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With a rugged coastline, breathtaking desert vistas, ancient forests, and towering peaks, California is a paradise for nature lovers. The Golden State is renowned for offering an abundance of outdoor adventures among some of the most beautiful and diverse scenery in the United States. Whether you want to dip your toes in the Pacific Ocean, scale the dizzying heights of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, or get lost in old-growth redwood forests, California has a trail for you.
If you’ve been searching for the best day hikes and nature trails in California, look no further. We’ve put together a list of some of our favorite day hikes across the state, specially geared towards lovers of nature and the great outdoors.
1. Panorama Trail, Yosemite National Park
It’s impossible to imagine hiking in California without thinking of Yosemite, the state’s most famous national park, which is packed with seriously spectacular trails. Most visitors to Yosemite have their eyes on Half Dome, the iconic bowl-shaped peak that dominates the Yosemite Valley. Ascending this dramatic granite dome is a serious feat of strength and courage, requiring a challenging section on cables. However, if you’re heading for Yosemite, we think there’s another day hike that’s even better than Half Dome: the epic, glorious Panorama Trail.
The Panorama Trail is the perfect California day hike for nature lovers. This hike begins on the Mist Trail, a popular route that takes you through the spray of Vernal and Nevada Falls. The path then leads you along the John Muir Trail—complete with fabulous views of Half Dome—before arriving at Glacier Point, the highest peak on the route. At just under 10 miles one-way, the Panorama Trail makes for a strenuous hike, requiring a full day out in the park, but it is an immensely satisfying trail and will leave you with unforgettable memories of Yosemite’s magical landscapes.
2. James Irvine Trail, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
As all nature lovers know, California is home to some of the world’s finest redwood forests, featuring looming trees with their characteristic red bark. These ancient, massive trees are some of the tallest living things on the planet, and the forests serve as an important habitat for rare and unique wildlife. A trip to a redwood forest should be on every nature lover’s bucket list, and there are many hiking routes where you can appreciate the trees up close.
The 10-mile James Irvine Trail is our favorite route in all of the Redwood National and State Parks, passing through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The towering redwoods are an amazing spectacle, casting a cool shadow throughout the forest. Several of the trees here are over 1,000 years old, and Prairie Creek offers some of the most extensive havens for old-growth redwoods in all of California.
The trail itself winds gently through the trees, before reaching the short section known as the Fern Canyon Trail; this off-the-beaten-path hike passes through a lush canyon, clothed in ferns and fragrant lichen, before finally reaching the beach. The thick vegetation absorbs the sound, making this a relaxing and truly special place for a hike.
3. Kruse Rhododendron State Reserve Loop Trail, Kruse Rhododendron State Natural Reserve
California in bloom is a sight you’ll never forget, and there are many places where you can appreciate the magnificent biodiversity of this incredible state. But one of our favorite hikes in California takes you through the Kruse Rhododendron State Natural Reserve, where (provided you visit between April and early June) you’ll catch a glimpse of beautiful, blooming rhododendrons.
Kruse Rhododendron State Reserve Loop Trail is a relatively short and easy hike, but you’ll want to linger in the forest for as long as you possibly can. Fragrant lichens cloak the trees, strange varieties of fungus and mushrooms can be found across the forest floor, and the blossoming rhododendrons add a blast of vibrant color. This is the ideal California trail for keen botanists, and the forest is a wonderful place to stop and reflect for a moment on the rich profusion of nature.
4. Devil’s Kitchen Trail, Lassen Volcanic National Park
California’s answer to Yellowstone, Lassen Volcanic National Park is the ideal place to come to learn how the Western United States was forged by fire. Still steaming from eruptions at the turn of the 20th century, Lassen is an otherworldly land of bubbling mud pots, steaming vents, and vivid turquoise pools. However, it’s also a place defined by water and filled with sparkling lakes, and the Devil’s Kitchen Trail offers you the best of both sides of Lassen’s unique landscape.
The trail begins at the Warner Valley Trailhead and takes you along a four-mile loop through some seriously stunning and varied terrain. You’ll pass through wildflower meadows and atmospheric marshland before reaching the eponymous Devil’s Kitchen, the second largest area of hydrothermal activity in the park. Take your time to appreciate the mud pots and steaming fumaroles before taking one or two of the side trails to explore the beautiful alpine lakes.
5. Teutonia Peak Trail, Mojave National Preserve
This scenic trail is a great way to experience the drama and majesty of the California desert, taking you all the way to the summit of Teutonia Peak for incredible views over the valley. Although you’re in the heart of the desert, the Mojave National Preserve is packed with weird yet magnificent natural landmarks, including a stunning grove of Joshua trees. In fact, the Teutonia Peak Trail passes through the largest and densest area of these strange, contorted trees—even denser than the groves in Joshua Tree National Park!
The trail is somewhat strenuous, as you’ll need to climb up to the rocky summit of Teutonia Peak, standing at an elevation of 5,755 feet. The views from the top are simply staggering, offering a perspective over the desert rarely seen by visitors. You’ll also be able to appreciate the majesty of Cima Dome, a 70-acre dome that looks like a landscape distorted by a fisheye lens.
6. Rubicon Trail, Lake Tahoe
Immense, majestic Lake Tahoe is a wonderful place for a hike. The Rubicon Trail skirts the southwest lakeshore along a moderately easy path, offering fantastic views of the famous blue waters. Connecting two state parks, D.L. Bliss and Emerald Bay, this fantastic hike boasts an abundance of natural beauty.
The Rubicon Trail begins near Calawee Cove Beach and heads south on a trail etched into the cliffside with a fantastic vista over the deep, indigo water. The path snakes in and out of peaceful woodland, passes by an old lighthouse, and goes all the way to Vikingsholm Castle. Finish up the hike at the lovely Lower Eagle Falls for the perfect day outside. The diversity of this gorgeous route makes it one of the best day hikes in California.
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