We try the impossible: pick 10 (and only 10!) hikes that represent all kinds of beauties found in California. Moreover, we consider only short hikes this time, taking from a few hours to half a day, so they can easily fit in any California road trip itinerary.
We’ve spent a wonderful year in California, hiked a lot in every region and in every season, and here are the short trails that we think are the very best – with detailed information about their actual length and difficulty:
Mist Trail to Vernal & Nevada Falls, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park
Several famous attractions in the Yosemite Valley can be reached by short walks (like the viewpoint of Lower Yosemite Falls or Bridalveil Falls, or Mirror Lake), but it’s worth doing some hiking, too, and there are astonishing trails to choose from. If you only have time for one, let it be the Mist Trail.
This delightful trail takes you up to two impressive waterfalls along the Merced River. The first one, Vernal Fall is considered a small waterfall by the Yosemite Valley standard: 317 feet (~96 m) tall. However, it’s an unforgettable view in the sunshine when there’s an amazing rainbow at its bottom, as the result of the mist and the wind.
Then the trail ascends to Emerald Pool, and soon you get your first glimpse of Nevada Fall. Eventually, you’ll hike up to the top of 594 feet (181 m) tall Nevada Fall. This is where Mist Trail ends, and you can either turn back or choose to make it a loop by returning to the trailhead on John Muir Trail.
John Muir Trail runs further from the Merced River, but it rewards with amazing scenery and different views of Nevada Fall. The very last section (the one before the Vernal Fall Footbridge) will be the same path in every case.
This hike is the best to do in late spring and early summer, though Vernal and Nevada Falls, feeding not only from snowmelt, but from the Merced River, too, have some water all year.
Congress Loop Trail & Big Trees Trail, Giant Forest & Lodgepole Area, Sequoia National Park
From Sequoia National Park, our choice for the best short hike is actually the combination of two very short, easy and paved loop trails in the Giant Forest. However, these self-guided walks take you to the largest trees on the planet!
The two trailheads are only 10 minutes drive from each other, and you need one hour for the Big Trees Loop, and about two hours for the Congress Loop Trail. The latter gives access to the world’s biggest tree, General Sherman. With a volume of 52500 cubic feet (1487 cubic meters), it’s the king of the Giant Forest. But don’t turn back from General Sherman. While it’s the busiest spot along Congress Loop Trail, continuing your walk rewards you with a quiet walk among majestic sequoias.
Big Trees Loop is a circular trail around Round Meadow – and another impressive sequoia walk. It’s very easy, paved and wheelchair accessible. Don’t miss it if you drive through Sequoia National Park!
Both of these walks can be done year-round.
|Congress Loop Trail:
Big Trees Loop:
Tokopah Falls Trail, Giant Forest & Lodgepole Area, Sequoia National Park
We highlight this hike not just because of lovely 366 meters tall Tokopah Falls, but also because of the scenic route that took us there: the trail along the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River and the stunning granite cliffs of the Tokopah Canyon. Peaks were still snowy when we did this hike in April.
The trailhead is only about 10-15 minutes from the Giant Forest by car. Keep in mind that the best time to visit waterfalls in the Sierra Nevada is late spring and early summer, and Tokopah Falls is no exception.
Cinder Cone Trail, Lassen Volcanic National Park
This trail is in a remote area of a barely known national park, but it’s one of the most special hikes we’ve done in California. Cinder Cone is a volcano, and it looks exactly how we imagine a volcano. And what’s more, after enjoying the panorama from the top, we hiked down to the bottom of its crater.
Cinder Cone trail is very scenic all the way, but it’s quite steep, too. Hiking in the soft and slippery volcanic ash at the side of Cinder Cone is tiring, but the views are worth all the effort. The bare landscape with the dark black lava beds and the Painted Dunes would make you think that Cinder Cone can erupt in any moment. Let us assure you, it won’t. Its last eruption was in the 1600s, and currently the only active (but sleeping) volcano in the park is Lassen Peak.
However, keep in mind that Cinder Cone Trail (and Lassen Volcanic National Park, as well) is only accessible in the summer, from mid-June until early September.
Maggie Peaks Trail, Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe shouldn’t be missed when we talk about hiking in California. It doesn’t only mean the second deepest lake in the USA, but also the surrounding granite peaks and pine forests of the Sierra Nevada, and the countless smaller alpine lakes in the area.
Whenever we think of Lake Tahoe, we think of the views of it from the trail towards Maggie Peaks first. It’s probably the best short hike in the area. First, it offers amazings views of Emerald Bay, then passes hidden, tranquil Granite Lake and ends at Maggie Peaks with views of Lake Tahoe and about six other alpine lakes below. Maggie Peaks means two peaks, and you should definitely climb up to both of them for similarly wonderful vistas.
Since this trail is located in the Desolation Wilderness, we had to issue our free day use permit when we started Bayview Trail. Hiking season at Lake Tahoe is from late May to early September.
The Big Tree-Cathedral Tree-Prairie Creek Loop, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Redwood National & State Parks
The majestic Redwood National & State Parks have lots of easily accessible and very picturesque attractions – viewpoints, scenic drives, short trails. Since we’ve already highlighted the James Irvine Trail to Fern Canyon in several posts, this time we choose an even shorter and easier still very impressive trail: the Big Trees Loop.
The trailhead is at park headquarters, so expect it to be busy. But it takes you to the most amazing redwood groves of the park, on Prairie Creek Trail on the way there to Big Tree, and on Cathedral Tree Trail on the way back. With lush greenery, moss, lichen and fern everywhere in the shade of the giant redwoods, it looks like an ancient jungle.
This trail is accessible year-round.
Paradise Valley Trail to Mist Falls, Kings Canyon National Park
Kings Canyon National Park typically has long, multi-day backcountry hikes to remote parts of the Sierra Nevada. One of its few day hikes is the Paradise Valley Trail. Being easy and beautiful, no wonder it’s so popular. Moreover, not everyone will turn back at Mist Falls, it’s the start of many backcountry hikes, too.
The trail starts from the parking lot at the end of General Highway (180). The first section of the hike is on Kanawyer Loop Trail, but you need to pay attention not to turn back when the loop turns back. Rather continue to Mist Falls – and even a bit further. It gets more steep after Mist Falls, but that’s where you get the best views of the canyon!
The path runs along an emerald green mountain river all the way, and the pine forest, the giant canyon walls and the wildflower meadows really make it look like paradise. Then Mist Falls is waiting for you towards the end. It’s not the highest waterfall in Kings Canyon, but quite an impressive one, rushing down a steep, smooth granite slope.
The best time to do this hike is from late April to mid-October. This last section of General Highway is closed during winter months, and the exact date of opening depends on the weather each year.
High Peaks Trail, Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles is one of the most underrated national parks in California, and High Peaks Trail is its most picturesque hike, with views of hundreds of pinnacles around you, and a taste of everything that’s special in this park.
One option is to start the trail from Bear Gulch Day Use Area at the east park entrance. First you take the Condor Gulch Trail which then connects into High Peaks Trail. We returned to the trailhead via Bear Gulch Reservoir and Bear Gulch Cave. Getting through the cave is a lot of fun, but make sure you have a flashlight.
The trail is accessible year-round. But summers are unbearably hot in Central California, we recommend doing this hike in the fall, winter or early spring months.
Andreas & Murray Canyon Trails, Indian Canyons, Palm Springs
Quite a scenic patch of desert in Southern California are the palm canyons near Palm Springs. Located in Agua Caliente, the land of Cahuilla Indians, you can visit it during the day. There’s no need for reservation or mandatory guided tours, you pay the entrance fee and get a map of the palm canyon trails.
Andreas Canyon Trail is the shortest, and it’s not even a hike, just a refreshing one mile walk along a nice creek, in the shade of huge California fan palms. During this short walk, you can spot more than 150 species of plants.
Murray Canyon Trail starts from the same parking lot, and it’s a 4 miles round-trip hike into the San Jacinto Mountains. It runs along a small creek, mostly in the shade of palm trees, and ends at small Seven Sisters Waterfall.
These hikes are the most delightful from late fall to early spring. Always check the homepage of Agua Caliente for up-to-date info on opening hours.
Razor Point Trail, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Our favorite coastal park in Southern California is Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, barely 30 minutes drive from San Diego. It’s a small but fabulous park 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.
You can do these walks year-round, however, hiking is the most pleasant from late fall to early spring. But it’s a coastal park, you can cool yourself down in the ocean if you like.
Now tell us about your favorite short hikes in California!
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