8 Stunningly Scenic Backpacking Destinations in California

I’m definitely biased, but I think my home state of California has some truly world-class backpacking. From rugged coastline to fascinating desert geology to the incredible high Sierra mountains, there’s something for every backpacker here in the third-largest US state.

As a lifelong Californian and avid backpacker I’ve had the pleasure of setting foot on countless trails all over this massive state. Backpacking in California is incredibly varied, and after living here for decades I still haven’t hiked every trail on my wish list. Not even close! But I am intimately familiar with some of the state’s best backpacking destinations, and in this post I’ll share them with you.

If you weren’t already dreaming about backpacking in California, you will be after reading this list! I hope it inspires a few additions to your bucket list. Happy trails!

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Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Location: eastern central and southern California

Hiking season: July – September, depending on conditions

Highlights: some of the most stunning alpine scenery in the US and possibly the world; challenging big-mountain climbs and descents; extensive trail network with many options; remoteness means few day hikers and a sense of solitude

Drawbacks: long drive from most places; permits can be hard to get; bear canisters are required for backpacking; climbing and high altitude can be challenging; mosquitos can be bad in early summer

Franklin Lakes at Mineral King

Sequoia and Kings Canyon is truly my favorite place to go backpacking in California, and possibly the entire country. These jointly administered national parks and surrounding national forests form an immense region of towering trees, jagged granite peaks, and high alpine basins studded with crystal-clear lakes. The Sierra Crest, which forms the eastern border of these parks, boasts twelve of California’s fifteen tallest peaks!

This part of the high Sierra is vast and remote, and pretty much every backpacking trip here starts with a burly several thousand foot climb to a high pass. Bring your climbing legs and acclimate to the altitude beforehand! A permit system helps preserve a sense of solitude but can make popular routes competitive.

I first backpacked in this region while hiking the 210 mile John Muir Trail and was instantly hooked. The 65 mile High Sierra Trail is another excellent iconic route. Shorter possibilities are abundant, and the trail network lends itself especially well to loop routes of varying lengths, for example the Mineral King Loop and variations.

Death Valley National Park

Location: eastern southern California

Hiking season: spring, fall, winter at low elevations

Highlights: interesting desert landscapes and foliage; visit the lowest point in the 48 contiguous states; hike through washes and canyons; more variety than you would expect, including tall mountains

Drawbacks: not many backpacking routes; not a lot of trail (you’ll often be hiking on dirt roads or in washes); limited water; dangerously hot in summer

When the high mountains of the Sierra are blanketed in snow, dedicated backpackers turn to the desert. Death Valley National Park has relatively few trails, but its unique and surprisingly varied scenery lands it a place on my list of favorite California backpacking spots. A short 2-3 day backpacking trip is the perfect way to get to know this fascinating landscape, and there’s plenty else to see by car while you’re in the area.

Desert backpacking has its own distinct vibe; you’ll find yourself hiking in sandy washes, scrambling through canyons, and keeping an eye on your water supply. Definitely avoid backpacking in Death Valley during the heat of summer; unfortunately the park’s name rings all too true on occasion and hikers have died from heat exhaustion.

The most famous backpacking route in Death Valley is the Cottonwood Marble Canyon Loop, a 30 mile route composed of dirt roads, sandy washes, cross-country travel, and light scrambling. Bighorn Gorge is another interesting canyon route best done as an out-and-back where you hike into a base camp and explore the upper gorge with day packs.

Henry Coe State Park

Location: western northern California, near SF Bay Area

Hiking season: spring (ideal), fall, winter if conditions are dry

Highlights: plenty of solitude; the only legal dispersed camping anywhere near the Bay Area

Drawbacks: surprisingly steep and rugged, especially the fire roads; very hot in summer; more remote trails are not well-maintained; possibility for ticks and poison oak

Bikepacker pushes bike up steep fire road in Henry Coe State Park
Some of the dirt roads in Henry Coe are really, really steep.

If you live near the San Francisco Bay Area, Henry Coe State Park stands out as the largest and most rugged backpacking destination within a several-hour radius. Instead of mountains or desert, Henry Coe envelops you in the classic central California landscape of hilly grasslands, oak savanna, and forested canyons.

Unlike pretty much everywhere else in the Bay, where advance reservations are needed for specific campgrounds, Henry Coe allows dispersed camping (camp where you like, following Leave No Trace guidelines). Permits are first-come first-served and not hard to get. Go in the spring for the best wildflowers, fall for even more solitude, or perhaps even winter when conditions are dry. Summers can be very hot.

Don’t underestimate the ruggedness and remoteness of Henry Coe! Some of the “trails” are actually absurdly steel fire roads and the more remote trails aren’t frequently maintained, especially in the surprisingly remote Orestimba Wilderness at the north end of the park. Venture far enough into the park and you may go days without seeing other people, with just the coyotes and deer to keep you company.

Yosemite National Park

Location: northern California

Hiking season: June – October, depending on conditions

Highlights: world-famous scenery; easily accessible trailheads

Drawbacks: popular and very crowded; permits can be hard to get; bear canisters required; mosquitos can be bad in early summer

Mountain lake on JMT

No list of California’s best backpacking destinations is complete without a mention of Yosemite National Park. This granite wonderland draws visitors from around the globe to its dramatic waterfalls and iconic rock faces.

The valley floor and surrounding trails can be unpleasantly crowded with day hikers, but the views of famous big-wall rock climbs like Half Dome and El Capitan are worth it. Routes like Yosemite Falls, North Dome, Olmstead Point, Half Dome Loop take in all the highlights in relatively few miles. The famous John Muir Trail starts in Yosemite Valley, and backpackers who venture a bit further into the surrounding Yosemite Wilderness are rewarded with somewhat quieter trails and some of the best alpine backpacking in the country.

Permits for backpacking in Yosemite are, unsurprisingly, highly sought after. You’ll need to apply via a lottery 24 weeks in advance, and prepare to battle the crowds if your itinerary starts from the valley floor. Bears are a big problem in Yosemite National Park, so bear canisters and proper food storage are essential here.

Lake Tahoe

Location: northern California border with Nevada

Hiking season: July – September, depending on conditions

Highlights: lovely alpine scenery; views of massive Lake Tahoe; easy accessibility; not too remote

Drawbacks: popular and crowded; permits can be hard to get for most popular trails; bear canisters required in Desolation Wilderness; mosquitos can be bad in early summer

The Tahoe basin is a popular year-round adventure destination, especially for skiing in winter. During summer it transforms into a sunny outdoor playground and one of the premier spots for backpacking in northern California (and a bit of Nevada, as massive Lake Tahoe straddles the border).

There’s definitely a different vibe here compared to the more remote southern Sierra. Some trails can be unpleasantly busy with day hikers and mountain bikers in peak summer months. But the accessibility also means the trails are easy to drive to and bail-out points are never far. Thus it’s a great region for newer backpackers to cut their teeth on mountain backpacking without getting in over their heads.

The most prized scenic trails lie in the so-called Desolation Wilderness, a granite wonderland that’s actually (despite its name) one of the most-visited wilderness areas in the United States. I’ve backpacked most of the trails here, including a loop of the full wilderness, and it’s a stunning place.

If you can’t snag a permit for the most popular trails, don’t worry, the entire basin is ringed with National Forest land. If you have a few weeks on your hands you can even hike around the entire lake on the Tahoe Rim Trail. It’s a rare loop-shaped thru hike combining the vibe of a longer trail with the easy logistics of finishing where you started.

Ventana Wilderness

Location: coastal central California

Hiking season: year-round depending on conditions; spring is ideal

Highlights: stunning views of rugged Big Sur coastline; relatively uncrowded; no permit needed; summit the tallest coastal mountain in the lower 48

Drawbacks: many trails are overgrown and even impassible; poison oak and ticks; can be very hot and dry in summer

Two bivy sacks at camp

The Ventana Wilderness, part of Los Padres National Forest, flies under the radar but is one of my favorite California backpacking destinations. From the rugged Big Sur coastline you’ll climb chaparral-covered hills, traverse steep valleys, and luxuriate in the shade of pine forests on quiet trails with no permit requirements.

Don’t underestimate these trails though, as there’s a price to pay for the solitude. The terrain is rugged and many trails are not well-maintained, so definitely check trail conditions or risk an epic bushwhack. This is one of few places where I usually wear long pants and sometimes long sleeves, even in the heat, to fend off scratchy brush, poison oak, and ticks.

My favorite route here is Cone Peak (Sea to Sky), a challenging climb to the summit of the tallest coastal mountain in the lower 48. At just over 5000 feet, Cone Peak dominates the Santa Lucia Mountains and offers dizzying views over the Pacific coastline, just a few miles away as the crow flies. A much easier and more popular backpacking route is the out-and-back to Sykes Hot Springs, which can also be extended into a longer loop.

Emigrant, Mokelumne, and Carson-Iceburg Wilderness Areas

Location: northern California

Hiking season: June – October depending on snowpack

Highlights: Sierra scenery with fewer crowds

Drawbacks: mosquitos can be bad in early summer

Between the tourist attractions of Lake Tahoe and Yosemite lies a vast network of trails through equally lovely high Sierra scenery with far fewer crowds. These three wilderness areas, and the vast national forests that surround them, can be explored and linked together via countless backpacking routes both long and short.

I especially enjoy the Mokelumne Wilderness area near Kirkwood Ski Resort, having grown up skiing in this area. The Fourth of July Lake Loop is a scenic little 14 mile loop from Highway 88 that can be extended if you want more mileage. Further south highways 4 and 108 provide access to other lovely options.

Mount San Jacinto State Wilderness

Location: southern California

Hiking season: June – October depending on snowpack

Highlights: 360 degree views from San Jacinto Peak; unique mountain scenery with view over the desert floor

Drawbacks: camping limited to established group sites; big climb on the way in; high altitude and relatively quick ascent can make things harder (try to acclimate for a night at moderate elevation first)

Mount San Jacinto State Park, though relatively small, is one of the best places to go backpacking in Southern California, especially for short 2 -3 day trips. The nearly 11,000 foot summit of San Jacinto offers unique panoramic views over the sprawling desert floor, giving you a very real sense of the region’s geology. The storied Pacific Crest Trail runs through the area for those who want to experience a small taste of the famous thru hike.

Pretty much every route into the wilderness, including the popular San Jacinto Peak Loop Trail, starts with a hefty climb to high altitude. Take it slow and bring your fitness! Camping is allowed only at designated sites and you’ll need to apply for a permit in advance. Once you’re up there, enjoy the views and the relatively cooler temps as the desert cooks below.

To experience the Mount San Jacinto Wilderness without the big climb in, consider taking the incredibly scenic tram ride up from Palm Springs as shown in the San Jacinto 7 Peak Loop via Tram and Round Valley. You can camp at Round Valley and explore the area via day hikes with a lighter pack. This is a great way for beginner backpackers to get their feet wet with a less committing route.

Honorable Mentions

There are literally hundreds of great backpacking destinations in California, and those highlighted above are just the tip of the iceberg. Here are a few honorable mentions that are smaller, a bit less iconic, or that I personally haven’t explored much yet.

Trinity Alps: A very scenic but under-the-radar backpacking destination in northern California, the Trinity Alps Wilderness offers top-notch mountain backpacking without the crowds of the Sierra. Though it offers many miles of trail, there aren’t many options for longer or loop routes, and the area was recently damaged by fire in August of 2023. Still, I’ve heard great things and hope to explore it soon.

Lost Coast: This 34 mile trail in King Range Wilderness, near the coastal village of Shelter Cove, offers a unique point-to-point backpacking experience along the rugged northern California coastline. A knowledge of tide timetables is required, as well as a fairly competitive permit.

Angeles National Forest: The San Gabriel Mountains are a wonderfully rugged yet conveniently close backpacking destination near Los Angles. The region is actually far more popular with day hikers, in part due to the lack of water sources up on the ridges, but if you can pack in enough liquids you’ll enjoy the solitude come sunset.

The San Gabriel Mountains are impressively rugged and fairly dry, but if you live in LA they make a great overnight backpacking destination.

Pacific Crest Trail: The storied PCT runs the entire length of California, over 1600 miles from border to border! Thus, wherever you may be in California there is always backpacking somewhat nearby on the PCT. Whether it’s a long section hike or an overnight out-and-back, it’s always a treat to leave footprints on this famous long-distance thru hiking route.

You’re never too far from the PCT in California, which means you’re never too far from some great backpacking.

Did I miss your favorite place to go backpacking in California? This list is a work in progress! Let me know down below in the comments and I’ll add it.

Gear for Backpacking in California

As always, the best gear list for your backpacking trip depends on location, conditions, and your style of packing and hiking. Here are some of my personal favorites used for many miles while backpacking in California and elsewhere.

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the US and abroad. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more here.

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