The deep redwood forests, rugged mountain peaks and golden coastlines of California are a hikers paradise. Whether you live in the Golden State or plan to visit for a vacation, make sure you check out the best walking trails in California.
1. Potato Chip Rock via Mt. Woodson Trail, Poway, San Diego
Potato Chip Rock’s snaking 11.7km trail provides some of the most spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean in all of California. The Mt. Woodson Trail is regarded as a must-do by locals due to the unusual rock formations and year-round accessibility. It’s called potato chip because the huge boulder everyone comes to see is shaped like a potato chip. Go figure.
It’s not unusual to meet long-distance runners and do walkers along the trail. If your faithful friend does accompany you for a walk, however, make sure to keep it on a leash. Standard hiking trail rules.
The Mt. Woodson Trailhead starts on the Sumac Trail at the end of Lake Poway Road and ascends up onto the Mt. Woodson Trail at the intersection. The route is graded as moderate and is exposed to the elements so bring plenty of water of sunscreen. The trail is not recommended for less experienced hikers during the height of summer when the weather can be intense.
2. Land’s End, San Fransisco
Although there are almost 5000 kilometres of walking trails through the region’s National Parks, one of the best walking trails in California is in the city limits of San Fransisco. The Land’s End Trail in the Sutro District of Golden Gate National Recreation Area is only a four-mile loop circuit, but you can easily spend the day exploring the area.
There are several trails in the area which offer the same views, but the locals recommend joining the path from the historic Sutro baths. You can spend some time having fun here and the sunsets from this location are particularly romantic.
The trail takes you along the rugged San Fran coast, meandering along cliff tops, along dirt paths shaded by cypress and looking down on to rocky shores. Along the way, you will see the Golden Gate Bridge from all angles, and may want to stop off at Mile Rock Beach to sunbathe, paddle or eat a packed lunch.
3. Gray Butte Trail, Mount Shasta
If you have a penchant for mountain scenery, one of the best walking trails in California for all-comers is Gray Butte Trail on Mount Shasta. Although the summit looks like it will be a challenging climb, the 3.3km Gray Butte Trail is one of the easiest, and rewarding routes to admire Mount Shasta in its full glory.
The snow-capped peaks of Mount Shasta cut an imposing figure across the skyline and the drive up to the Everitt Memorial Highway is captivating in itself. But is the hiking trail where you will witness the regions pure charm. The region is known for its wealth of flora and fauna and is carefully protected by the Bioregional Ecology Center.
Beginning in Panther Meadow, the Gray Butte Trail take you through red fir forests and one of the most glorious hemlock groves in northern California. The view from the top is regarded as one of the finest views of Mount Shasta and also takes in the Trinity Divide and the distant Trinity Alps. The best time to walk Gray Butte is between July and November.
4. Yosemite Falls Trail, Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is home to some of the best walking trails in California, but by all accounts, the Yosemite Falls Trail offers the most spectacular panoramas. The up-close and personal view of Yosemite Falls is a rewarding and spectacular goal.
The nine-mile round trip can be a challenge for beginners but is achievable if your fitness levels are high and accompanied by experienced hikers. The course can take around 8-hours to complete so set off early in the morning and make sure you head back whilst there is still plenty of sunlight. However, be warned that humidity can be suffocating in the summer. Spring and Fall are the best times of the year to tackle this trail.
The most gruelling part of the hike is the 2,700 feet hillside climb to the top, but the views looking across the entirely Yosemite Valley are worth the effort. You can always turn back after scaling the moderate 1000 metre climb to Colombia Rock. The authorities also warn not to stray from the trail as the area has some loose rocks and can be dangerous.
5. Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Described by film director Steven Spielberg as “an unforgettable natural wonder’ Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is one of the most scenic hiking trails in the world, not least the United States. Film buffs may recognise it from Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World.
The hiking trail is characterised by the gargantuan ferns that climb the walls of the 80-foot canyon. For much of the year, water trickles down the rugged stone walls and much of the trail can be damp. In the summer bridges are erected to help hikers avoid the rising creek waters but if you don’t mind getting wet, wading through the water adds to the adventure and is an unforgettable experience.
Although Fern Canyon is open all year round, the winter months can be limited. Check for the road and trail conditions before heading out of the State Park as some parts of the trail may be impassable and thus closed off.
6. Rubicon Trail, Lake Tahoe
If lakes are your thing, you won’t find a better bounty of breathtaking vistas than along the southwest shore of Lake Tahoe. The 13-mile hike wraps around the southwest shore of the glorious Emerald Bay and leads you to D.L Bliss State Park through pine and fir trees, romantic coves and a delightful waterfall.
One of the reasons why this trial is most loved is because the terrain changes; from flats to rocky paths, twists and turns to elevated climbs that bring you to an imposing Scandinavian summer house given the name Vikingsholm designed by Swedish architect Lennart Palme in the 1920s. There is also a wealth of wildlife including nesting eagles, martens and waterfowl. There is a $10 fee to enter the park.
7. McWay Waterfall Trail, Big Sur
The Big Sur is regarded as one of California’s hiking hotspots and the McWay Waterfall trail is one of the most photographed areas of natural beauty in the United States.
Meandering along the sultry mountainous coastline, the trail is a short hike that takes you to a lookout from where you can see tumbling waters from the 80-foot high McWay Waterfall down to a small sandy beach in the cove below. For such an easy hike – the trail is only 0.6-miles – you are blessed with a wealth of natural beauty.
Whilst the hike can be completed there and back in around 30-minutes you can easily spend several hours here. Although there is no access to the beach, you can spend time whale spotting. It is advised to stay well clear of the cliff’s edge as loose stones make the cliffs unstable.
8. Bridge to Nowhere, San Gabriel Mountains, Azusa
The Bridge to Nowhere in the San Gabriel Mountains is one of the most interesting walking trails in California – not merely for the natural beauty but for the mysterious history and conspiracy theories that surround the bridge.
Historical records show that the bridge was erected on orders of the US government in the 1950s. With the country swamped in the paranoia of the Cold War, the intention was to build a highway through the San Gabriel mountains to evacuate the residents of LA and enable them to escape to the Mojave Desert – home to the mysterious Area 51. The 120-foot bridge is the only evidence that a highway was planned – but the only destination in the wilderness.
The 10,.5 mile hike can take around 6-hours and provides an interesting adventure for hikers that like an adventure. There are stream crossings to navigate and water holes to cool off in – which is a good idea considering there are no shaded areas and can be stiflingly hot on warm days.
9. Temescal Canyon Trial, Santa Monica
Considered as ‘the best hike in Los Angeles by Lonely Planet, the Temescal Canyon Trail takes you deep into the Santa Monica Mountains toward Temescal Peak. Its characteristic features include the unusual outcrops – not least the intriguing sandstone Skull Rock which resembles the head of a human skeleton.
Rated as a moderate hike, the 4.6km loop trail takes you along the Pacific Palisades to the popular Temescal Falls, a modest cascade that is more often than not nothing more than a trickle. But it is the spectacular views of the raking oceanscapes that hikers come here for – some of the most spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean.
Due to its easy routes, the Temescal Canyon Trail is a popular spot for day-trippers as well as serious ramblers. Its close proximity to LA also makes it a popular chill-out area for strollers and joggers that do not have regard for peace and quiet in areas of natural beauty. If listing to workout music pumping from a boom box bothers you, get there early to avoid the crowds and take the lower mountain trails to the canyon.
10. Vernal and Nevada Falls via Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park
Hikers that love a waterfall will not want to miss the Mist Trail hike. This route not only enables you to take in one tumbling cascade but two; Vernal and Nevada Falls.
As you can imagine, this loop trail is pretty popular, but with 9.7 kilometres of difficult terrain to tackle doesn’t get overly busy. Mist Trail is rated the second-best walk in Yosemite National Park, but because it’s easier than the challenging Yosemite Falls Trail mentioned above, attracts more hikers. The locals say that if you only have time to take in one walk, the Mist Trail is probably the best for most people.
The trail brings you pretty close to the waterfalls, so close you feel the mist sweeping off the cascade – hence the name of the trail. Start the path at Happy Isles Trailhead (shuttle stop #16) and stroll along the river before commencing the steep ascent up the stone steps until you reach the footbridge. From here you get your first breathtaking glimpse of Vernal Falls.
For a longer hike, take the route along the John Muir Trail, also rated as one of the best walking trails in California. The John Muir Trail brings you on to Mist Trail near the footbridge. The best time to tackle the Mist trail is between May and October.
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