With over 15 million acres of wilderness that comprise about 15 percent of the state, California has a lot in store for the outdoorsy. The numerous stunning national parks, forests with tall trees, state parks, and other rugged terrains make for a plethora of majestic backpacking trails, ranging from easy to challenging. So hikers can choose one that is leisurely or strenuous, depending on their experience. But one thing they all promise is breathtaking views of untouched land. However, choosing the best backpacking trails among thousands of contenders can be nerve-wracking. And this list compiles the best backpacking trails in California that can be suitable both for amateurs and experienced hikers.
UPDATE: 2023/04/03 20:49 EST BY OSCAR APONTE
Nature’s Playground: A Guide To The 14 Best Backpacking Trails In California
The beauty and majesty of California’s wilderness is something that makes being able to backpack in one of the state’s idyllic locations a truly wonderful experience. This is why this list has been updated to showcase some of the wonderful trails that shouldn’t be left out.
The 8-mile rocky Boy Scout Trail starts from the Keys West Backcountry Registration parking area and ends near the Indian Cove Campground. The first three miles involve trekking along the Mojave Desert landscape and moving toward the Wonderland of Rocks. At this point, it is advisable to find a camping site since it’s hard finding a flat space past this area. After a long rocky descent through the canyon, backpackers enjoy beautiful vistas before the trail makes its way to Indian Cove.
Location: Joshua Tree National Park
Length: 8 miles
Hikers should be prepared for an early sunset and cold nights if they are camping during the off-season.
The Campo to Warner Springs section of the Pacific Crest Trail runs for approximately 104 miles. The hike starts from southern Campo to Hauser Creek, where it is wise to take on the daunting climb in the evening. From Hauser Creek, travelers go to Lake Morena County Park and the pine-forested Mount Laguna. The trail continues meandering to Julian, Scissors Crossing, Barrel Springs, the famed Eagle Rock, and Warner Springs.
While in Warner Springs, adventurers can camp, go shopping for essentials at the mini-mart, or resupply if they want to continue with the adventure.
Duck Lake Pass Trail starts with switchbacks and stretches along Skelton Lake. From this lake, adventurers head to Barney Lake, sitting at the base of Duck Pass, and find camping spaces at the eastern fork of the lake.
After an overnight camping experience, visitors wake up to a stunning sunrise and majestic reflections of snow-capped mountains in the still waters. The ascent to Duck Pass provides vistas of far-off mountains and the lake basin below. Once the pass is over, adventurers see the impressive Duck Lake surrounded by peaky mountains.
Fallen log in Los Padres National Forest, California
Buckeye Trail is an out-and-back 12.6-mile track near San Simeon in California. The first few miles are exhausting with little shade cover. But this can be made effortless if travelers start this adventure earlier in the morning when the temperatures are cool. Since most creeks along the trail are dry, hikers should bring enough water to get them to Villa Creek during dry seasons. As backpackers descend to Villa Creek, they marvel at the gorgeous redwoods and gushing creek.
Location: Los Padres National Forest
Length: 12.6 miles
Backpackers should wear long pants, carry insect/bug repellents, and beware of poison oak.
The South Fork Trail is a 21.3-mile loop trail that leads adventurers to San Gorgonio Mountain. This trail is completed in two to three days while travelers acclimatize and camp at Lodgepole, Dry Lake, or Trail Flat. Adventurers can find water at the seasonal creeks and at the Lodgepole Spring.
South Fork Trail is challenging because of the changing altitude, backpack weight, high winds, and rugged terrain. However, the expansive meadows and panoramic views from San Gorgonio Mountain make up for the challenging trek.
The mountainous terrain and breathtaking ocean views make the 38.5-mile Trans-Catalina Trail a once-in-a-lifetime backpacking experience. Many adventurers break the hike into five sections that take at least five days to complete. They start from Avalon to Black Jack to Little Harbor to Two Harbors and finally to Parsons Landing. All these points have designated campgrounds with diverse but incredible views for travelers to admire as they set their camps.
Location: Catalina Island
Length: 38.5 miles
Although the Trans-Catalina trail is open year-round, the best time to take on this intriguing adventure is late winter or spring.
Backpackers fulfill their goal of hiking from Yosemite Valley to the Half Dome summit through a strenuous 14-15 mile trail. While hiking, travelers see incredible sights, like Vernal Falls, Emerald Pool, and the Nevada Waterfall. A three-day backpacking trip is enough for adventurers to immerse themselves in the awe-inspiring nature of Yosemite Valley. They can also spend the night at Yosemite Valley Lodge, which offers dramatic views of the area.
Charlotte Lake, Kings Canyon National Park, California
The John Muir Trail travels 210 miles from Yosemite National Park to the 14er Mount Whitney. It passes through notable attractions like the Sierra Mountains, Ansel Adams Wilderness, and the spectacular King’s Canyon Park, among others. Most adventurers take around three weeks to traverse these attractions.
Since this is a strenuous and long backpacking hike, only advanced backpackers should undertake it from July through October, depending on the weather. Despite the trail’s daunting nature, adventurers see the unobstructed lake and mountain views and have mind-blowing stargazing experiences.
Sunrise at Mount Whitney, Yosemite National Park, California
This 11-mile trail takes adventurers to the tallest 14er in California, which is Mount Whitney. The route takes about three to four days to complete. Travelers begin their journey at the Whitney Portal, then to the Consultation Lake, reach the peak, go back to the lake, and then to Whitney Portal again.
There are three campgrounds for adventurers, but the Trail Camp is the most popular. Camping under the starry nights makes the whole adventure worth it. However, when setting up a tent, one should select an existing site to avoid damaging the area by creating a new one.
The 24.6-mile Lost Coast Trail starts from Mattole Beach, leading adventurers to Black Sands Beach, stretching along the undeveloped Long Coast shores. Although it is tough for travelers to get permits to travel along this coast, they can camp anywhere with public access. The trail is not hilly but has sandy and rocky beaches. This point-to-point trail takes about three days to complete, giving backpackers enough time to stop and admire the magnificent coast.
Location: King Range National Conservation Area
Length: 24.6 miles
It’s advisable to check the tide levels and weather since they may change drastically.
Southern California offers breathtaking trails with views that gaze upon the Pacific Ocean’s deep blue waters, and the whole shore surrounding Crystal Cove is a prime example of that. Although most people don’t really have in mind backpacking on California’s beaches, the Crystal Cove Perimeter Loop takes hikers through an 18-mile trail throughout the area’s most scenic locations, like Lower Moro, Upper Moro, and Deer Canyon.
Called “the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth” by ecological thinker John Muir, the San Jacinto Peak is truly one of California’s most magnificent natural marvels.
Leaving from the Marion Mountain Campground, the trail follows 11.4 miles through the tree-filled scenery of California’s countryside, with the possibility of gazing upon the region’s both flora and fauna. This might be one of the most challenging trails to get up to San Jacinto, but it can also be one of the most rewarding given the variety of sceneries the route goes through.
Devil’s Punchbowl, Six Rivers National Forest, California
Don’t be put off by the quirky name; this challenging trail is a must for people who prefer rocky walks rather than flat strolls. The hike makes a great job of showcasing the Six Rivers National Forest’s changing terrain and offers easy access to the park’s main water features, such as the Smith River. It’s also a plus that the trail is welcoming to dogs, as long as they’re on a leash.
Feeling more adventurous? Then climbing one of Lassen Volcanic National Park’s most scenic peaks is the ideal plan. Going up the way to Lassen Peak, the 5-mile-long climb is not for the unprepared since volcanic activity from thousands of years ago and rocks falling from above make for a rather unstable path filled with pieces of rocks that require special gear to maintain balance. Once up, the reward is being able to glance at all the park’s plenitude, as well as its many lakes that serve as a break from the trees and volcanic land.
Location: Lassen Volcanic National Park
Length: 5 miles
If backpacking around the land, avoid packing too heavily before heading up the peak.