Ten California Day Hikes

The state of California is so blessed with day hikes boasting remarkable views, stunning vegetation, birds and wild animals, it's almost impossible to settle on only 10 to recommend. But, after some agonizing, we've picked 10 of the best, most distinctive hikes that highlight California's diverse geography.

Two of the hikes, Half Dome in Yosemite Park and Mt. Whitney in the Eastern Sierras, are extreme day hikes recommended for only the most fit. But, many are just easy walks through spectacular scenery ranging from towering redwoods to coastal bluffs to desert fields erupting in wildflowers. There's something for everyone from the novice hiker to the daredevil.

This park in California's far northwest is renowned for the beauty of its old growth redwoods towering over lush ferns. It was named for the explorer who traveled the area in 1826, as is the untamed Smith River, which runs through the park. The Boyscout Trail was created in the 1930s by a scout troop from nearby Crescent City, and it's 7.5 miles roundtrip through spectacular forest to Fern Falls. Where the trail goes left to the falls, there's a jog to the right to Boyscout Tree, one of the more massive of the park's redwoods. Bobcats, deer and black bears share the park with fox, river otters and bald eagles. Redwood forests are best seen in the early morning or afternoon, when the sun slants through the trees, shedding amber light on the undergrowth and fallen trees covered in moss and lichen. The hike itself is easy.
www.parks.ca.gov, 707-458-3018

Within Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, the Tomales Point Trail passes through a tule elk reserve, where groups of elk graze in meadows within easy sight (although it's a good idea to bring binoculars to check out the birds and sea mammals). The trail offers spectacular ocean views, wildflowers, and a fairly easy 9.5 mile roundtrip hike that takes around 4.5 hours. You'll see hawks, falcons, cormorants and harbor seals. From July to September park rangers are on duty to provide information about the elk reserve. It's advisable to wear long pants, because the last part of the hike can be somewhat overgrown with brush, but it's only moderate in difficulty, suitable for all ages.
www.nps.gov, 415-464-5100, ext. 2

One of the most famous extreme day hikes in the U.S. is to the summit of the highest mountain in the contiguous 48 states (14, 497 feet). To hike the Mt. Whitney Trail requires a permit and some acclimating at the Whitney Portal trailhead (14 miles from Lone Pine in the Eastern Sierras), which is 8,365 feet. The 22-mile-roundtrip trail is safe for amateurs only when the snow has completely melted, so the ideal time to go is August to early September. Day hikers take off beginning at midnight ,using headlamps. It's important to be off the summit by noon or shortly thereafter, as dangerous thunderstorms roll in by afternoon. Altitude sickness is a very real problem, causing many to turn back. Average roundtrips for the physically fit are around 14 hours, but for all the hardships of the trail, it is unparalleled in beauty, and from the majestic rocky summit the view can reach as far as 100 miles.
Inyo National Forest Reservation Service is 888-374-3773 or 760-938-1136. www.nps.gov

An extremely popular, difficult, but wildly rewarding day hike is via the Mist Trail to the summit of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park--a 14-mile roundtrip journey that includes some dangerous stretches. The Mist Trail portion of this stunning hike passes two waterfalls (Vernal and Nevada) up steep, often slippery rock steps. Once you pass the tree level there are more stone steps, then a heart-stopping climb up the rock face assisted by cables-which are only up in the warm months between Memorial Day and Columbus Day. There are frequent rescues from this trail, and hikers have died, but thousands do it successfully each year. Rangers advise leaving before dawn (always carrying headlamps) and not staying on the summit past mid-afternoon, when storms can strike. The cables are treacherous when wet and lightening can electrify them. Watch out for altitude sickness. Permits are now required.
www.nps.gov, 209-372-0200. For permits, www.recreation.gov (877-444-6777). www.yosemitehikes.com

This 165-mile trail around beautiful Lake Tahoe reaches from California into Nevada, and took 20 years to create. There are nine trailheads, and they're quite a distance apart. But going a comfortable distance along any of the trails, then backtracking, can provide a hike through varying terrains, fir trees and unforgettable views of the lake below. The altitude can range from 6,300 to 10,333 feet. Between the Tahoe City and Brockway Summit trailheads the distance is 18.5 miles. But, Watson Lake is only 6.5 miles from Brockway Summit, which can make for a great day hike.
www.tahoerimtrail.org, 775-588-0686

Tourists take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway up Mt. San Jacinto because the ride itself is so spectacular, starting on the desert floor and rising 8,500 feet to a station with restaurant. But hikers who want to reach the mountain peak and its breathtaking views--on clear days, as far as the Channel Islands, across the Colorado Desert, even as far as Mexico--use the tram as a shuttle to the trailhead. The 11-mile-roundtrip hike itself is moderate in difficulty, traveling through cool pine forests to the tree line and beyond.
. 800-777-0369. Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, www.pstramway.com, 888-515-8726

The Bluff Trail in Montana de Oro State Park between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay is an easy 2.3-mile-roundtrip hike with sweeping views of California's central coast and a spur down to a lovely, rarely crowded beach at Spooners Cove. In spring the trail is surrounded by wild mustard and California poppies (which gave the 8,000-acre park its name, "Mountain of Gold"). Year round, the views of cliffs, tide pools and sea otters are fantastic and sunset is not to be missed. If the hike is too easy for you, add the 4.1-mile-roundtrip climb up Valencia Peak (only 1,347 feet; about a two-hour hike going at a leisurely pace). From the peak you get a great perspective on the coast's stunning geological features, including Morro Rock.
www.parks.ca.gov, 808-528-0513, also www.slostateparks.com

In October and November, monarch butterflies head for the patches of milkweed along the California coast. One of Southern California's better places to view them is along the Sycamore Canyon Trail in Point Mugu State Park north of Malibu, where they cluster on tree branches. But year round, this canyon is beautiful, full of old-growth sycamores (as well as oaks and wild walnut) whose gnarled limbs attract hawks and owls. The trail is a loop, 6.5 miles roundtrip, and quite easy, although it crosses a stream. Most people add the Overlook trail, which provides views of two canyons, the ocean and coastline. This is also a popular spot with mountain bikers, but take a short jaunt onto one of the spurs and you'll be alone in the wilderness. The state park has more than 70 miles of hiking trails.
www.parks.ca.gov, 818-880-0363

There are short, easy (often less than a mile) loops along the bluffs and into this state reserve, which is marked by the distinctive native pines that thrive in the morning and evening fog. This 2,000-acre park a short drive from San Diego, has 8 miles of trails. From the Guy Fleming Trail you can see dolphins in the sea below, and in winter, grey whales passing (.7 miles roundtrip). Red-tailed hawks soar overhead. You can add to the hike by starting at low tide in either La Jolla to the south (5 miles roundtrip) or Del Mar to the north (6 miles roundtrip) and walking along the shore to the entrance to Torrey Pines.On the La Jolla stretch you can watch hang gliders taking off from the Glider Port above Black's Beach. From Del Mar, you'll pass the saltwater Los Penasquitos Lagoon, a dazzling bird sanctuary.
, 858-755-2063

One of Southern California's most stunning spots for viewing wildflowers in the spring, Anza Borrego Desert State Park has a remarkable variety of features, including palm oases, waterfalls, badlands, and stunning cacti. Big horn sheep (borrego) and mule deer share the desert with jackrabbits, roadrunners and hawks. Basically a bowl surrounded by mountains, the 600,000-acre park has so much to offer, it's hard to choose a single day hike. But Hellhole Canyon (5 miles roundtrip) is stunning and well worth trying out. Surrounded by desert, this deep canyon passes cholla cacti and creosote bushes and grows continually more lush, with ocotillo and palms, then narrows, skirting a streambed (often dry), to a grotto containing 20-foot Maidenhair Falls, where ferns cling to the rocks. The hike is moderate with occasional, short difficult spots, and best done in the winter months and early spring. Be sure and stop by the Visitor's Center, which, while crowded, is one of the best in the state.
www.park.ca.gov, 760-767-5311

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