With intriguing landscapes ranging from rugged coastlines and towering mountains to desolate deserts and ancient forests, California is a world of its own. A paradise for anyone passionate about the outdoors, you’d be hard pressed to tire of the Golden State’s natural beauty. In fact, there are over 4,000 moderate trails throughout California ranging in length from just 0.6 mile to over 300 miles. There’s something for everyone, no matter your ability or preferred terrain.
Whether you’re visiting California and looking for the best hikes in the area or a local exploring what your state has to offer, here are the top 6 hiking trails across the state for your bucket list. Though there are many amazing advanced hikes worth mentioning (like summiting Mount Shasta, backpacking the Lost Coast Trail, or conquering the infamous Pacific Coast Trail), this list narrows down the hikes with the biggest bang for your mile!
Before getting out and tackling these hikes, be sure to do some research to make sure you have the appropriate gear for the season and terrain, any required permits or park passes, and always be sure to tell a friend or family member where and when you are planning to hike.
One of the most famous National Parks in the world, Yosemite is home to countless incredible hikes, each with its own unique vistas. The most iconic hike is, without a doubt, Half Dome Trail which takes hikers to the summit of Half Dome, Yosemite’s most emblematic feature. This trail is distinctive because you use a set of cables and steps to climb to the top of the domed granite slab, from where you’ll be rewarded with a sweeping panorama of Yosemite Valley.
At 14.8 miles long with 5,164 feet of elevation gain, Half Dome can be a grueling hike, but it offers the added bonus of overlapping with some of Yosemite’s other popular trails: you pass Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls on the way up, and (for an extra 0.5 miles) you can join the John Muir Trail on the way back to the trailhead.
If the crowds of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley aren’t really your calling, a great alternative is Cloud’s Rest. This 13-mile hike brings you through the forests outside of the Valley and sends you out onto rock about 1,000 feet above Half Dome, from where you’ll be able to see the length of the Valley and surrounding backcountry. With around 2,500 feet of elevation, Cloud’s Rest is a reasonable challenge for a day hike. Most importantly, you will likely only see a handful of other hikers along the way.
Fern Canyon is a relatively short hike in a truly exotic place. Located about 50 miles south of the California-Oregon stateline, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is dedicated to protecting Coast Redwood trees (larger than the redwoods further south) and some of the oldest old-growth forests in the world. During your hike through Fern Canyon, you’ll be surrounded by the majestic Coast Redwoods, bubbling brooks, and lush ferns and mosses.
As a loop trail, Fern Canyon is just over 2 miles long and relatively flat — a fun and easy hike for beginner hikers and kids. Fun fact: several scenes from Jurassic Park 2: Lost Worlds were filmed at Fern Canyon!
California’s 90-mile Big Sur coastline is a quintessential part of any California road trip, and the 0.7-mile McWay Waterfall Trail brings you up close and personal to Big Sur’s iconic McWay Waterfall. Located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, this trail takes you to an overlook with breathtaking views of this waterfall falling 80 feet from a granite cliff straight into the ocean. This short hike includes only 50 feet of elevation gain, and takes less than an hour to complete, making it a quick and easy stop on your way down the coast.
Along the California-Nevada border is the beautiful Lake Tahoe, which offers pristine lake views in the summer months. To appreciate the lake’s allure, the Rubicon Trail is the ideal hike, connecting of Lake Tahoe’s best spots over 9.4 miles with limited elevation gain. The trail sets off from D.L. Bliss Beach State Park, one of the lake’s best beaches. Hikers also enjoy the views looking out onto picturesque Emerald Bay on the way up Mount Rubicon, another must-see spot in Lake Tahoe.
And finally, how about about something different, like a hike through the rugged Mojave Desert? Famous for its distinctive Joshue Tree cacti, Joshua Tree National Park’s Lost Palms Oasis Trail is a literal hiking oasis. Winding through a canyon filled with lush palm oases in the middle of the desert, this 7.2-mile (roundtrip) trail brings you to Cottonwood Campground where you can reward yourself with a picnic and cool fresh water directly from the oases.
Now get out there and explore all of the natural beauty that California has to offer!