The best time of year for hiking is just around the corner and it’s time to start planning for your next outdoor adventure! As a native of Southern California, I’ve spent a great majority of my weekends and vacations exploring the many forests and mountains found in the Golden State. If you live in California, you’ll agree that there’s no shortage of breathtaking nature right on our doorstep. From the coasts of Big Sur to the deserts of Joshua Tree, there are few states that possess as much diverse natural beauty. So without further ado, I present to you the five most popular hiking trails in California.
5. The Boyscout Trail, Joshua Tree National Park
First up on our list is the Boyscout Trail located in Joshua Tree National Park. The Boyscout Trail is a 7.8 mile point-to-point trail that winds through the beautiful desert and has a total elevation gain of 173 feet. The trail is well-marked and very easy to follow. Trailhead parking can be found at the Boyscout Trailhead Parking lot and wilderness permits can be obtained from the small information display at the start of the trailhead.
After initial stretch of hiking across the flat expanse of the desert, the trail begins to climb through a series of mild switchbacks. If attempting this during midday, I would highly suggest bringing a hat and sunscreen as there is little shade along the way. After completing the switchbacks, the trail flattens out to another wide expanse of desert, sporting an impressive forest of Joshua Trees. Follow the flat and winding trail to the southern terminus. If you do not have a pre-established form of transportation back to the northern terminus, I would suggest planning the hike as an out-and-back.
Trips taken following the rainy season (which can be a bit of a rare occurrence in Southern California, so there’s a bit of luck involved) are afforded a eye-popping display of desert wildflowers with hues of violet, yellow and magenta. This usually occurs in late March and early April but depends greatly on rainfall. Dispersed camping is allowed on the trail but there remains a strictly enforced campfire restriction, so make sure you pack your camp stoves!
The Boyscout Trail can be the perfect hike to take a friend who is just being introduced to backpacking as the trail is relatively flat, save for the stretch of switchbacks through some rocky hills, and has very few insects to contend with. However, water must be packed in a there are no natural sources of water available on the trail.
4. Pine Ridge Trail, Big Sur State Park
Of all the hikes on this list, the Pine Ridge Trail may feature one of the most diverse mix of landscapes and ecosystems. One of the best and well-known hikes in the Big Sur area, the Pine Ridge Trail is a 19.5 mile out and back backpacking trail that features the naturally occurring Sykes Hotsprings.
The trailhead is located at the Big Sur Station off of the Pacific Crest Highway and parking can be found for $5 dollars a night. The trail begins at the Pfieffer Big Sur Campground surrounded by a dense old growth redwood forest. However, it quickly begins to gain in elevation at an alarming rate. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself on top of a sunny ridge with views of the Pacific Ocean in the distance.
After several miles of slowly descending into the cool and dense forest valley, you’ll pass several wilderness backpacking sites such as Ventana Camp and Barlow Flats. Here, you can refill your water bottles at the river running through the camps using a reliable water filter. Continuing on the trail, you’ll eventually come to the Sykes campground but because of its proximity to Sykes Hotsprings, I would suggest setting up camp at one of the “first come, first serve” campsites at Barlow Flats. A short day hike can take you up the river to the famous Sykes Hotsprings for a relaxing dip!
3. North Rim Trail, Yosemite National Park
With the majestic Half Dome looming in the distance, it can be easy to forget about one of the most overlooked hikes in all of Yosemite National Park: The North Rim Trail. Featuring North America’s tallest waterfall, the North Rim Trail is a 26.8 mile point-to-point backpacking trail that includes a number of other breathtaking landmarks like North Dome and Indian Rock. Wilderness permits are required for all overnight trips in the Yosemite area and can be obtained the Wilderness Center in Yosemite Valley. Dispersed camping is allowed, provided you are a proper distance away from the trail and out of sight.
The trail begins at the Upper Yosemite Falls trailhead near the Camp 4 backpacker’s campsite and climbs through a number of aggressive switchbacks to the top of the Falls. After a non-stop climb out of Yosemite Valley, the trail opens up to the expansive Yosemite Wilderness. With plenty of rivers and streams to fill up your bottles along the way, all you will need is a reliable filter and there is no need to pack in your water. The trail continues toward North Dome, which can be reached via a short side hike (I would very much recommend this, as the views of Yosemite Valley and Half Dome are unparalleled). After passing North Dome, the trail continues onward for several miles before reaching the Indian Rock side trail, Yosemite’s only natural arch formation.
The trail descends down back into the Valley via the Snow Creek switchbacks and will eventually lead to the calm Mirror Meadows. From there, you can take the Yosemite shuttle to anywhere else in the park. Not for the faint of heart, the North Rim Trail is undoubtedly one of Yosemite’s best kept secrets!
2. Half Dome, Yosemite National Park
Half Dome. The gem of California and a pilgrimage destination for nature worshipers around the world. The Half Dome hike is a 14.8 mile out-and-back trail that features one of the most recognizable rock formations in the United States. Because of the hike’s popularity, overcrowding has become a major issue and can only be hiked with a permit obtained through the National Park Service.
Half Dome can be completed as a day-hike with an early morning start or an overnight trip with a stay at the breathtaking Little Yosemite Valley campground. The trail begins at the John Muir Vernal Falls Trailhead next to the Happy Isles Trailhead Parking Lot. This marks the beginning of the Mist Trail, one of the more popular hikes for families in Yosemite, so be prepared for a crowded start! After a paved incline and mist-shrouded stairs, the trail reaches the top of the majestic Vernal Falls. This a great spot for a short rest and snack and offers unparalleled views of the Yosemite wilderness. Following the river, the trail continues to climb until it reaches the top of Nevada Falls, which gracefully feeds into the Vernal Falls below.
After passing the pair of waterfalls, the trail flattens out and peacefully snakes through the woods to the Half Dome subdome. I suggest taking this next portion slowly as it can be one of the most treacherous portions of the hike. A few heart-stopping switchbacks later, and you’re at the base of Half Dome. If you didn’t bring your gloves, there should be a pile of worn gloves nearby for you to use and help grip the cables needed for the ascent. After pulling yourself up a short stretch of a near-vertical incline, it’s time to celebrate your achievement on top of Half Dome!
1. Rae Lakes Loop, Kings Canyon National Park
The Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon National Park is a 42 mile loop trail that features a myriad of crystal clear mountain lakes, majestic waterfalls and gigantic granite canyon walls. Mile for mile, the Rae Lakes Loop is perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring and breathtaking outdoor adventures available in the state of California.
The trailhead begins at the Road’s End parking lot off the incredible Kings Canyon highway. After passing through a lush and cool forest, the trail arrives at the Mist Falls and then ascends to Paradise Valley. For those looking for a more relaxed trip, there are several backpacking campsites located here. After crossing a small bridge, the trail ascends through the Upper Woods Creek which leads to Dollar Lake. The trail continues onward to the ridge of the gorgeous Rae Lakes Basin. Here you’ll find a host of campsites, perfectly situated around the three lakes. I suggest taking plenty of time to take in the magnificent beauty of this area and highly encourage camping in this unique area. After taking ample time to rest and enjoy the Rae Lakes Basin, it’s time to tackle the last remaining major obstacle on the trail: Glen Pass. After 2,000 feet of non-stop switchbacks, the trail descends toward Bubbs Creek and eventually the peaceful Vidette Meadow. Many choose to spend the night just past this area before tackling the last 12 miles from Upper Bubbs to the parking lot at Road’s End.