We’ve written a lot about great hiking trails in California. But even though we have some posts about specific coastal parks or hikes, we’ve never written a thorough guide to hiking on the California coast. Well, it’s better to do it late than never – here it comes: the best coastal hikes we’ve found in California.
First of all, what’s the best time to hike on the California coast? Since California has great weather year round, most of these trails can be explored any time of the year. For some, there’s a preferable season, for some, there’s not much difference in different seasons. And for some, we have a favorite season.
What you need to be aware in general is that winter can bring heavy rainfalls which might cause landslides on the coast. Otherwise, we experienced a lot of clear, sunny winter days that were perfect for hiking. But checking the weather forecast is important before you go – in any season, but especially in the winter.
Early spring (February and March) comes with lush green colors and lots of wildflowers. Bluff trails are spectacular this time of the year!
Summer days can be surprisingly cold and foggy on the California coast – actually, all along the West Coast. Why? Air temperature gets hot while the ocean is cold (it’s very cold in California for several reasons). Rising hot air creates a vacuum which is filled by the cold, moisture-filled ocean air that we call fog. This kind of foggy weather makes the ideal habitat for coastal redwoods though. The low-lying fog could also make picturesque views to charm any photographer.
Autumn days in general are less foggy and more sunny than summer days. They’re also dry until the first winter rains arrive. So where to go for the best coastal and wildlife views? Let’s see.
Tomales Point Trail, Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore is a natural preserve and our very favorite place to hike on the California coast. It’s only about 1.5 hours drive from San Francisco, still it feels remote and unspoilt. And the best trail we found there is Tomales Point Trail.
Tomales Point Trail leads along the ridge crest of a narrow peninsula in the northernmost area of Point Reyes. It rewards with breathtaking ocean vistas, views of Tomales Bay and the coastline, and it offers great wildlife watching opportunities. Since the trail passes the Tule Elk Preserve, we bumped into herds of tule elks on our way and not only once. Then Tomales Point itself is a place to spot countless birds and seals around the steep coastal cliffs.
All in all, Tomales Point Trail is a 15 kilometres round-trip which makes for a pleasant day hike.
Read our guide to hiking Point Reyes National Seashore here!
Razor Point Trail, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Our favorite coastal park in Southern California is barely 30 minutes drive from San Diego. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a small but fabulous place with high broken cliffs, deep ravines, ocean views and unique flora, including the rare Torrey pine.
It offers several short trails of which we found Razor Point Trail to be the most scenic. It’s shorter than a mile and rewards with Razor Point Overlook. Yucca Point Trail and Beach Trail are also nice to explore. High Point is a lookout that’s just a short walk from the parking lot, and it offers a panoramic view of the reserve, the lagoon and the inland.
Though Torrey Pines is one of those places which are perfect to visit all year, hiking is the most pleasant in autumn or winter. But you can have a great time on the long, sandy Torrey Pines Beach on hot summer days.
Andrew Molera Loop, Big Sur
We enjoyed driving along the Big Sur coastline. It’s one of the most beautiful scenic sections of CA Highway 1. But it’s not only driving that you can do there, it offers countless – mostly short and easy – hiking trails, too.
The 8.8 miles loop hike in Andrew Molera State Park is one that we’d call a real hike, not just a walk, but it’s still a pretty and easy bluff trail. We started the loop with Beach Trail where we had to cross Big Sur River on the way to a very beautiful, remote beach. From the beach we followed the Bluffs Trail – Panorama Trail – Ridge Trail – River Trail to make a nice loop. We enjoyed the amazing coastal views all the way.
This hike is great all year, though we found it the most spectacular in early spring when hiking the bluff trail rewarded us with thousands of blooming California poppies.
Read our guide to roadtrippin’ Big Sur here!
Short trails of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is located in the Monterey Bay area. If you don’t know what that means, let us help: seals, sea lions, sea otters, seabirds, dolphins and whales close to the shore! Monterey Bay is famous for its incredibly rich wildlife. The short trails of Point Lobos led us to great coastal views, hidden coves and amazing tidal pools. We saw sea otters, seals and even a killer whale from a distance.
Any time of the year is great to visit Point Lobos, but the migrating season of grey whales can be very special. Grey whales travel from their Arctic feeding grounds to Baja California in Mexico and then back each year. Their southern migration is in December and January, their northern migration in March and April. They come relatively close to the shore at Monterey Bay, so have a pair of binoculars, and you might get lucky to spot them.
Elephant Seal Guided Walk, Año Nuevo State Park
It’s not rare at all to catch a glimpse of sea lions or harbor seals resting on the shore when hiking on the California coast. Actually, we could even meet sea lions in the harbors of many coastal towns (or at the piers of San Francisco for that matter), because they’re not so afraid of humans as harbor seals. But there’s only one place where we’ve seen elephant seals in California: Año Nuevo State Park.
This pretty coastal park is only an hour drive from San Francisco. And it’s the favorite resting and mating place of elephant seals. Every year thousands of them return there to breed, give birth and molt their skin. The dunes and beaches of the park can only be visited with a guide during this most exciting period of the year that lasts roughly from December to March. It’s worth booking a guided tour in that period though, because elephant seals are such weird creatures, and their tiny black pups are the cutest on Earth.
Palomarin Trail to Alamere Falls, Point Reyes National Seashore
A waterfall cascading over a tall cliff onto a beach – or into the ocean at high tide. Big Sur is not the only place on the California Coast to find that, Point Reyes has its own one, as well: Alamere Falls on Wildcat Beach. If the beach exists, you can walk to the bottom of the falls from Wildcat Campground.
Reaching Alamere Falls requires some hiking though. We started our hike at the Palomarin Trailhead and reached Alamere Falls in 1-2 hours. But walking and chilling out on Wildcat Beach easily made it a day hike. It’s pretty, have I already told you?
Any season could be suitable for this hike. We did it in winter, and Alamere Falls had lots of water then.
Pillar Point Bluff, Half Moon Bay
One of our favorite bluff trails is only 30 minutes drive from San Francisco: Pillar Point Bluff, right south of Moss Beach. The 2.7 kilometres long loop is short, easy and very scenic with views of Half Moon Bay Harbor and the world famous Mavericks surf break. It offers access to tidal pools.
Then there are some beach views – without beach access. Why the latter is important? Because neither you nor anyone else can scare away harbor seals who like resting on those beaches. We had nice views of them from above.
It’s again one of those hikes that are great year round. However, we were really impressed by all the colorful wildflowers in spring.
Coastal Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
The tallest trees on Earth and stunning coastal views – that’s what we found in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park in Northern California. Weather is often foggy, especially in summer, which makes this park even more photogenic. We explored a shorter section of the long Coastal Trail starting from Enderts Beach. Hiking the full length of this trail is definitely a multi-day hike, but it’s divided into sections, and you can easily do only a part of it.
While not a real winter with snow and freeze, winter months in Northern California can still be rainy and chilly. So the best time to hike there might be from mid-spring until mid-autumn.
Coastal trails of Mendocino Headlands State Park
With rugged shores and picturesque little towns with lovely coastal views, Mendocino Headlands are about 3 hours drive towards the north from San Francisco. The short and easy trails of the sheer bluff rising from the rocky shoreline can be explored within a couple of hours. However small, we enjoyed this park very much, especially the turquoise bays and roaring sea caves.
You can make it a day trip by visiting nearby Russian Gulch and Van Damme State Parks, too. The famous Glass Beach of Fort Bragg is also not far. Our favorite of all these places were Mendocino Headlands though.
Coastal Trail, Mac Kerricher State Park
This lovely park stretches about nine miles along Northern California’s coastline. Home to secluded beaches, sand dunes, rocky headlands, coves, wetlands, tide pools and Cleone Lake, we enjoyed hiking its diverse Coastal Trail. We had some memorable wildlife encounters, too. Seals like resting on the shore, interesting organisms live in the tide pools, and countless species of birds visit Cleone Lake which is actually a former tidal lagoon.
Anything we missed? Tell us about your favorite coastal trails and parks!
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