Best Hikes in California? My Opinions, and a Request for Nominations

My kids are getting old enough to pursue more ambitious hikes, so I’ve started to think about some of the must-do hikes in California that we should consider. I’ve done a lot of hiking in California, and some hikes that stand out as especially memorable for me, roughly arranged north to south (where I’ve done more extensive reviews, I’ve linked to them):

* Lava Beds National Monument. It’s not exactly hiking, but exploring the lava tubes is loads of fun. Bring a helmet, sweatshirt and flashlight.

* Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. There are numerous fern canyons in California, but this gets my vote for the ferniest. It has the bonanza of being surrounded by a first-rate redwood forest. Gold Bluffs Beach is beautiful, and you’re likely to see an elk herd along the way. Gold Bluffs Beach is a fantastic camping destination–it’s where Lisa and I got engaged, August 9, 1995!

* Angel Island to Mt. Livermore. From the top, you get a 360 degree view of the San Francisco Bay, including downtown San Francisco, the Golden Gate, the East Bay mountains, Mt. Tam and Marin County. Often fog blocks some of the view, but the fog also adds to the visual interest. The military ghost towns on the island are worth a visit too. I enthusiastically recommend camping on the island as a bucket list item.

* San Bruno Mountain. On a clear day, the views of the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean are mesmerizing. When it’s foggy (most of the time), at least you’ll be able to enjoy the flowers blooming year-round.

* Mist Trail, Yosemite. Yosemite has many great trails, but this one stands out as a wonderful hike to a beautiful waterfalls–plus you’re going to get wet, and you’re almost certain to see rainbows. The big downside: people. Lots of them.

* Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park. These are the sand dunes you’ve seen in the Hollywood movies, and I think it is the prettiest sand dune system in California. Go at sunrise or sunset for the best scenery (or better yet, both).

* Telescope Peak, Death Valley National Park. On the east side, Death Valley. On the west side, Panamint Valley–which I think is even prettier. Beyond, views for up to 100 miles in every direction. As a bonus, Mahogany Flats campground is a fantastic desert campground.

* Anacapa Island to Inspiration Point. The view overlooking the other two Anacapa Islands and Santa Cruz Island is incredibly romantic.

* Hikes to the Desert Divide (part of the Pacific Crest Trail). To the west, Garner Valley, which I think is the prettiest valley in Southern California. To the east, the mountains of Joshua Tree Monument and the Coachella Valley stretching out to the Salton Sea. To the north, 10k+ feet San Jacinto and San Gorgonio mountains. To the south, 8k feet Santa Rosa Mountain. All around you, not a soul to be seen. All of the Desert Divide peaks are equally good in my opinion. Or, go straight for San Jacinto Peak for the best views (although you will see people there).

* Hiking in palm oases. Examples include Indian Canyons in Palm Springs and Borrego Palm Canyon in Anza-Borrego Park. My choice overall for convenience, cost and oasis quality is Coachella Valley Preserve in Thousand Palms.

You’ll note that I didn’t put any redwood-specific hikes on the list. For me, all redwood hikes are always worth doing, even when it’s a second-growth forest–although old-growth forests are best. However, there’s a certain sameness to redwood hikes, so it’s hard to distinguish among them. Some of my favorite redwood destinations include Redwood National Park, Hendy Woods and Montgomery Woods. This site looked pretty helpful. Muir Woods and Big Basin, two of the most popular old-growth redwoods destinations, don’t make my list because of the omnipresent crowds.

Still on my long-term to-do list: hike the Lost Coast, hike the Headwaters Forest Reserve, visit Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands, climb Mt. Whitney and climb Half Dome.

Other perspectives: Everytrail offers a fine list of contenders. Mt. Tallac is a strong contender for its Lake Tahoe panorama. The Berry Falls loop in Big Basin is a great Bay Area hike but it wouldn’t make my cut overall. McWay Falls in Julia Pfieffer State Park is iconic, but it’s a very short stroll and the trail doesn’t really lead you close to the falls (the view is is fairly distant). The South Grove in Calaveras Big Trees State Park is worth doing, but it’s “just” another redwood hike.

Another list from BestCaliforniaHikes. Golden Canyon in Death Valley is a wonderful hike; go in the early morning to get the best colors. Mosaic Canyon in Death Valley is pleasant but wouldn’t make my top list.

Want more? Try Tripleblaze’s top 100 list. However, I think this list is more about popularity than quality. For example, Jughandle State Reserve (#83) is entirely skippable. The Trails.com lists (North, South) are better but are still popularity-driven and not totally useful, e.g., it lists jeep trails, and #10 on the south list are “trails in Joshua Tree” (well, that narrows things down).

So, what are your favorite California hikes? I don’t care where they are located in California, although I do prefer day hikes (including car camping if applicable) over backpacking destinations. Email me and let me know.

UPDATE: some of the suggestions I’ve gotten: Panorama Trail in Yosemite, Dipsea Trail (Muir Woods to Stinson Beach), Salmon Creek Trail in Big Sur.

UPDATE 2: I’ll add Lobo Canyon on Santa Rosa Island to the list. Spectacular!