The Golden State. Love it or hate it, the truth is that California is a mecca for the outdoors. Home to pleasant year-round weather, nine national parks, 840 miles of scenic coastline, the tallest trees in the world, the highest peak in the Lower 48, and the longest continuous/uninterrupted mountain range in the continental U.S., California truly is a gold mine loaded with adventures and possibilities.
One of the best ways to experience all that California has to offer is to tighten up those laces and set off on foot. From traversing trails under ancient coast redwood canopies to taking in the precipitous coastline of Big Sur, from climbing above the cobalt waters of Lake Tahoe to route finding through the granitic uplift of the Eastern Sierra, the diversity of hiking zones here run deep. The question becomes: With so many incredible options, where does one start?
Well, that depends on where your personal interests lie and how much time you have. If you have a long weekend, I recommend honing in on a specific area such as Redwood National Park or the Bishop zone of the eastern Sierra. If you have a week or more, you can easily split your time between coastal explorations and high elevation adventures. Where you might go also depends greatly on the season; late spring through fall is ideal for the Sierra and the California Cascades. Fall through spring is often the best time to be on the coast.
To help get the gears turning, I've pulled together a list of 10 of my personal favorite trails that I believe showcases the breadth of California's natural wonders. Sure, one or two of these locations may get scoffed at given their popularity, but if you are fortunate enough to pull a permit and get up before daybreak to reach the summit of Half Dome, you won't be eye rolling when you are standing on top of that granite monolith taking in the 360-degree sublimity of Yosemite, or when you are standing alone in stillness enjoying the ancient wisdom of the Stern Grove redwoods.
I hope you enjoy discovering your own vein of California hiking gold. Happy adventuring!
Perhaps the most picturesque redwood grove in all of California, Stout Memorial Grove is more akin to a meditative walk than a hike. The grove is unique in that the coast redwood tree is the only tree that grows here. Beautiful any time of year, this is a family-friendly locale and one that can be combined with a memorable few days exploring Redwood National and State Parks.
One of Northern California's riparian gems, the McCloud River flows off of the southern flanks of Mount Shasta and provides hikers, anglers and swimming hole seekers a slice of Cascadia paradise. The river's 5-mile there-and-back Three Falls Hike explores the Upper McCloud's most scenic stretch, covering off on postcard-worthy waterfalls and swimming holes.
If you don't live in Northern California or Southern Oregon, you probably don't know much about the Trinity Alps. Often overshadowed by the Sierra Nevada and the California volcanoes of Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak, "the Trinities" are a less discovered mountain paradise. Striking granite peaks and picturesque lakes make this range a worthwhile destination, and Canyon Creek Lakes hike is a great place to start. While it is possible to do in a day, with 3,500 feet of elevation over 8.5 miles/17 miles round trip, most choose experience Canyon Creek Lakes as an overnight.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is the closest thing the West Coast has to Yellowstone, with Lassen Peak right at its center. Both the park itself and the hike to the peak are must-see Northern California attractions. Typically by Memorial Day you can drive up to Lassen Peak's summer trailhead, keeping the climb to a manageable 1,900-foot climb in just over 5.2 miles round trip.
The northern Sierra's best kept secret, Sierra Buttes rises above Lakes Basin, providing views and a fire lookout tower that is open to the public in this quieter corner of the range. From Packer Saddle the hike can be done in a half day, climbing 1,600 feet over 5 miles round trip.
On a sunny day, this is one of the most spectacular views on the California coast. A great family hike at just under a mile-and-a-half, Chimney Rock can be combined with visits to the Point Reyes Lighthouse and other Point Reyes National Seashore destinations. Spring is particularly beautiful with wildflowers.
Mount Tallac is Lake Tahoe's guardian of the southwest shore. The tallest of the peaks immediately surrounding the lake, you'll be hard pressed to find a better view of the Tahoe Basin. The wildflowers and views into Desolation Wilderness aren't too shabby either. The there-and-back summer trail climbs 3,250 feet in 9.6 miles round trip.
Not much needs to be said about Half Dome. If you get lucky and pull a permit for this hike during summer months, well, you've basically struck gold. The world-renowned John Muir Trail shares its northern terminus with Half Dome's Trailhead, so you'll be ticking off two iconic hikes at the same time (at least for it's first few miles; the full JMT runs 211 miles south to Mount Whitney). A few tips: Avoid the crowd by starting well before sunrise and combine the JMT start (or finish) with the Mist Trail Loop. At over 16 miles out-and-back, this is a long day any way you cut it.
Experiencing Big Sur from Highway 1 is one thing; taking it on foot and traversing across the Santa Lucia Mountains well above the highway is another. Kirk Creek/Vicente Flat Trail affords just that. Enjoy breathtaking views of the Big Sur coastline, wildflowers, and perhaps a whale sighting or two from this magical 3.2-mile there-and-back trail.
Big Pine Creek South Fork Trail is one of a few stunning portals that transports hikers coming from Highway 395 into the beauty of the High Sierra. This 12-mile there-and back hike to Finger Lake rewards visitors with alpine scenery and impressive views of the 14,000-foot Palisade Crest, which is home to the largest glacier in the Sierra Nevada. A 450-foot scramble at the end gets you up to Finger Lake and even better views of the Palisades. Like most Eastern Sierra trailheads, expect to encounter a healthy amount of elevation gain over a relatively short distance. The views and scenery, however, make this climb worth it.
Each month, Eddie Bauer's panel of judges will select 25 semifinalists who will receive a $100 Eddie Bauer gift card and be entered into the competition to win the grand prize.
At the end of the contest period, one grand prize winner will choose between a trip to Kauai, Yosemite or Whistler, BC, for an all-expenses paid hiking adventure of a lifetime. Read the full details and rules here.