If the landscapes of each US state had their own Miss America–style competition, California would be a serious contender for the crown.
Traversing a dramatic coastline, sky-high granite peaks, cascading waterfalls, the world’s tallest trees, translucent blue lakes and desert oases, this state’s eye-popping hikes offer such variety that choosing favorites feels ridiculous. But we’ve done just that.
We’ve covered some popular trails but also a few that lead adventurers away from the crowds and into the wilderness, where experiences with diverse habitats and wildlife await. Here are the best hikes in California.
Hiking through giant redwoods and sequoias is a California treat © Jordan Siemens / Getty Images
1. Boy Scout Tree Trail
Best hike for admiring redwood forests
5.5 miles round trip, 3–4 hours, moderate
Coast redwoods are the tallest trees on Earth, stretching more than 350ft high and living for more than 1000 years. California is one of few places in the world to behold their majesty. Though hikers have many redwood trails to choose from, the Boy Scout Tree Trail is a classic.
Despite its remote, far-north location in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, numerous visitors brave the winding road through the forest and compete for limited parking at the trailhead. For the opportunity to wander this sometimes steep and uneven path among the towering, old-growth giants, it’s all worth it. On clear days, the sunlight filtering through the canopy is pure magic.
2. Fern Canyon Trail
Best hike in Northern California
1.1 miles round trip, 1–2 hours, easy
Steven Spielberg filmed scenes for Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World here – and for good reason. The gargantuan ferns climbing the walls of this yawning, 80ft canyon are decidedly dinosaur-sized and so awe-inspiring is the verdant scenery that this place has been designated a World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve.
Located within Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Fern Canyon gets crowded in the summertime, and the parking lot, accessed via a dirt road through the forest, can fill up. Also, note that the road can become impassable in winter. Bring footwear for walking in water: the trail intersects with a winding, pebble-filled creek, and your lower extremities will likely get wet.
3. Lassen Peak Trail
Best hike for mountains and volcanoes
5 miles round trip, 4–5 hours, moderate to challenging
California’s hydrothermal superstar, Lassen Volcanic National Park features four types of volcanoes, including the world’s largest plug-dome. That’s 10,457ft Lassen Peak, which last blew its top less than 100 years ago and remains active today. The most intrepid hikers now climb it.
Why? The sensational views over all of Lassen, including terrain devastated by eruptions and dotted with crystal clear lakes, for starters. But the trail also features rare alpine plants, snow patches and evidence of glacial episodes. While much of the park was affected by the 2021 Dixie fire, this hike remains astounding.
California’s Lost Coast Trail takes you far off the beaten path © Corey Rich / Getty Images
4. Lost Coast Trail
Best multi-day hike
24.6 miles one way, 3–4 days, challenging
When engineers were building the Pacific Coast Highway, they opted to bypass about 100 miles of rugged coastline – which became California’s famous Lost Coast. Serious hikers fly across the world to experience the total seclusion and epic scenery of this wilderness seashore, many of them embarking on multi-day journeys within King Range National Conservation Area.
If long hours of beach trekking, timing the tides and scrambling over boulders sound daunting, the Lost Coast offers shorter and less difficult options. The sandy hike from Mattole Trailhead to Punta Gorda Lighthouse and its amazing elephant seals can be done in a half day, while trails on the coastal bluffs in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park often include sightings of Roosevelt elk. Reaching the trailhead of any Lost Coast hike will be part of the adventure.
5. Lands End Trail
Best day hike
4.3 miles one way, 2 hours, moderate
San Francisco’s most enchanting hike leads its lucky travelers along the city’s northwestern edge, offering iconic views of the dramatic coastline, the revered Golden Gate Bridge and the rugged Marin Headlands to the north. The path curls through wind-whipped cypresses and down romantic staircases, across coastal bluffs and over beach boardwalks. Tempting turnoffs lead to scenic overlooks and hidden coves.
History enthusiasts will also appreciate that this hike includes a Civil War fort at Fort Point and several WWII-era bunkers, including Battery Crosby, dotting the bluffs. Nearby are also the Sutro Baths, a massive indoor swimming complex built in 1896. Squint your eyes and imagine Victorian dandies splashing about in rented woolen swimsuits.
6. Big Sur trails in Andrew Molera State Park
Best coastal hike
2.3-mile beach loop, 2 hours, easy or 8.7-mile ridge loop, 4–5 hours, moderate
Big Sur is California at its dreamiest, so do yourself a favor: get out of the car and hike into the fairytale. Andrew Molera State Park has it all – dramatic ocean views, high bluffs, secluded beaches and even a hilltop redwood forest.
You have two options. The shorter and easier loop follows the Beach Trail out to the crashing sea and comes back on the Creamery Meadows Trail through idyllic grasslands formerly munched by dairy cows. Those interested in vast, jaw-dropping coastal views and tranquil, shady woodlands can set off on the longer loop created by the Panorama Trail, Bluffs Trail and Ridge Trail. A lovely spur trail leads to an unspoiled hidden beach.
Hiking in California is full of varied and interesting landscapes © Zachary Miller / Getty Images
7. Rubicon Trail
Best lake hike
10 miles round trip, 4–5 hours, moderate
The quintessential Tahoe hike, Rubicon Trail winds along the forested southwest shore of the region’s famous lake, offering astounding views of its depth, clarity and cobalt-y blueness. From the trailhead in DL Bliss State Park, the dirt path is lined with pine trees and boulders as it undulates over coastal bluffs, drops into secluded coves and finally collides with the lovely Emerald Bay State Park.
This stunner’s got history, too. Many hikers take the mile-long detour up to glorious Vikingsholm Castle, a shining example of Scandinavian-style architecture. There’s also a killer view of Fannette Island, a small dot of granite where, in the 1920s, widowed heiress Lora Knight would deliver guests by boat to a teahouse.
8. Yosemite Falls Trails
Best hike for waterfalls
1-mile loop, 1 hour, easy or 7.2 miles round trip, 6–8 hours, challenging
Yosemite is a wonderland of soaring granite and gushing water features, including North America’s tallest waterfall: Yosemite Falls. Because it’s split into upper and lower falls, hikers can opt for an easy, paved route to a footbridge near the base of the smaller (but still 320ft!) fall. From there, the views of both falls are spectacular and sometimes include a misting. The eastern portion of the lower trail is wheelchair accessible.
Bold and fit hikers will likely prefer the hike to the top of Upper Fall, whose 2425ft summit offers incredible views of iconic granite slabs like Half Dome and Sentinel Rock, as well as Yosemite Creek and the valley below. The climb through oak woodland, exposed plateaus and steep and rocky terrain near the top is difficult but highly rewarding. Those who still want more can continue to Yosemite Point or Eagle Peak.
9. Gem Lakes Trail
Best hidden hike
7.8 miles round trip, 5 hours, moderate
Many overlook California’s Eastern Sierra. But high alpine Little Lakes Valley is a must-hike spot, with a series of postcard-perfect lakes lined in conifers and backed by jagged, snow-capped granite.
The trail runs parallel to Rock Creek, where you might catch sight of people fishing for trout, and then dips through a glacier-carved valley, meandering through meadows, over footbridges, through lodgepole pines and along the shores of sparkling blue lakes. Don’t forget to snap photos when you get a glimpse of those granite spires reflected in the water.
Permits are required to camp in the John Muir Wilderness – an overnight stay is highly recommended.
10. Temescal Canyon Trail
Best hike in Los Angeles
3 miles round trip, 2 hours, moderate
The Temescal Canyon Trail is one of those hikes that people in Los Angeles do multiple times a week, mainly because they love the 360-degree views of greater LA, including of dazzling Hollywood Hills mansions. The natural environs are nothing to sneeze at either – this trail offers scalable mountain peaks, a densely wooded canyon, a stream bed flanked with foxtail and a bridge over a seasonal waterfall. Beyond those city views, the Pacific Ocean glitters.
Because this great hike is so close to Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica, it’s often pretty crowded. For a slightly less beaten path, take the detour to Skull Rock, a nifty rock formation with a stunning vista of its own.
11. Murray Canyon Trail
Best hike in Southern California
3.7 miles round trip, 2–3 hours, easy to moderate
Tucked away in the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains near Palm Springs, this hidden oasis hike feels like a hallucination has come to life.
The beginning of the trail is flat, offering small boulders, yellow flowers and the occasional chuckwalla (large lizard). Yet soon hikers arrive at a creek formed by melting snow and surrounded by magnificent fan palms. Makeshift log bridges cross the creek as the path continues through an erosion-carved sandstone canyon, eventually culminating in a large pool fed by a seasonal waterfall. Mule deer and bighorn sheep sometimes bound in for a drink.
12. Potato Chip Rock and Mt Woodson Trail
Best hike in San Diego
6.8 miles round trip, 4 hours, moderate
The delightful Potato Chip Rock and Mt Woodson Trail near San Diego winds around Lake Poway, past needle-y conifers and giant metamorphic boulders, up a million stairs and over to a top-notch selfie spot: a thin slice of rock precariously extended and bearing an uncanny resemblance to a potato chip.
The summit is often crowded with people one-upping each other for the most absurd photo with the main attraction. Just wait your turn and don’t do anything too stupid, as the fall would be around 20ft. Other threats (or attractions, depending on your perspective) include rattlesnakes and mountain lions hiding amongst the chaparral and scrub oak. Stay alert.