The Best California Backpacking Trips for Adventure Junkies

From Sierra Mountains to Southern California Coastline, explore the best California backpacking trips.
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Best California Backpacking Trips

Are you itching for an outdoor adventure? If yes, California is the place to go! This state is home to some of the best and most challenging backpacking routes in the world.

In this blog post, we will be exploring the best backpacking trails that California has to offer, from the Northern California Sierra Mountains to the Southern California Coastline.

Key Takeaways

  • Southern California offers a wide range of backpacking trails such as those in Panamint DunesCrystal Cove State Park and Joshua Tree National Park
  • Northern California provides unforgettable hiking experiences with Devil’s PunchbowlMt. Shasta via Clear Creek Route, and Redwood National and State Parks.
  • In the Sierra Mountains, there are scenic routes like Ropi Lake, Vogelsang and Merced Lake High Sierras Camp to explore.
  • Along the coast there is an array of spectacular adventure options like Lost Coast: Mattole to Black Sands Beach, Point Reyes Coast Memorial campground or Bear Valley to Coast Camp Loop.

Northern California Backpacking Trips

Explore stunning landscapes such as Devil’s Punchbowl, Six Rivers National Forest and Mt. Shasta via Clear Creek Route, and more with so many awesome backpacking trips available in Northern California.

Devil's Punchbowl
Devil’s Punchbowl

Devil’s Punchbowl, Six Rivers National Forest

Located in the Siskiyou mountains, this area offers unique geological formations and an impressive array of over 13 different species of conifers found within a one-mile stretch.

👉 Devil’s Punchbowl Loop Trail: This trail leads to the Devil’s Punchbowl, a deep blue lake within a classic glacial cirque, in one of the most popular hiking destinations in the Klamath Mountains. This 1-mile loop hike starts at the Park’s Nature Center, takes you into the Siskiyou Mountains and circles back around the park’s unique geological features.

👉 Devil’s Chair: This 7.5-mile round-trip hike takes you to a perched viewpoint at the top of Devil’s Chair. It’s the most popular hike in the park and is a nice balance of challenging yet accessible for novice backpackers.

👉 Burkhart Trail: For advanced explorers, the 13.7-mile Burkhart Trail leads hikers northward deep into a wilderness area.

Mt. Shasta
Mt. Shasta

Clear Creek Route to Mt. Shasta

The Clear Creek route is a beginner-friendly non-technical path that leads 8,000 feet up to Mt. Shasta, an iconic stratovolcano. It’s about 14-miles long round trip and follows the Mud Creek Canyon.

👉 Bunny Flat Trailhead: Adventurers should start their journey from Bunny Flat trailhead at 6,950 feet and make their way higher towards Horse Camp located near treeline which has a fresh water spring plus camping spots.

Siskiyou County
Siskiyou County

Sky High Lakes in the Marble Mountains

Located in the Marble Mountain Wilderness in Siskiyou County, California, Sky High Lakes trail is a moderate to difficult trail with lots of opportunities for bird watching.

👉 Lovers Camp Trailhead: This entry point to the trail starts approximately 7-miles away from the Six Rivers National Forest along the Canyon Creek Trail, with access to lakes for swimming close to campgrounds.

The views in this part of the Klamath National Forest are not to be missed – especially given its reputation as one of the best wilderness areas in California.

Redwood National Park
Redwood National Park

Redwood National and State Parks

Composed of four parks – Redwood National Park, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park – offers visitors peaceful hikes, beach walks, the beauty of rugged coastal cliffs alongside grand old-growth trees in these remarkable ecosystems.

👉 Redwood Creek Trail: If you want a nice a stroll through the redwoods with minimal crowds and pristine nature, look no further than this 17-mile long path in the Redwood National Park.

The area is famous for its majestic redwoods, with some rising as tall as 364 feet! The scenic drive along Newton B Drury Scenic Parkway takes you directly into ancient forests where you’ll find Roosevelt elk grazing or stunning bayside overlooks like Enderts Beach Footpath with views out over Pacific Ocean.

Trinity Alps Wilderness
Trinity Alps Wilderness

Canyon Creek Lakes

Located in the Trinity Alps of Northern California, this is a 16-mile round trip that leads to two alpine lakes nestled among tall granite cliffs and verdant meadows, with breathtaking canyon views.

👉 Canyon Creek Lakes: This is rated as a difficult hike, and takes you to an elevation gain of 3,051 feet. Many hikers recommend bringing along a personal GPS device due to changing weather conditions or unexpected road closures that could potentially alter your routes.

Lost Coast Trail
Lost Coast Trail

Lost Coast: Mattole Beach to Black Sands Beach

This Northern California is a coastal route runs from Mattole Beach to Black Sands Beach.

👉 Lost Coast Trail: Along this 24.6 mile journey, you’ll be treated to views of rolling hills as well as beaches, creeks, tide pools, forests and meadows along the way – all filled with unique flora and fauna that cannot be found anywhere else!

For those wanting an extra off-trail adventure, there is an abandoned lighthouse at Punta Gorda which can be reached via a three-mile out-and-back trail from Mattole River Beach.

Stuart Fork Trail to Emerald and Sapphire Lakes

Located in the Trinity Alps Wilderness area of Northern California, the Stuart Fork Trail leads hikers to the Emerald and Sapphire Lakes, surrounded on all sides by tall granite peaks.

👉 Stuart Fork Trail: This out-and-back route spans just over 13-miles from the entry point to the Lakes. The trail passes through several glaciated U-shaped valleys as it follows along pools, tumbling mountain creeks, and roaring rapids created by surges in river levels.

Nearby, Morris Meadow, Caribou Lake and Grizzly Lake lie beyond Emerald & Sapphire Lakes if you’re on the hunt for more adventure.

King's Peak
King’s Peak

Shelter Cove to Kings Peak

This journey takes you through the beautiful Humboldt redwoods, with a 5.3 mile elevation gain and panoramic views of this extraordinary coastal wilderness area.

👉 Shelter Cove Trail: This 15.9-mile trail leads to King’s Peak – one of the highest elevation in the area. Stretching 4,091 feet above sea level, King’s Peak is one of Northern California’s tallest peaks.

Hikers will also get to experience unique landscapes like Big Flat which enchanted John Muir during his exploration of the region in 1875. Wildlife in the area includes raptors nesting in crags and herds of Roosevelt elk grazing nearby meadows.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Pt. Reyes Coast Campground

Located in Point Reyes National Seashore, the Pt. Reyes Coast Campground offers an unforgettable experience for backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts alike.

👉 Sky Trail Loop and Bear Valley to Coast Camp Loop: Not only can visitors enjoy gorgeous views along these trails but they also have the chance to explore an underwater park with snorkeling and kayaking! There’s also a variety of camping sites, beach access and wildlife viewing spots.

Palomarin Trailhead

Located in Point Reyes National Seashore, this trail offers unforgettable views of Mt Tamalpais, Bolinas Lagoon, and dramatic cliffs along the way.

👉 Glen Camp Loop trail: This 8.5-mile roundtrip journey starts at the Palomarin Trailhead and follows the Coast Trail, Stewart Trail, and Glen Trail to the Glen Campground.

For those seeking more difficulty, there’s an additional loop from Glen Campground that includes an uphill climb before descending near Alamere Falls & Five Brooks Creek. Along your journey you’ll pass through burn areas where resilient plants have blossomed since their regrowth in recent years while Finch Creek teems with life in all directions.

Sam McDonald Park, San Mateo

Located near La Honda, and less than an hour away from San Francisco, Sam McDonald Park is a nature park that provides backpackers the perfect destination to explore the outdoors in a contained setting.

👉 Heritage Grove Loop Trail: This 2.6-mile trail is one of the main attractions in the park and runs through ancient old-growth redwood forests. It’s conveniently located and ideal for weekend getaways or day hikes.

Bear Valley Trailhead

The Bear Valley trails takes you through some of the most beautiful coastal landscapes of Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California.

👉 Bear Valley to Coast Camp Loop: This 22-mile long backpacking trip starts from the Bear Valley Visitor Center near Point Reyes Station and usually takes about 2 nights to complete.

Along the way, enjoy the foggy scenery and beautiful natural formations, including beaches, bluffs, prairies, and forests. One of the nicest features of this area is that you can camp right on the beach.

Sierra Mountains
Sierra Mountains

Sierra Mountains Backpacking Trips

The Sierras offer breathtaking views and interesting adventure opportunities, such as the Ropi Lake, Leavitt Lake in Stanislaus National Forest, Waterfall Camp in Desolation Wilderness, Middle Velma Lake and many more.

Pyramid Creek
Pyramid Creek

Ropi Lake

Ropi Lake is located in the Desolation Wilderness area of California’s Sierra Mountains, and is an alpine lake surrounded by peaks and rolling valleys that are begging to be explored.

👉 Ropi Lake Trail: The path to Ropi Lake covers 4.9-miles roundtrip, crossing several routes across cliff bands and steep, loose scree as the trail goes up along Pyramid Creek from Twin Bridges.

Along this challenging yet breathtaking route lies waterfalls, thick pine forests, and towering granite rocky walls.

While the terrain can be challenging, Ropi Lake is still an accessible destination for those looking for an adventure within reach of Sacramento or Bay Area hubs such as San Francisco or Oakland.

Stanislaus National Forest
Stanislaus National Forest

Leavitt Lake in Stanislaus National Forest

Located on the eastern edge of Emigrant Wilderness, this area is one of California’s most popular backpacking destinations and gives backpackers access to watersheds, canyons and spectacular scenic trails.

👉 Leavitt Lake Trails: There are more than 100 miles of trails in this area, perfect for camping or short hikes, with no motorized vehicles allowed so that people can explore nature’s beauty uninterrupted.

Beginner backpackers can start their journey at nearby Leavitt Meadow, a great starting point into the Stanislaus. Lane Lake and Roosevelt Lake provide great fishing, with comfortable campsites along the trail.

As a side trip for those traveling through Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), backpackers can get stunning views from atop Leavitt Peak located deep inside the Emigrant Wilderness.

Ropi Lake, California Desolation Wilderness
Ropi Lake, California Desolation Wilderness

Eagle Falls to Waterfall Camp in Desolation Wilderness

Located under Sierra Nevada’s granite peaks and mountain meadows, there are over 50 waterfalls to explore at Waterfall Camp in Desolation Wilderness!

👉 Eagle Falls Trail: One of many hiking routes that will take you through a breathtaking array of pine trees, valleys, and hidden lakes. To add to its beauty and unique features, you can also take a water taxi to access some areas around the lake.

There are other activities like nature walks, fishing and camping. Mendocino National Forest, which neighbors Desolation Wilderness, also provides visitors with majestic sights such as the largest known waterfall in the area, located about a 1 hour drive from Waterfall Camp.

Middle Velma Lake
Middle Velma Lake

Middle Velma Lake

Middle Velma Lake is a stunning destination in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California that offers spectacular views of surrounding peaks and it’s part of the Desolation Wilderness area.

👉 The hike to Middle Velma Lake is an high-country excursion starting at Bayview Trailhead Campground in South Lake Tahoe which leads hikers 4.51 miles with 1430 feet elevation gain before reaching the lake itself.

This one-way trail needs to be navigated carefully as it crosses over Dicks Pass once reaching Middle Velma Lake. Hikers can also explore Upper Velma and Lower Velma Lakes on their journey as they all offer different experiences while exploring this beautiful part of California nature trails.

South Lake Tahoe
South Lake Tahoe

Susie Lake in Desolation Wilderness

Situated in the Sierra Mountains of California, this route takes you 1,000 feet up and cuts through several alpine meadows before reaching the lake’s edge.

👉 Susie Lake trail: The route is a 9-miles roundtrip from South Lake Tahoe, making it a popular day hike or weekend outing. Once you reach the lake, the waters are surrounded by evergreens and mountains peaks, along with wildlife, including deer, coyotes and even bears at times.

Gilmore Lake in Desolation Wilderness
Gilmore Lake in Desolation Wilderness

Gilmore Lake in Desolation Wilderness

Located in the heart of California’s Sierra Nevada, Desolation Wilderness covers an impressive 63,000 acres, including coastal areas, and is one of the most sought after destinations because of its lakes, rugged peaks and stunning vistas.

👉 Gilmore Lake is a popular destination for its towering granite peaks, wildflower-spotted meadows, and lupines blooming in the summer, with a crystal-clear lake and beautiful reflection pools. The area is especially appealing to backpackers who want adventure combined with a peaceful escape from city life.

👉 Glen Alpine Trail: If you want even more hiking after completing the Gilmore Lake trail, the Glen Alpine Trail takes you past waterfalls, lakes, and a historic resort before that lead to more challenging trails within Desolation’s vastness.

👉 Mount Tallac Trail: Famous for its incredible views over Lake Tahoe, and Susie & Middle Velma Lakes, this trail also leads to even longer treks for those brave enough to take them on.

Mt. Conness
Mt. Conness

Mt. Conness in the Sierra Mountains

Mt. Conness is a popular high elevation hike for experienced backpackers and mountaineers looking for a challenging adventure trip.

This cross-country backpacking trip covers technical rock routes on its north ridge and southwest wall. There are even couloirs in nearby North Peak for ice climbing during the winter.

👉 Saddlebag Lake Loop Trail: The surrounding Inyo National Forest also provides solitude with great fishing at Saddlebag Lake. This loop can be hiked in one day or extended into multi-day backpacking trips.

👉 Death Valley National Park: should not be overlooked by adventurers looking to enjoy amazing star gazing untainted by light pollution, sweeping vistas, and unique landscapes.

Vogelsang and Merced Lake High Sierras Camp

Vogelsang and Merced Lake High Sierra Camps are two popular backpacking locations nestled deep in the wilderness of Yosemite National Park. These secluded spots provide backpackers with stunning views, including sunrise and sunset vistas of the sprawling mountains, as well as a peaceful atmosphere along the winding Merced River.

Both camps offer lodging options for hikers, ranging from Washburn Lake to Boothe Lake. At these remote destinations, adventurers can immerse themselves in the beauty of nature by exploring Yosemite’s majestic Sierra Mountains.

Here they will find opportunities to practice hiking skills or simply lay back and relax while taking in their breathtaking surroundings without worrying about crowds or disruptions. With these luxurious yet rustic campsites tucked away in one of California’s most iconic outdoor spots, Vogelsang and Merced Lakes offer an unforgettable experience that is sure to linger long after your final campfire has expired!

Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley

Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley route is one of the most popular hiking trails in California due to the breathtaking views and unique wild-like wilderness experience. Starting in Tuolumne Meadows high Sierra country, hikers traverse sub-alpine meadows framed by stunning granite landscapes that inspired John Muir.

Along the way, visitors can take time to explore Glen Aulin or relax at one of designated camping spots, such as backcountry campsites and Hi-Sierra Camps. Permits are required for any backpacking trips through both Tuolumne Meadow and Yosemite National Park but those additional items add up to an epic adventure.

Cathedral Lakes, Yosemite
Cathedral Lakes, Yosemite

Cathedral Lakes, Yosemite National Park

👉 Cathedral Lakes Trail: in Yosemite National Park is a 7-mile (11 km) out-and-back hike on the John Muir Trail. This beginner friendly trail takes you along the Cedar Grove Overlook before finally arriving at Lower and Upper Cathedral Lake, with a stunning backdrop for camping and fishing or just simply getting away from it all.

Donohue Pass
Donohue Pass

Donohue Pass

Situated at an elevation of 11,073 feet, Donohue Pass is located in the High Sierra region of California and offers sweeping views across Eastern Sierra and Lyell Canyon.

👉 Donohue Pass Trail: Backpacking on Donohue Pass is ideal for experienced trekkers and beginners looking to explore the section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that passes through mile 929.5.

Lower & Upper Relief Valleys and the East Flange Rock

A must-visit destination for California backpackers, the Lower & Upper Relief Valleys and the East Flange Rock is situated on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

The beauty and isolation of this area, coupled with its unique geological features, give this area an etheral, other-wordly feeling, providing visitors with an unforgettable wilderness adventure.

Sunrise Lakes to Clouds Rest

Challenging yet rewarding, this 21.1-mile loop trail near Yosemite Valley is a 1 to 2 day long  one of the backpacking trips. Starting from Sunrise Lakes, the hike offers views of Half Dome once you reach the summit, peaking over 1,000 feet above.

It’s likely you’ll need a permit for Sunrise lakes to Clouds Rest, and this trailhead is notorious for hefty fines for unregulated camping, so it’s important to follow the regulations.

👉 Duck Lake Trail: Located in the stunning Mammoth Lakes Basin of California, Duck Lake Trail is about 10-miles roundtrip and winds through the Sierra lakes andtclimbs up to an ascent of 10,240 feet, through Barney Lake and Pika Lake before reaching Duck Lake itself.

From there, hikers can continue on to Big and Little Duck Lakes in the Russian Wilderness, or take on more challenging hikes like following the John Muir Trail for epic views from summits like Mount McKinley at 11,756 feet elevation.

Ansel Adams’ Garnet Lake Trail

👉 Garnet Lake Trail: is a challenging 17.2-mile ring trail in the Ansel Adams Wilderness within the Sierra Nevada region. Nestled cozily at 8.55-miles from the Agnew Meadows trailhead, backpackers traverse over steep switchbacks and rocky terrain along this thrilling hiking path.

Onion Valley / Kearsarge Pass Trail to Mt. Whitney

👉 Onion Valley / Kearsarge Pass Trail: Featuring an elevation gain of 11,500 feet, this 49.1-mile backpacking route in California’s Sierra Mountains, part of the Inyo National Forest, is not for the faint-hearted, and takes about four days and three nights to complete.

Rae Lakes Loop

👉 Rae Lakes Loop: This challenging 41-mile trail takes hikers through stunning glacially cut canyons and mountain passes filled with sapphire blue lakes, providing a true wilderness experience in the heart of the Sierra Mountains. The loop offers a variety of camping options along its route, accessed via different entry points – one popular option being Kearsarge Pass from the eastern Sierra.

Mount Silliman, Sequoia NP

👉 Mount Silliman Trail: Located in the Lodgepole Visitor Center of Sequoia National Park, Mount Silliman is an easy access peak with a staggering 11,188 feet elevation. With panoramic views of the surrounding mountain scape and the Great Western Divide, this trail can be challenging, but it’s also beginner friendly.

There’s a loop beginning and ending at Twin Lakes than runs through Jennie Lakes Wilderness and Sequoia National Forest over 32 miles – making it perfect for multi-day trips as well.

Southern California Backpacking Trips

Southern California offer an array of scenic trails such as Panamint Dunes, Boy Scout’s Trail in Joshua Tree, Beach Camp on Santa Rosa Island, Mt. Williamson from Shepherd Pass, Eaton Canyon to Idlehour and Trans-Catalina Trail.

Panamint Dunes, Death Valley National Park

👉 Panamint Dunes Trail: Panamint Dunes are a remote desert oasis that is accessible via a 7-mile round-trip hike with an elevation gain of 859 feet, backpackers can choose to complete this adventure as either a long day trip or as part of an overnight stay.

Boy Scout’s Trail in Joshua Tree

👉 Boy Scout Trail: The 7.8-mile route is a gentle terrain that’s suitable for hikers of all skill levels, as it does not feature any hardcore elevation changes. The trail is located in the Wonderland of Rocks area, offering an incredible descent at the start of the trail and a return uphill. Visitors can enjoy this unique landscape in an environment that feels similar to hiking in Alaska due to its isolated atmosphere.

Beach Camp on Santa Rosa Island

👉 Santa Rosa Island is a remote paradise located amidst the Channel Islands and offers some of California’s best backcountry beach camping.

From August through December, backpackers can take advantage of its 55-mile coastline. Hikers can find beauty everywhere in this area – trails that go past the campsite have beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean, and hiking further into Santa Rosa Island’s wilderness gives you views of untouched areas filled with unique plants and animals.

Mt. Williamson from Shepherd Pass

👉 Mt. Williamson Trail: This demanding 11-mile hike leads to Shepherd’s Pass — one of the highest points in the Southern Sierras. The Mt. Williamson and Mt. Tyndall trip is a must-do for those looking for an extreme challenge lead up to a 6,000 feet ascent. From here, hikers can boulder hop through Williamson bowl or head on to Anvil Camp – a popular spot to rest or camp overnight.

Eaton Canyon to Idlehour, Altadena

👉 Eaton Canyon Trail:4.5-mile path that includes pastures on either side of the trails, where horses can rest at the hitching rail. The trail passes through picturesque manzanita trees, as well as numerous small waterfalls along its route.

Trans-Catalina Trail

👉 Trans-Catalina Trail: is an epic 32-mile backpacking trail that can be hiked in parts, or as one long multi-day backpacking trip. The Trans-Catalina Trail runs from one end of iconic Catalina Island to the other via challenging climbs, unique wildlife, desert flora, and scenic landscapes.

Zaca Ridge, Los Olivos

Located in Los Olivos, Southern California, Zaca Ridge sits at an elevation of 2,200 feet, and is a great place to spend 1-2 days underneath the stars. This area is widely recognized as one of the best stargazing spots in all of Southern California.

Adventuresome hikers will find plenty campgrounds along with several other trails including a 7.5 mile roundtrip hike to Zaca Peak which makes it ideal for beginners looking for their first overnight backpacking experience.


California offers some of the most diverse and unusual backpacking routes in the world. Southern California‘s many trails range from the family-friendly Crystal Cove State Park to challenging hikes like Panamint Dunes.

Northern California offers memorable trails like Devil’s Punchbowl, Mt. Shasta via Clear Creek Route, and Redwood National and State Parks. In addition, the Sierra Mountains offer an incredible selection of scenic routes such as Ropi Lake, Vogelsang, Merced Lake High Sierras Camp, and Donohue Pass.


1. What are the best backpacking trips in California?

California is home to a wide range of stunning backpacking trails, from the verdant Sierra Nevada to rugged coastal bluffs and everything in between. Popular destinations include Yosemite National Park, Mt. Shasta Wilderness, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, and the Pacific Crest Trail.

2. What should I bring on my California backpacking trip?

Important items for any backpacking trip include appropriate clothing for warmth during cold nights and protection from the heat during the day, a reliable lighting source such as a flashlight or headlamp, extra batteries for your electronics, a first aid kit with supplies including bandages and pain relievers, a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad, a map and compass, and key survival gear such as a fire starter if needed due to weather conditions during your journey. Additionally, proper nutrition and a water filtration system should not be forgotten.

3. Are there special rules I should follow while camping in California?

Be sure to read the specific regulations associated with each park or protected area before embarking on your journey. These regulations will outline any necessary fees, permits needed for planned activities, designated areas where camping is allowed, and other restrictions that must be adhered to while inside the region boundaries (e.g., respecting wildlife).

4. Is wilderness permit required for all Californian hikes?

No, but it depends on which trails you plan to take. Different parks may require specific paperwork ahead of time before allowing visitors access to their grounds. However, some routes don’t need anything except basic knowledge about safety guidelines that individual hikers should uphold themselves. Therefore, it’s important to check local regulations beforehand to make things easier and ensure a smooth trip!

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