Top 20 Best Hiking Trails In California
Estimated reading time: 20 minutes
I’m a “busy” guy.
My day usually starts around 8am and goes to about 2am. Finding time for mental and spiritual clarity without sacrificing productivity can be tough.
The most convenient solution I’ve found to keep me grounded and sane, is hiking.
Quick disclaimer – I hike barefoot… I’ll explain why in this post. And no, I’m not a hipster.
I love hiking for several reasons, none more important than the connection to nature, abundant fresh air and the heavy dose of Vitamin D3 that I receive – All of which play fascinating roles in the health, well-being and social dynamic of us as humans.
While we’re on the subject, don’t forget to check out the top 3 reasons why YOU should do more hiking…
It was really hard to rate these trails as they all have unique and wonderful qualities… So I’ve listed them in order of the trails I tend to frequent the most – hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
David Aston’s Top 20 Best Hiking Trails In California
#1 Arch Rock – Point Reyes
If it weren’t for spontaneity, I don’t think I ever would have discovered this gem!
This is one of my favorite coastal hikes and if you go during high tide you’ll catch the waves crashing through the arch in the rock – it’s amazing. This is a very peaceful and beautiful place and just going down to the beach adds another great element to the hike. Everyone I’ve introduced to it has fallen in love with Arch Rock.
8.5 miles round trip is no joke. But then again, the trail is flat and isn’t very crowded although you will encounter plenty of people. We never hike Arch Rock without our camera in hand.We’ve been using the Nikon D800 for a while and love it. If you’re looking for a lightweight, pro-sumer digital dslr camera, we definitely suggest the Nikon.
#2 Blue Ridge Loop – Napa
This is my sanctuary. I live very near to this trail and it’s somewhere I’ve looked to for solace for over a decade. If it was a bit longer, I would have ranked it in the first spot. There is something incredibly powerful and grounding about this location. You can’t help but get lost in thought while you’re consumed by the raw beauty that is the Blue Ridge Loop overlooking Lake Berryessa.
There’s a lot of life hidden within these mountains, and you’ll be kicking yourself at the top if you forget your all black Hawk Sport Optics 8×32 mmEndurance Binoculars. I remember when I spotted my first cougar in the canyon from the top of Blue Ridge – felt like she was right there in perfect view… It was wild. I don’t hike without them.
#3 Alamere Falls – Marin
Awesome pics, great views and superb spots to chill make this a trail you need to experience at least once. It’s roughly an 8 mile round trip journey so if you’re not in shape or a smoker you’ll be wiped out unless you slow your roll and take a couple breathers. Took my buddies and I nearly 3 hrs of hiking, not including the time we stopped at the falls and at the rope swing by the lake (there’s a badass rope swing along the trail to the falls).Once you make it to the end, the side-trail going to the actual falls isn’t maintained, so expect close quarters of brush and a steep trek to the first portion of the falls with an even steeper hike to the beach where the falls meet the cliff and run into the ocean.
I don’t know about you, but if I so much as stare at poison oak for too long, I’ll get it all over my body. If you want to hike down to the falls, you WILL go through poison oak, but I’ve got you covered. Check out Boericke Tafel’s Oral Ivy Liquid to prevent reactions… This stuff is pretty amazing. If you happen to come into contact with poison oak and are worried about a reaction because you don’t have any water to jump in, just bring a bar of All Terrain Soap with you to remove the urushiol oil. If you do happen to have a reaction, I like to use Herbs Etc Ivy Itch Releaf. It works really well for soothing plant contact irritation in sensitive individuals like myself.
#4 Sisson-Callahan National Recreation Trail – Shasta
This is an area of rugged peaks, emerald green meadows, rushing creeks and gorgeous alpine lakes. The Sisson-Callahan National Recreation Trail visits the heart of this beautiful country and the entire length of the trail is blessed with jaw dropping views of Mt. Shasta, Mt. Eddy, Castle Crags and the Trinity Alps. It’s one my absolute favorite places in not just California but the entire world. This ten mile trail winds through some truly spectacular Northern California mountain scenery, climbing from the canyon of the North Fork of the Sacramento River up into the mountains of the Trinity Divide near Mt. Eddy.
You’ve got to feel this place, because it’s incredibly soothing. What I like to do is hike to the top with my prAna E.C.O yoga mat and my UwaterK8 waterproof 8GB Mp3 player and just meditate for a couple hours allowing myself to absorb all of the great energy of this location.
#5 Tahoe Meadows to Spooner Summit – Lake Tahoe
It’s a really nice 5 mile climb up to Spooner Summit heading south. Took about 2 1/2 hours to get to the awe inspiring view of Lake Tahoe before descending down into fast/technical portions of the trail with more stellar views peeking through the forest to Kingsbury. Definitely don’t want to forget your CamelBak StoAway to avoid dehydration.
There’s something about this hike, I recommend bringing a fleece or jacket because the temperatures can drop in a hurry around here – even in the summer. The North Face Grizzly 2 Jacket is the highest quality (fleece) jacket I’ve ever purchased and has served me well, holding up through a ton of abuse. Ladies, my lady really likes her Outdoor Research Women’s Cirque Soft Shell Jacket, as it too has seen it’s fair share of adventures all the while holding together and keeping her warm and dry.
#6 Mt. Tallac – Lake Tahoe
This trail is BEAUTIFUL!
Strenuous at times, and definitely tiresome for a beginner, but more than worth it once you reach the top and soak in the views and crisp mountain air. When you arrive, look up to the right and find the highest tip of that large mountain (Mt Tallac) because that’s where you’re going! I’m telling you, at the very top you will be in pure awe of the view.
Pack your lightweight Crazy Creek Longback Chair and chill out with a snack at the top for a couple hours.
#7 Castle Rock State Park Loop – Saratoga / San Jose
I have been here a few times before, and will definitely be going back! It’s one of my favorite weekday trails. Be warned, if you go on a weekend, go early, cuz’ it gets pretty busy. The rock formations and views of the valley are so excellent that the nearby gun club hardly takes away from the tranquility of hiking the Ridge Trail. I really like the diverse terrain and trail options encountered on this loop hike which is why it makes the list.
This is a place where The North Face trail running shoe always serves me well. TPU Snake Plate technology effectively dampens the impact of pebbles, preventing bruising. These are some of my favorite shoes to adventure in.
#8 Berry Creek Falls Loop – Big Basin Redwoods State Park
The Berry Creek trail is about 11 miles of pure beauty with two gorgeous waterfalls to see. Not looking to do 11 miles, you can always hike to the first waterfall, about 3.5 miles in, so a total of 7 miles round trip with minor elevation change. Even though I haven’t camped here yet, we’ve checked out the camp sites and discovered they book about 6 months in advance and are definitely secluded from everything, except each other. They’re right on top one another which is why we haven’t indulged yet.
All in all, this in another one of my favorite parks in the bay area because it’s a wonderful place to see giant redwoods, and is very accessible to all ages. My buddy loves bringing his four year old here for hiking, he totally digs the big trees. If you plan to bring the youngsters, just don’t forget extra clothes and let them explore every nook and cranny! My little nephew prides himself on carrying his own pack and loves his Marmot Half Hitch!
#9 Lost Coast Trail – Humboldt
The Lost Coast might be the purest expression of solitude you can experience in the Lower 48, with sea breezes, mystical fogs, and cush campsites, to boot. It’s also one of the wettest stretches of the Pacific Coast, averaging 100 inches of rain annually. The 53-mile route is divided into two sections. For the beach-hugging north, hike 25 miles from Mattole River to Shelter Cove (tide tables are a must for this section). To access the southern section’s 28 miles, start at Hidden Valley and head through Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. This segment penetrates groves of old-growth redwoods and tops 1,000-foot headlands with views of a coastline so rugged, the Pacific Coast Highway had to be diverted inland.
It’s an unbelievable life experience… Just bring a friend, it’s not uncommon for people to get lost or injured on this hike.
#10 Mist Trail – Yosemite
The best hike for your time in Yosemite. Just the hike to Vernal is an amazing experience, but Nevada is nothing to sneeze at. This hike can be very tough on the knees. If you have tender knees (or plan to), hike down the John Muir Trail, which is a bit longer but much easier. It took about 4.5 hours enjoying and taking photos. I suggest you to bring 3 litres of water each if you plan to take the trip in summer. If you have camera equipment you should use a waterproof backpack. The waterfalls and views never fail to impress me, and I’ve probably seen them half a dozen times.
#11 Lake Clementine Loop (Plus The Unmarked Route) – Auburn
Every see the movie XXX with Vin Diesel? Remember when he jumped the Corvette off the bridge in the beginning of the movie? That’s the bridge you see in the picture. I had a rather difficult time on the unmarked riverbank route. Mainly because of the people I was with, but the vegetation had grown pretty high making it hard to hop over rock and see where we were going. The trail back of the hill was a little a hard to find because it isn’t marked at all and the entrance is very steep. However, it literally is right across from the waterfall that is mentioned. You just have to find it. I loved the view of the dam. This is also a very popular mountain biking area for those of you that like a bit of downhill with gnarly jumps and gaps.
#12 The Panorama Trail – Yosemite
The views were magnificent all the way up to the top, from the top, and back down. Descending via Panorama trail you will pass by Illilouette falls, Vernan falls & Nevada Falls. On the way up, the views of the valley, Yosemite Falls & Half Dome are amazing. Please come prepared – there were some on the bus with almost no water, and didn’t even know about the trail options coming down. This hike is definitely do-able, but know your capabilities and bring water! Trail was busy, but not too bad until you join in with the Mist Trail at the top of Nevada Falls…then there are lots of people. By this time you will likely be exhausted and have lots of downhill ahead of you.
#13 Lassen Peak Trail – Lassen Volcanic National Park
The experience is well worth the effort. I have hiked the summit a few times and the views are awe inspiring, although the crowd can be a bummer. Grab a map and you’ll enjoy identifying all of the surrounding sights from the peak. The view is great so don’t forget your camera! This hike has a steep rise with very little flat areas and even a snow pass in August. It’s a nice wide trail due to the amount of hikers on it; young, old and new. Can get very cold and windy as you elevate, so bring a jacket. Bring plenty of water, snacks and protein. Definitely a deceiving adventure.
#14 Pine Ridge Trail To Sykes Hot Springs – Big Sur
It’s a big workout, but if you like that sort of thing then it’s about four hours fast hiking each way. The first bit of the trail isn’t amazing and it quite exposed to the sun but the really lovely views kick in after about 3 miles. Big valleys, beautiful forests, what’s not to love? It’s a great hike. Loads of shade, great views.
No need for long trousers, or heavy hiking shoes. This isn’t a rocky or overly technical trail.
To find the hot springs (there were three at the time of writing), get down to the river, cross over and turn left (downstream) and continue for about 10 mins before crossing back to the original side for the final five mins. It’s lovely there. We stopped at Barlow Flats to camp. It was very peaceful.
#15 Tomales Point – Point Reyes National Seashore
For viewing wildlife, you probably can’t top this hike, and the massive 700 lb. elk are just spectacular! They were extremely calm and were not too far from the trail. I picked up a vibe that they were respecting me and trusting that I would stay on the path and not get too close and respect them back, so definitely stay on the path. I highly recommend this hike, even for the less experienced or less fit. Overall, the hike is pretty easy considering it’s 10 miles. Very relaxing and peaceful. The terrain isn’t too demanding. We were fortunate to have perfect weather for this hike, but I imagine it could be uncomfortable on a windy day, therefore I strongly suggest checking the forecast before going.
#16 Big Santa Anita Canyon Loop with Upper Trail
Did this on my last trip to to So-Cal and really enjoyed hanging out by the Water Fall. Such a scenic and mind freeing trail, talk about free therapy. The Creek/brook provided coolness and a very comfortable temperature while hiking along it, but you’ll definitely feel the heat once you move away from it. The Climb up the asphalt hill at the end was very challenging especially in the last few turns when your glutes really start to feel the incline. In the end though it will be worth it… Highly recommend this trail and I will be doing it again! We finished the day off going to Old Town Pasadena where you can find some great restaurants and watering holes, what ever your heart desires.
#17 Sturtevant Falls – Pasadena California
At the start, its very easy (all downhill). The trail is clearly marked so there is no confusion where to go. The falls are beautiful and breath-taking. BUT…. no one mentions the hike back! The last half mile is all uphill! Butt kicker! But manageable. Once we hit the top, it’s worth it as usual. All in all, I loved this hike, was easy to get to, lots of shade lots of access to the stream, beautiful scenery, streams were easy to cross and lots of rocks to sit on once you reach the falls. Great hike to bring the entire family.
#18 Squaw Valley Creek Trail – McCloud / Shasta
This is one of my absolutely places to get lost. There is not a more spiritual land on this earth than the Mount Shasta region. I truly believe this -the energy in this area is unbelievable. You hear running water the entrire time and you are surrounded by VERY large and VERY old trees. Some parts of the trail can be a bit narrow, but lush, follows the creek, good views above as well as can get closer to the creek. There are 3 falls. The Upper, Middle and Lower falls. This is a very peaceful and rejuvenating trail, and not too demanding at all. Bring the kids and bring the grandparents.
#19 Briones State Park – Contra Costa County / Berkeley
This is a great park with many different trails to hike, be very aware of the trails you want to be on. I missed a turn and had a 3 mile detour that took me all the way off the mountain and then hiked back up it. So know your trails and the ones you want. The last bit of trail is not used much at all and at the end there’s supposed to be a bridge over a creek but it is out and you have to walk across the creek. Hard to get down to. This is very pretty hike with plenty of great photo-ops.
I wish that they also had a few more benches to sit on at some of those vistas.
#20 Horse Heaven Trail to Mission Peak – Fremont
As far as hikes go, Mission Peak is pretty dull. The view and the rolling hills are nice, but most of the year, the scenery is yellow and dry with a smell of cow dung lingering in the air. However, it’s a hell of a hike if fitness is your things. In 2.8 miles (5.6 round trip) you climb 2200ft in almost completely exposed conditions. If you can’t really grasp what that translates into, I’m going to tell you straight out that that’s pretty damn steep. It’s not your walk in the park, but that doesn’t deter the thousands of people who come all year round to hike it.
Now, why do so many people come if the hike lacks scenery and is not for the faint of heart? It’s to reach the holy grail of the South
Bay-the pole on top. It’s all over Facebook and Instagram; it seems in order to earn your birthright as a Bay Area denizen, you need to get a picture with that pole. So many people make the trek to the pole on the weekends nowadays that there’s even a line to take a picture with it…. And good for them!
So there you have it. As of this moment, these are my 20 favorite hiking trails in California. That’s not to say there aren’t countless other gorgeous choices when it comes to California hiking, these just happen to be the ones I frequent the most. And for good reason – they rock!
Which California trails are your favorite to hike?
Tell me about them in the comments section below!
I love this website, great articles!!
My favorite hikes have got to be Alamere Falls in the SF Bay Area and the hike to Potato Chip Rock in San Diego!
My favorite hike is probably Mt. Baldy in SoCal!
I don’t even know where to begin!
Literally going to hike every one of these this year!
Thanks for the inspiring content 🙂
I’ve hiked about 50% of these so far, and completely agree with them being on this list.
Just about every NorCal hike you’ve mentioned is within Mountain Lion and / or Bear Territory so keep your wits about you and pack your gear accordingly.
Love the site! 🙂
Holy smokes, batman! These trails look and sound awesome!!! Looks like I’ve got some hiking to do!
Berryessa burned last year 🙁 Still a great vibe though and one of the best hikes in the area.
WOW. Never even heard of some of these. Pumped
Great flippin’ list! I’ve done most of these and now have a couple NorCal hikes at the top of my list.
I will be in Cali this coming Spring! Bringing this list with me fer sure!
These are some of the most magical trails we’ve ever been on. They all happen to be in California. Holy land for sure. Appreciate you chiming in!
Indeed they are, great advice, Anna!
Be sure to share pics on our facebook page! Facebook.com/AdventureHacks
They all look so amazing. California seems blessed with good hiking
One of the few things California does have going for it… Assuming they don’t all burn down. Thank you for the feedback!
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Only heard of one of these trails. Cant wait to try some of them!
hadn’t heard of most of these! Added to my list!
Hiking is def the best things California has going for it.
All of these are on my list! Not sure where to begin 🙂
Start with the trailhead located nearest to you! Go from there.