Ready to know more about San Diego?


Experts Say These Are the 10 Best Hikes in California

Catch magical mountain and desert views on these pro-approved paths
White Mountain Peak hiking trail, one of the best hiking trails in California according to experts
Courtesy of Wikipedia

From Anza Borrego desert in the south to the redwood forests in the north (and all the beautiful coastline and deserts and mountains in between), California is filled with fantastic hiking opportunities

For every massively challenging mountain summit, there’s a gentle, beginner-friendly trail through the woods or near the beach. With so many options, it can be tough to choose your next expedition. So we surveyed some experts to find 10 of the best hikes in California. Here are their picks.

Hiker walking along Oak Canyon Trail at Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego, California
Courtesy of All Trails

Oak Canyon Trail

Mission Trails Regional Park

Todd Linke, a board member at the Mission Trails Regional Park Foundation and a high school science teacher, says this easy trail is great in any season. “The oak trees provide comforting shade in the summer [and turn a] brilliant yellow in the autumn. [There’s] flowing water in the winter and babbling rapids in the spring,” he describes. “The star of the show this time of year is the amazing waterfall, which can be viewed from above or at the water’s edge.” 

You can start the trail at the Old Mission Dam, which once supplied water to San Diego’s Mission de Alcala. “This trail is as fun as you make it,” Linke says. “There are oak trees to climb, rocks to skip across, and mountain vistas all around.” You can hike out of the canyon and return on the Grasslands Loop Trail, passing the Kumeyaay grinding stones and catching a bird’s-eye view of the dam from the overlook.

White Mountain Peak in Mono county one of California's best hikes according to experts
Courtesy of Wikipedia

White Mountain Peak

Mono County

Those who have set out to tackle Mt. Whitney know how challenging it is to score a permit. If you’re running into red tape, shift your focus: White Mountain Peak—which, at only 253 feet lower, is the third-highest peak in California—can give you the summit experience without any paperwork or permits. Cris Hazzard, who runs the website, says that, though you can see Whitney from White Mountain, the peak is not actually in the Sierras. 

“Instead, it’s in the unique mountain desert of the White Mountains,” he explains. “The hike is 15 miles with approximately 3,500 feet of climbing. The high altitude will make it feel much more challenging.”

White Mountain Peak’s location makes it extra special—it is also the only mountain taller than 14,000 feet in the lower 48 states that’s not part of the Sierras, Cascades, or Rockies. 

Ducks in Kumeyaay Lake at Mission Trails Regional Park, one of California's best hikes according to experts
Courtesy of All Trails

Kumeyaay Lake

Mission Trails Regional Park

At just over one mile, this flat trail is short and sweet, so it’s a great quick hike to do after work or with kids. “It’ll bring you to a peaceful and beautiful place, with minimal time or effort investment,” Linke says. 

Start in the Bushy Hill parking lot along Father Junipero Serra Trail, just off of Mission Gorge Road in Santee. Follow the entrance road to the Kumeyaay Lake Campground and walk around the lake on a mixed dirt and gravel trail. “Although the trail is short, you’ll have multiple opportunities to stop, relax, and enjoy the beautiful view of the lake, as well as the river and a small marsh area east of the lake,” Linke says. “You’d never know the lake was a former quarry, and it speaks to the incredible efforts to regenerate previously disturbed land.”

Fields of brush on the Dyar Spring/Juaquapin Loop at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Dyar Spring/Juaquapin Loop

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

This moderately challenging hike covers about seven miles, combining multiple paths in the park, including Harvey Moore, Dyar Spring, Juaquapin, and the East Side Trail. You may spot animals such as turkey, deer, and coyotes.

Philip Erdelsky, the leader of San Diego Day Hikers, says the trail has been one of his favorites since he first trekked it in 1988. “Very little has changed since then,” he adds. “The loop offers a variety of hiking experiences: chaparral, meadows, woods, stream crossings, and impressive views. Since it is a loop, none of it is hiked more than once. Dyar Spring always has water, even on the driest days.”

Courtesy of USDA Forest Service

Sunset Trail to Laguna Meadow

Laguna Mountain Recreation Area and Cleveland National Forest

This trail gives you access to distant mountain vistas and Laguna Meadow, plus views of two small lakes—Water of the Woods and Big Laguna Lake—and an array of water birds, insects, and spring wildflowers.  

“While Southern California is known for its palm trees and ocean waves, our mountains provide a beautiful backdrop of Jeffrey Pines and Coast Live Oaks, along with fresh air and peaceful tranquility, a perfect combination for a relaxing hike,” Linke says. “In summer, the warmth creates the pleasant aroma of pine, while the shade of the forests give hikers and bikers a respite from the blazing sun. Autumn is a time of brilliance, as the air turns crisp and mountain oaks display their golden beauty along the trail and the Sunrise Highway, one of the most beautiful stretches of roadway in California.”

With winter comes snow, and families can bring sleds to slide down short hills.

North Dome trail in Yosemite National Park, California
Courtesy of Tripadvisor

North Dome

Yosemite National Park

While Yosemite’s Half Dome is on many adventurers’ bucket list, a section requiring a steep ascent with only cables to aid you can cause anxiety. To experience a similar trek without the risk, try hiking to North Dome. The path is 9.5 miles with about 2,100 feet of climbing, which is much less than Half Dome. 

“You don’t need a permit, and enjoying the granite dome and views is relatively tame,” Hazzard says. “I love this hike because it’s not as crowded as the other Yosemite classics, but it still is a quintessential Yosemite experience.”

Palmsprings Tramway with a view down San Jacinto peak
Courtesy of Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism

Palm Springs Tramway to San Jacinto Peak

Mount San Jacinto State Park

San Jacinto towers 10,000 feet over Palm Springs, offering an alpine environment with the Sonoran Desert as its neighbor. While the hike from Palm Springs to the summit—called Cactus to Clouds—is one of the hardest in the country, you can trim about 8,000 feet off the journey by taking the tram to Long Valley. 

“Once off the tram, you’ll hike through the pines and granite boulders to the dramatic summit,” Hazzard says. “It’s still a workout at around 11 miles and 2,600 feet of climbing. John Muir called the views from the summit the ‘most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth.’”

Garnet Peak Trail sign located at Laguna Mountain Recreation Area and Cleveland National Forest
Courtesy of USDA Forest Service

Garnet Peak

Laguna Mountain Recreation Area and Cleveland National Forest

This hike marries mountain and desert ecosystems—and provides a peak to summit without an overwhelming amount of distance or vertical climbing. If you start at the Garnet Peak trailhead, you can reach the peak in 2.3 miles with an elevation gain of about 500 feet. Or, if you want to start at the Penny Pines trailhead, you can hike 4 miles and take on an elevation gain of about 700 feet to get to the top. 

Penny Pines takes you along a section of the famed Pacific Crest Trail and gives you a sweeping panorama of the desert near the beginning of the hike. “The final approach to the peak is the steepest part, but don’t worry, it doesn’t last long, and it is 100 percent worth the final climb,” Linke says. “The view from the rocky outcroppings at the top give you an unobstructed 360-degree vista of mountains to the north, south, and west and of the desert to the east. … It’s quite amazing that you can bag a peak just an hour’s drive from San Diego.”

Truckhaven Rocks

Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Linke says one of the best hiking trails in Anza Borrego Desert isn’t really a trail at all. “Oddly, even though it feels completely off the grid, it’s clearly visible from the S-22 Highway, about a 10 minute drive outside of Borrego Springs,” he explains. “It’s called Truckhaven Rocks and it affords the confident hiker with amazing views of Vallecito Mountain to the south, Santa Rosa Mountain to the north, and Borrego Valley between them.”

Despite the path’s lack of official trail designation, you can find the map on the AllTrails app. Your hike will vary from two to three miles and the elevation gain will be determined by your interest in scrambling up rocks or dry waterfalls. This trail also features some short slot canyons, small wind caves, and evidence of rockfalls. 

“You can probably guess by now that there won’t be a parking lot or trail signs, so use the AllTrails map or inquire at the visitor center for the best starting point,” Linke says. “You’ll need to park on the highway, but don’t worry, people do it all the time. While it’s an easy hike, it can be easy to get a bit turned around, so use some sort of navigation device. If all else fails, just keep walking north and eventually you’ll run into the highway.”

Palm Wash

South Fork, Anza Borrego Desert State Park

This is a desert hike that is accessible from the highway, but you’ll feel like you’ve discovered a distant and beautiful place. To find the entrance, use the AllTrails app or get advice from the visitor center. The trek covers about three miles with an elevation change of around 500 feet. 

“Once your hike begins, you’ll almost immediately be mesmerized by a large, tilting natural bridge,” Linke says. “Other fun and interesting features along the way include steep cliffs, dry waterfalls, evidence of rockfalls, and short but beautiful slot canyons. The hike will terminate at an overhanging dry waterfall, surrounded by tall sandstone formations. … The great part about this hike is that as you retrace your steps, you’ll see the canyon from a whole new perspective, and it will seem like a brand-new and exciting hike.”

By Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser has been writing for San Diego Magazine for 10 years. She also is a reporter at KPBS and writes for The New York Times, National Geographic, Marie Claire, Elle and Runner's World.

Share this post

Contact Us

1230 Columbia Street, Suite 800,

San Diego, CA