With more than 339 different trails in the whole state of California, totally an amazing 2,158 miles, it is easy to get a little overwhelmed with the backpacking options available. Luckily, we have found four trails that give you the best bang for your buck. A nice mix of biomes: alpine lakes, coastal dunes, hot springs, and even a 14-er.
Keep reading for some of the best backpacking routes in the state of California, then grab your gear and hit the trail for an adventure you won’t soon forget!
Rae Lakes Loop, Kings Canyon NP
Spanning two national parks, Kings Canyon and Sequoia, this 37-mile trail is worth every foot of elevation gain (a total of 7,500 ft). We tackled it early in the season, which had its perks but also some pretty big (or small in this instance) drawbacks.
You should probably plan for four to five days on the trail, with the last day being a half-day (meaning plenty of time for a nice filling meal and maybe a beer or two). For us, we decided to go hard on Day 1 and 2 and then spend the last two days going a bit easier a.k.a more time for photos and taking in the scenery. You can go either clockwise or counter-clockwise, depending on the permit you get at the ranger station before starting out. Many people recommend clockwise, but we went counter-clockwise and though day one was almost all uphill, it was not too bad (tough but bearable). Either way you go you will see the same stunning scenery.
Because we went early in the season, we did have to deal with a couple “negatives” mostly in the form of vicious, ravenous mosquitos that made cooking outside unbearable. The first night was the worst - we quickly had to set up camp and take refuge inside before we were completely overrun by the awful creatures. As someone who gets attacked more often than others (yay) it was pretty terrible. The scenery was outstanding, but the fact that we had to deal with thousands of tiny blood-sucking bugs did take away from the overall enjoyment.
The other negative was not actually that bad - just something to be aware of. If you are planning to go early in the season like we did be prepared for snow up at the pass. There is still a clear trail going up and down to follow, but it does get slick and can be a bit dangerous if you aren’t paying attention.
But honestly, besides the little flying demons and the snow, we loved going early in the season: everything was green, there were lots of flowers and it didn’t seem nearly as busy.
The Rae Lakes are stunning and this trail is definitely worth doing. Be prepared for bugs, the sun, and some sore legs afterwards, but all in all it will be a trip you won’t forget.
Want to learn more? Then check out this website.
Lost Coast Trail
While many backpacking routes take you along singletrack or maybe even doubletrack trails, the Lost Coast Trail way up in Northern California has very little set trail at all. Instead, be prepared to hike almost solely on the beach. For three days you will cross different but always stunning terrain - from coastal grassland bluffs to boulder-strewn, slippery beaches. You’ll see lots of birds and if you are lucky, the much larger (and smellier) elephant seals.
We did the trip over the 4th of July weekend with a couple of our good friends. The five of us started out early on the 5th, after a night of surprising fireworks over the ocean dunes, and quickly got into a nice rhythm of walking along the rocky coastline. Even though the trail is not exactly long - just under 25 miles in total - it does take time and can definitely take a toll on your body (by the end all five us were feeling it in our arches and knees). This trail also requires a bit more planning, mostly to do with the tides (the trail is along the beach, meaning twice a day there is no trail), and where all the primitive campsites are in case you get stuck.
Honestly, this trail is one of the best ways to get out and experience a stretch of nature that is otherwise difficult to see (the King Range National Conservation Area is one of the roughest pieces of coastline on the Pacific, so rugged that Highway 1 has to veer inland to bypass it). It is a stunning area of California that really reveals itself after being walked on by your own two feet.
Learn more about the hike here.
Sykes Hot Springs
At only 20 miles in length, this route might not be as intense as others in the state, but it might just have one of the best payoffs. Start the hike at Pfieffer Big Sur State Park and head out on the Pine Ridge Trail, there you will cross the river twice - if it looks like it is rushing too fast or is too high, be smart and turn around.
If you are planning to do the hike in two days, which we recommend - why rush it? - then you will have to stop and pitch a tent at one of the three designated campsites: Terrace Creek (5 miles down the trail, Barlow Flat, the largest of the three and 7 miles away and finally, Sykes Campground which sits right next to the hot springs.
A final thing to know is that the hot springs only hold up to five people at a time. So either go early (really early) or plan to hit the trail during the off-season, like the fall after all the tourists have left.
Learn more about the trail here.
Mount Shasta via Avalanche Gulch
If you have ever driven north from Sacramento, California then you have probably seen what almost looks like a mirage: a tall, white peak rising from the otherwise flat landscape. But don’t worry, that “mirage” is exactly what it looks like - a striking mountain rising from the land.
Mount Shasta is a 14,000-foot peak that stands proudly over the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The “somewhat” dormant stratovolcano is the second tallest peak in the Cascades, which counts Rainier and Mount Saint Helens as members.
We believe one of the best ways to hike up Mt. Shasta is via Avalanche Creek. While the route is one of the “easier” ways up the mountain, it is still pretty strenuous. You can make the hike in one long day - start early - or spend the night before camped out at Lake Helen (where you will see some truly beautiful stars). Then get up before sunrise and hit the trail.
Hold on though, actually in truth there isn’t actually much of a trail. Instead, it is more like following the most direct route right up the mountainside, which is mostly made up of ash and sand. While you hike you might feel like after every step forward you slip two feet back - that is probably true. This trail is physically tough, but it is also mentally demanding. When we hiked it we saw more people turn around than actually make it to the summit.
If you are bad-ass enough and you eventually reach the summit (after what feels like way too much time) you will be rewarded with some pretty amazing views of the surrounding area. Take a selfie, soak in the beauty and then head on back down (you can even slide down part of it if you are feeling really adventurous). Get back to camp, which is located in the trees and near a nice cool stream (perfect for a victory ice bath), and then either spend another night out in the woods or hike the last 3 miles back to your car.
Learn more about the hike here.
These four hikes are some of the best adventures to be had in the whole state of California. They get you off the beaten path and let you see some truly stunning landscapes. All under the power of your own two feet - which we believe it makes it that much sweeter.
So grab your sturdiest hiking shoes, a couple of delicious backpacking meals, and of course your camera (you’ll want to capture all of it and hit the trails!
Are you ready for an adventure!?