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12 Top-Rated Hiking Trails in Southern California

Written by Brad Lane
Sep 20, 2019

From desert floors to snow-painted peaks, the best hiking trails in Southern California span a vast array of beautiful environments. Whether you want easy hikes or strenuous climbs that take the day, SoCal hiking trails have the distance and elevation you crave—not to mention the beautiful destinations worth hiking to. Offering plenty of four-season paths, hiking trails in Southern California provide a fun California adventure every month of the year.

For desert attractions and potential winter hikes in Southern California, natural spaces like Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Park deliver with magnificent sand dunes and features like Skull Rock. The largest of all state parks in California, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park also offers abundant desert landscapes, including spring-fed oases pocketed by palm trees. To beat the summer heat by the ocean, places like Crystal Cove State Park in Laguna Beach have thousands of acres of ocean canyon to explore.

Numerous mountain ranges run in every direction in Southern California, with abundant hiking trails switchbacking their way throughout. The nation-spanning Pacific Crest Trail follows the route of these mountains, and those looking for day hikes can find peaks to bag and forested areas to ditch the traffic of the cities nearby. Other hidden-gem hiking trails like Solstice Canyon and Bridge to Nowhere prove that Southern California has way more than just world-class surfing.

Find the best places to enjoy the outdoors with our list of the top hiking trails in Southern California.

1. Solstice Canyon Trail, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Solstice Canyon Trail

An hour's drive from Los Angeles in the Santa Monica Mountains, Solstice Canyon provides a vibrant sagebrush environment with views of the ocean. The multi-use Solstice Canyon Trail stretches for a mile to explore the riparian habitat from the parking area near the Pacific Coast Highway, including notable trail markers like a perennial waterfall and the Robert Ranch House ruins. For a more difficult hike, the Rising Sun Trail can be connected to the Solstice Canyon Trail for a steep four-mile loop.

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/samo/planyourvisit/solsticecanyon.htm

2. Bridge to Nowhere, Angeles National Forest

Bridge to Nowhere

Following the banks of the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, this 10-mile round trip is a quintessential hike of Southern California. Traversing a scenic canyon and the attempted path of a highway connecting the San Gabriel Valley with Wrightwood, all that remains of this washed-away road is the impressive bridge spanning the "Narrows" part of the canyon. To beat the summer heat, hikers can enjoy the refreshing waters of the San Gabriel River much of the way to the bridge and back.

Flash flooding occurs along the route, and the trail crosses the San Gabriel River at least a dozen times. Hikers will want to avoid trekking to the Bridge to Nowhere when water levels are high, or any speculation of a storm is in the forecast. For a unique capstone experience of visiting the Bridge to Nowhere, one of the few bungee jumping companies in California offers their breath-taking services on the side of the bridge on the weekends.

3. San Jacinto Peak, Mount San Jacinto State Park

Mount San Jacinto

Located east of Los Angeles near Palm Springs, the 10,834-foot Mount San Jacinto is one of the tallest mountains in Southern California. The state park surrounding San Jacinto offers many trails to explore, and for those looking to hike to the top, one of the most popular routes includes starting with a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Delivering hikers within 2,400-feet of the summit, the Round Valley Trail is the most frequented summit trail from the Upper Terminal of the mountain station.

Other ways to reach the summit of Mount San Jacinto include trekking on the country-spanning Pacific Crest Trail from the mountain town of Idyllwild. One of the best small towns in California, Idyllwild is a great base camp for exploring Mount San Jacinto State Park and the surrounding San Bernardino National Forest.

For a very strenuous hike to the top, the formidable Cactus to Clouds Trail, also known as the Skyline Ridge Route, spans 14 miles from the desert floor to the top of the mountain. One of the more challenging hikes of Southern California, the Cactus to Clouds Trail should be attempted by experienced and prepared hikers only.

4. Switzer Falls, Angeles National Forest

Switzer Falls

In the San Gabriel Mountains, Switzer Falls is one of the most popular waterfall hikes in Southern California. Beginning at the Switzer Falls Picnic Area, hikers hop on the Gabrielino Trail to reach the two-tier Switzer Falls. Opportunities to soak in the Arroyo Seco line the entire route. The lower section of the falls is two miles down the trail, and the upper section of the falls requires a challenging quarter-mile scramble with exposed rock ledges.

Address: 701 Angeles Crest Highway, Tujunga, Calfironia

Official site: https://www.fs.usda.gov/angeles/

5. Skull Rock, Joshua Tree National Park Editor's Pick

Skull Rock | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Departing from the Jumbo Rocks Campground within Joshua Tree National Park—one of the best campgrounds in Southern California—the trail to Skull Rock immediately plunges visitors into a boulder-strewn desert environment. An assortment of desert flowers and cactus line the route to Skull Rock, with interpretive information about the various flora along the way. While the 1.7-mile loop from the campground is all about the journey itself, the actual Skull Rock formation offers a fun photo opportunity.

If the time and heat of the day allows, more eye-catching boulder formations can be found by navigating the Split Rock Trail from Skull Rock. The rest of the Joshua Tree National Park encompasses weeks and months of other hiking trails, including routes that lead to spring-fed oases, Hidden Valleys, and other high points like Ryan Mountain. To spend the night near Skull Rock, reservations are recommended for the Jumbo Rocks Campground during fall and spring peak seasons.

6. Big Laguna Trail, Cleveland National Forest

Big Laguna Trail meadow

A popular 10-mile hike under an hour's drive east of San Diego, the Big Laguna Trail highlights the many different environments found in Southern California. Within the Mount Laguna Recreation Area of the Cleveland National Forest, this looped hike crosses the Sunrise Highway and tours through pristine meadows, pine forests, and an array of wildflowers come spring. During wetter years in California, the Big Laguna Trail also passes by an idyllic lake.

The Big Laguna Trail connects with the nation-spanning Pacific Crest Trail at the Desert View Picnic Area, and hikers will want to pay attention to the abundant trail signs to make sure they stay on the right route. On portions that aren't shared with the Pacific Crest Trail, it's common to see mountain bikers also enjoying the Big Laguna Trail. The nearby Burnt Rancheria Campground in Mt. Laguna offers over 100 sites available for tents and RVs.

Address: Pacific Crest Trail, Mt Laguna, California

Official site: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/cleveland/recarea/?recid=47406

7. Borrego Palm Canyon Nature Trail, Anza-Borrego State Park

Palm Canyon, Anza-Borrego State Park

One of the best state parks in California, Anza-Borrego State Park is also the largest, encompassing over 600,000 acres of rugged desert landscapes and wilderness. Numerous trails span throughout the arid environment of Anza-Borrego. Navigating badlands, slot canyons, and superblooms of wildflowers come spring, perhaps no hike in Anza-Borrego is as refreshing as the Borrego Palm Canyon Nature Trail. A three-mile loop, this popular hike and spring-fed destination is marked by palm trees and is also frequented by many species of migratory birds.

Address: 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638

8. Salt Creek Interpretive Trail, Death Valley National Park

Salt Creek Interpretive Trail

A great starting point in one of the hottest and driest places on earth, the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail at Death Valley tours the national park's few places to find water. The best time to visit is between November and May, when the high-salinity creek is at its heaviest flow. Adding shades of life to an otherwise harsh environment, a half-mile boardwalk trail navigates Salt Creek, where visitors can catch a glimpse at the resident wildlife, like Salt Creek pupfish.

The Salt Creek Interpretive Trail barely scratches the surface of things to do in Death Valley National Park, the biggest national park in the contiguous states. The world-famous Mesquite Sand Dunes stand high with mountain-like status near Salt Creek, and the more difficult, nine-mile Mosaic Canyon trailhead is also a short drive away. Farther north in the park, Badwater Basin offers the chance to hike at the lowest point in the country at 282 feet below sea level.

9. Baldy Loop (Mount San Antonio), Angeles National Forest

Devil's Backbone Trail on the Mt. Baldy Loop

The crown jewel of the San Gabriel Mountains, Mt. Baldy is the tallest peak in this range just outside of Los Angeles. Popular with locals and world-travelers alike, the Mt. Baldy Loop is a challenging trek to the top and around this mountain also known as Mount San Antonio. With a couple of route options available, nearly all hiking trails to the top of Mt. Baldy start at the Manker Campground within the Angeles National Forest.

The roughly 10-mile Mt. Baldy Loop can be done either clockwise or counter, by heading up either the Ski Hut Trail straight to the summit, or the Devil's Backbone Trail with a detour at Baldy's Notch. Both trails encompass panoramic views and calf-burning inclines, with the route up the Ski Hut Trail providing the most elevation gain. This is one of the more challenging hikes in Southern California—ambitious hikers often use the Mt. Baldy Loop as a training hike for larger summits in the state like Mt. Whitney.

Official site: https://www.fs.usda.gov/angeles/

10. Smugglers Cove, Channel Islands National Park

Smugglers Cove, Channel Islands National Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Those looking to hike at Channel Islands National Park, a chain of five islands off the Southern California coast, need to take a ferry or seaplane to get here. The largest island, Santa Cruz Island, is also the most popular to visit much in thanks to the Scorpion Ranch Campground and the challenging hiking trails that cross the island. No water or resources exist on the Channel Islands, meaning visitors need to come prepared to spend the day outside.

Highlighting much of what makes Channel Islands one of the best national parks in California, the Smugglers Cove Trail on Santa Cruz Island comes with generous ocean views and a true sense of wilderness. Departing from the Scorpion anchorage, where ferries drop off passengers from Ventura and Oxnard, hikers can go up either Smugglers Road or Scorpion Canyon to reach the cove. Those hiking to Smugglers Cove, an eight-mile round trip with plenty of climbing, need to leave enough time to get back to the ferry.

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/chis/index.htm

11. Moro Canyon Trail, Crystal Cove State Park

Moro Canyon Trail

Combining the beauty of the beach with a vast inland wilderness, Crystal Cove State Park is located right off the Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach. The over 2,400 unspoiled acres of Moro Canyon within the state park is rare in Southern California, and Crystal Cove provides plenty of trails and backcountry camping sites to explore it all. From the Moro Campground, the 1.5-mile Moro Canyon Trail connects with side routes including Moro Ridge and Red Tail Ridge.

Address: 8471 N. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=644

12. Boucher Hill Loop, Palomar Mountain State Park

Boucher Hill Fire Lookout

On the west side of Palomar Mountain in northern San Diego County, Palomar Mountain State Park is a hidden gem of natural space under two hours from the city. One of the most popular hikes to explore the unique forests and streams of this Southern California state park is the 3.5-mile Boucher Hill Loop. With panoramic views of both the desert and the ocean, the Boucher Hill Loop climbs steadily until reaching the historic and still functioning Boucher Fire Tower.

Address: 19952 State Park Drive, Palomar Mountain, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=637

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