangerous steep drops.

2. Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta

The majestic snow-capped Mount Shasta is one of the most inspiring places to hike in California. Many visitors come to Mount Shasta seeking a spiritual experience in nature. Adventurous outdoor enthusiasts come for the challenge of climbing to the mountain's summit. However, Mount Shasta has plenty of hiking trails that are suitable for the average hiker. A popular hike is the Gray Butte Trail, with its trailhead at an impressive 7,500-foot elevation. This moderate four-mile round-trip trail gains 600 feet in elevation and takes about two hours to complete. The trail crosses through the expansive Lower Panther Meadow and continues up through a pristine forest of old-growth Red Fir Trees. At the fork in the trail, the righthand-side ascends through a stand of fragrant Mountain Hemlock Trees. The trail continues past the Lower Peak to the Upper Peak of Gray Butte, offering splendid panoramic views at several vantage points along the way. Hiking Tip: This hike is only accessible in the summer and early fall, from late June until late October.

3. McWay Waterfall Trail: The Most Iconic Site in Big Sur

McWay Waterfall Trail: The Most Iconic Site in Big Sur

McWay Waterfall Trail: The Most Iconic Site in Big Sur

This trail lies in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, named after the pioneer and frontier woman who owned a ranch in Big Sur country in the early 1900s. The park stretches along the mountainous Big Sur coastline with its 3,000-foot ridges that drop off dramatically into the Pacific Ocean. Lush wooded areas flourish with redwood trees, oaks, and chaparral. The McWay Waterfall Trail is a marvelous hike leading to an overlook that affords a stunning view of the 80-foot waterfall, one of the most breathtaking and frequently photographed sites in Big Sur. Hikers are awestruck by the sight of this magnificent waterfall descending from a sheer granite cliff into the ocean. Despite the grandeur of the scenery, this trail is surprisingly easy and short. The 0.7-mile round-trip hike has only a slight elevation gain of 50 feet and takes only about 30 minutes to complete. Hikers may spend more time admiring the amazing scenery than actually hiking.

4. Sea Lion Point Trail in Point Lobos

Sea Lion Point Trail in Point Lobos

Sea Lion Point Trail in Point Lobos

The Sea Lion Point Trail delights nature lovers who appreciate marine wildlife and ocean views. A short and easy hike, the 0.6-mile loop trail is an especially scenic portion of Point Lobos State Reserve in Carmel. The trail winds around peaceful coves and rocky ocean bluffs that meet with crashing waves. Along the way, hikers will have a chance to spot barking sea lions on offshore rocks. The trail also passes by Headland Cove and Sea Lion Cove, quiet coves where seals swim, and sea otters bask in the protected waters. To get a closer view of the animals, hikers may walk down a staircase that provides access to the coves. Hiking tip: If taking the steps down to the coves, be careful to stay away from the edges and watch out for unexpected waves.

5. Fern Canyon at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Fern Canyon at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Fern Canyon at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park lies 50 miles north of Eureka, an off-the-beaten-path destination. This beautiful state park, along with other Redwood National and State Parks, is dedicated to the protection of coastal redwood trees. The Redwood National and State Parks are a collection of California forests, which are among the oldest forests in the world. Almost all of the world's old-growth redwood trees are found in California. The enormous and towering redwood trees are the tallest living plant on earth. With their giant amber-hued trunks and leafy canopies, the stately redwood trees create a refreshingly serene, shady environment. Bordering the coast, the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park also has sandy beaches and expansive open meadows. Many visitors enjoy the gentle nature walk to the Fern Canyon, a site so remarkable that is was chosen by Hollywood directors as a backdrop for scenes in the Jurassic Park film. In fact, relatives of today's living coastal redwoods existed 160 million years ago, during the Jurassic Era. Visitors are delighted by the breathtaking scenery of majestic densely wooded redwood stands, a pristine fresh-water creek, and lush ferns cascading down the canyon walls.

6. Redwood National Park: Boy Scout Tree Trail

Redwood National Park: Boy Scout Tree Trail

Redwood National Park: Boy Scout Tree Trail | Miguel Vieira / photo modified

Far away from big cities and major tourist attractions, the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park lies within the Redwood National and State Parks in the north of California, near the border with Oregon. The hiking areas of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park give visitors a wonderful feeling of being removed from the urban environment. For a moderate trail with lovely scenery, take the 2.8-mile (5.6-mile round-trip) Boy Scout Tree Trail. The trail is generally easy, except for some areas of switchback turns and steep grades. Allow about a half day to hike the trail while admiring the dense canopy of giant trees. About 2.5 miles from the trailhead, a spur trail leads up to a 2,000-year-old double redwood tree, named the Boy Scout Tree because it was discovered by a Boy Scout troop leader. The trail concludes at the picturesque Fern Falls before hikers loop back to the trailhead.

7. Lost Palms Oasis and 49 Palms Trails at Joshua Tree National Park

Lost Palms Oasis and 49 Palms Trails at Joshua Tree National Park

Lost Palms Oasis and 49 Palms Trails at Joshua Tree National Park | Miguel Vieira / photo modified

These oasis trails are found in the rugged and barren Mojave Desert, a fascinating California desert with distinctive topography. Although most famous for the Joshua Tree, this national park also has two interesting trails that travel through palm oases. The Lost Palms Oasis Trail is a moderate 7.2-mile round-trip hike that traverses through a canyon filled with leafy palms and refreshing pools of water. The trail ends at Cottonwood Campground, which has a picnic area and drinking water. The 49 Palms Trail is a moderately strenuous three-mile roundtrip trail that rewards hikers with palm-shaded pools of fresh water. This hike involves a 300-foot elevation gain, so it requires that hikers be in good shape, because the ascent is especially difficult in the desert heat. Hiking Tips: Be prepared for the heat by bringing an adequate supply of drinking water. Avoid hiking in the summer, when the temperature can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

8. Runyon Canyon Park, Los Angeles

Runyon Canyon Park, Los Angeles

Runyon Canyon Park, Los Angeles

Wonderful for inner-city hikes, the Runyon Canyon Park is a hidden gem right in the center of Los Angeles, a city where residents are rarely seen walking. The 130-acre park lies just two blocks from Hollywood Boulevard. However, it's undiscovered by most tourists; only the locals know about it. Many Angelenos come here to get fresh air, exercise, and walk their dogs. Runyon Canyon Park offers several different trails, all with amazing views of the rugged landscape and Los Angeles cityscape. From some vantage points, it's possible to see the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island in the distance. Tourists should also check out Griffith Park for other excellent hiking trails within the city of Los Angeles.

Location: 2000 North Fuller Ave, Los Angeles, California

9. Solstice Canyon Trail in Malibu

Solstice Canyon Trail in Malibu

Solstice Canyon Trail in Malibu

Near the coast in Malibu, a great day trip from Los Angeles, the Solstice Canyon Trail is a place of serene beauty. The trail is part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which was historically an important site for the native Chumash people. The trail leads to spectacular views of expansive canyons, rugged mountains, and the deep blue Pacific Ocean. Because of the trail's location near Malibu beaches, it tends to get crowded on weekends. Yet, the Solstice Canyon Trail manages to retain a sense of solitude and is a peaceful escape from the bustling Southern California urban life. Hiking Tips: Watch out for poison oak, bees, and rattlesnakes. Be sure to wear the right footwear and clothing to protect against ticks.

Location: 3455 Solstice Canyon Road, Malibu, California

10. Pomo Canyon to Shell Beach in Sonoma County

Pomo Canyon to Shell Beach in Sonoma County

Pomo Canyon to Shell Beach in Sonoma County | cgiven / photo modified

This gorgeous hiking destination lies 75 miles (one hour and 45 minutes' drive) from San Francisco in the Sonoma Coast State Park. The six-mile Pomo Canyon Trail traverses a diversity of landscapes, first climbing through a lush redwood forest, then along a wooded ridge with stunning vistas of the Sonoma coastline, the Pacific Ocean, and Russian River. The trail curves around into grasslands with colorful seasonal wildflowers and crosses over several small picturesque creeks. Towards the end of the hike, the trail joins up with an old road that descends down to Highway 1. From the highway, it's a short walk through the headlands to the beautiful sandy shoreline of Shell Beach. After spending time at the beach, take the same trail back up to the Pomo Canyon trailhead to complete the 12-mile round-trip hike.

11. An Epic Hike to the Summit of Mount Whitney

An Epic Hike to the Summit of Mount Whitney

An Epic Hike to the Summit of Mount Whitney

Soaring high above all the other mountains in California's Sierra Nevada range, Mount Whitney is the highest point in the lower 48 states. Mount Whitney is in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks and is the southern endpoint of the John Muir Trail, named after the famous naturalist and advocate of wilderness preservation. Mount Whitney is the most frequently climbed peak in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. This epic hike requires a high level of fitness including altitude conditioning. Hikers need to set out before sunrise in order to complete the round-trip to and from the summit in one day.

The most direct trail to the peak of Mount Whitney is the 11-mile (22-mile round-trip) trail from the Mount Whitney Portal, 13 miles west of Lone Pine town. Starting at a trailhead with 8,360-foot elevation, the hike has a challenging 6,000-foot gain to the summit at 14,494 feet. Hikers must start around 5am in the morning in order to complete the 12-hour to 14-hour round-trip hike in daylight. The trail goes deep into the park's wilderness areas and offers sensational views along the way. Hiking Tips: The Mount Whitney Portal Trail demands an exceptional fitness level and should only be attempted by advanced hikers who are in peak condition. The hike does not require technical expertise from mid-July to early October. However, in spring and early summer, mountaineering techniques, including ice axes and crampons, are necessary. Besides physical fitness, hikers must be acclimated to the altitude, otherwise they may suffer from altitude sickness. Required permits: Hikers and overnight backpackers must obtain a permit before entering the Mount Whitney zone.

Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks - Map

Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks Map

12. Lost Coast Trail: An Extreme Outdoor Adventure

Lost Coast Trail: An Extreme Outdoor Adventure

Lost Coast Trail: An Extreme Outdoor Adventure

The Lost Coast Trail is a 60-mile stretch in the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, 100 miles north of Mendocino. Adventurous backpackers are the only hikers seen on the Lost Coast. This is a journey into unspoiled wilderness along Northern California's most rugged coastline. To truly see the area requires a backpacking expedition. Advanced preparation is required before setting out. The portion of the hiking trail along the beach becomes submerged and disappears at high tide, explaining the trail's name. The Pacific Ocean along the Lost Coast has a deep turquoise hue, reminiscent of a tropical island, and the landscape of the Lost Coast is sublime. Hikers are awestruck by almost mythical scenery of canyons, tide pools, waterfalls, dark sand beaches, and meadows blooming with vibrant wildflowers. The Lost Coast's coves are home to sea lions and seals. During winter and early spring, it's possible to spot gray whales on their annual migration. Throughout the year, Roosevelt elk can be seen roaming the grasslands. Hiking Tips: This hike is only suitable for advanced hikers and requires a challenging backpacking expedition. The trails are steep, and the campsites are rustic with no potable water or trash cans. Backpackers must bring their own gear, food, and drinking water. Read the state park's Rules & Notices before planning an expedition to the Lost Coast.

More Related Hiking Articles on PlanetWare.com

Finding the Right Hiking Boots: California's diverse and rugged terrain means a quality pair of hiking boots is essential. Finding the right pair will also make your hikes more enjoyable. For a look at some of the top performers of the season, see our list of the Best Men's Hiking Boots of 2019 and the Best Women's Hiking Boots of 2019.

Hiking Areas in California: If you are heading out to a specific area, or looking for a good place to base yourself for hiking, we've got a comprehensive list of articles to help you plan your adventure. Beginning with the parks, see our lists on the best hikes in Yosemite National Park and Redwood National and State Parks. In summer the best hikes around Lake Tahoe are extremely popular. And if you happen to be in the Santa Barbara area, be sure to check out our top hikes in Santa Barbara.

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