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Northern California Hikes to Take This Fall
Health & Fitness

Northern California Hikes to Take This Fall

Discover NorCal on foot—explore the Lost Coast, hike the Rubicon Trail, or traipse through the Shasta Cascade—and enjoy the solitude.

California.com

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7 min read

October 30, 2021

With the arrival of sweater weather comes the opportunity to explore California’s unique fall foliage and recharge amidst nature—without the crowds. As the summer months come to an end, so do the masses; now's the time to retreat into secluded parks and forests for a solitary escapade. Enjoy a Northern California hike and free your spirit in alpine meadows encircled by towering pine, fir, and cedar trees. 

Drive along winding roads and stop at one of California's top U-pick farms and road stands to purchase locally grown fall vegetables on the way. You'll feel the excitement bubbling up inside as your NorCal adventure begins to unfold in front of you. Whether you're about to explore the Lost Coast, hike the Rubicon Trail, or traipse through the Shasta Cascade, you'll mostly have these fall hikes all to yourself as you discover Northern California on foot.

The best hikes in Northern California

For a scenic and easy day hike in Northern California, traverse through the majestic redwood giants in Redwood National Park.

1. Coastal Trail Crescent Beach Section 

Location: Redwood National Park
Hours: Sunrise to sunset
Parking: Parking is available in the lot at the Crescent Beach picnic area, located on Enderts Beach Road off Highway 101
Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 3.5 miles
Time: About 1.5–2 hours 
Route: Loop

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Venture off on an easy day hike or plan a longer backpacking trip along the 70-mile Coastal Trail (permits are required for camping). Make a slight detour to the Klamath Overlook to witness the waters of the Klamath River flowing into the ocean before setting off on one of the best hiking trails in Northern California.

Stroll along the secluded beach showcasing the vast blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Look up at the gigantic Sitka spruce, and spot Roosevelt elk grazing in the open grasslands near the beach. But remember to always keep your distance and be respectful of nature and wilderness when hiking trails in Northern California.

Take a deep breath while you savor the staggering vistas of the rugged Lost Coast during your autumn hike.

2. Lost Coast Trail

Location: King Range National Conservation Area
Hours: Sunrise to sunset 
Parking: There’s a parking area near Mattole Beach Trailhead
Difficulty: Moderate 
Distance: 24.6 miles
Time: About 3 days
Route: Point to point

Escape to the Lost Coast—one of the best hiking trails in Northern California—and let the rugged terrain soothe your soul as you backpack the 24.6 miles of a remote coastline. Due to the land's steepness and rigidity, the construction of Route 1 was discontinued here, making it the only section of the state’s coastline that remains untouched by the highway.

Traipse along the sandy beaches and let the ocean breeze sweep you off your feet. Try to spot sea lions while hiking through the wilderness from Mattole to Black Sands Beach. Revel in the solitude that goes hand in hand with the autumn vibes, and let the sound of the waves carry you away. Just make sure you're prepared for this trek and always be cautious and attentive to the tides when hiking in NorCal.

An epic two-day ascent of a 14,000-foot California volcano is where you'll be exposed to the most beautiful fall foliage.

3. Mount Shasta via Avalanche Gulch Route

Location: Mount Shasta Wilderness
Hours: Sunrise to sunset
Parking: Parking is available at the Bunny Flats Campground
Difficulty: Hard
Distance: 10.3 miles
Time: 1–3 days
Route: Out and back

While the Avalanche Gulch Route offers one of the best backpacking in Northern California, it should only be traversed by the true pros. With every quality needed to be a perfect Northern California hike, this epic two-day journey is all about ascending a 14,000-foot California volcano.

Taking anywhere between one to three days to complete (depending on your experience and physical capabilities), the Avalanche Gulch Route is a journey of a lifetime. Take the standard trail up from Bunny Flats and plan an overnight stay at one of the campsites near Lake Helen. Then, continue your ascent up the trail and head through Red Banks to Misery Hill. Don’t undermine the difficulty of this epic Northern California hike, but if you’re truly up for the challenge, you’re going to come back as a new person—in the best way. 

Scenic hiking trails in Northern California

After a moderate hike on the Grizzly Giant Loop trail, sit back and admire the sun rays making their way through the towering Sequoias.

4. Grizzly Giant Loop Trail

Location: Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias
Hours: Sunrise to sunset
Parking: Park at the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza
Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 2 miles
Time: About 1.5–2 hours 
Route: Loop

While most of the trees in the unaltered wilderness of Yosemite National Park are evergreens, the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail takes you past 3,000-year-old sequoias, making this Northern California hike a must-do. (Before you go, check the National Park Service site for more information regarding restrictions and transportation in the park.)

To understand why this is one of the best hikes for fall colors, lose yourself in the park's largest sequoia grove—home to over 500 mature giant sequoias—and witness the magical trees standing tall and mighty. Traipse past the Fallen Monarch, Bachelor, Three Graces, Grizzly Giant, and California Tunnel Tree, and learn all about the life and ecology of sequoias through interpretive panels along the fall hike. After reaching the halfway point, continue onward to the more strenuous Mariposa Grove or Guardians Loop Trails to view the fallen Wawona Tunnel Tree, Telescope Tree, and Mariposa Grove Cabin.

Go chasing waterfalls in Yosemite National Park, where you can hike to the mesmerizing Vernal Fall.

5. Vernal Fall

Location: Yosemite Valley
Hours: Sunrise to sunset 
Parking: There is parking at the Yosemite Valley Trailhead
Difficulty: Hard
Distance: 4.2 miles
Time: About 3 hours
Route: Out and back

Most fall hikes are still worth doing in spring and early summer, but not the 317-foot Vernal Fall, which remains as mesmerizing as can be in the autumn months. (Check the NPS site for more information in regards to restrictions and transportation in the park before you set out.)

Start one of the best Northern California hikes on the Mist Trail, taking pictures at the footbridge less than one mile into the hike with the cascading waters as your background. Push yourself to the limit—follow the steep granite stairway with over 600 steps while being sprayed with water—and admire the play of sun and water creating rainbows in the mist. Take a breather, and memorize the vistas opening up before you as you stand atop the falls. From here, take the John Muir Loop to Clark Point to return back to the footbridge and trailhead.

For the best backpacking in Northern California, continue on the 211-mile John Muir Trail via Yosemite Valley and discover untamed corners of the national park.

The best hikes for fall colors

There's hardly anything more rejuvenating than the calmness of Mount Diablo State Park. Take one of the best day hikes in NorCal this weekend.

6. Mount Diablo Summit Trail

Location: Mount Diablo State Park
Hours: Sunrise to sunset 
Parking: There is street parking on South Gate Road
Difficulty: Hard
Distance: 7 miles
Time: About 4–5 hours.
Route: Out and back

Trek up to Mount Diablo’s summit, just over 40 miles away from San Francisco, for an autumn-inspired picnic with gorgeous views of the Bay Area and beyond. At the top, you can also peek inside the museum to learn about the mountain's rich history and the reason why it’s sacred to Native Americans.

With an elevation gain of over 2,000 feet, this adventure is considered one of the best day hikes in Northern California—expect your efforts to be rewarded with magnificent vistas of rolling hills and broad, flat valleys as far as the eye can see. Make a detour to reach the Diablo Valley Overlook near Juniper Campground, where the Golden Gate Bridge is visible on clear days. Stop by Rock City Park along South Gate Road after getting back to the trailhead to explore wind caves and sandstone formations; what more could you want when hiking in NorCal?

This steep trail leads back into the heart of Desolation Wilderness, passing by several lakes along the way.

7. Eagle Lake Trail

Location: Emerald Bay State Park
Hours: Sunrise to sunset
Parking: Paid parking in the Emerald Bay State Park
Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: About 4.3 miles
Time: About 2–3 hours
Route: Loop (with out-and-back option)

Ready for a hiking trail in Northern California that’ll leave you breathless? Trek the beautiful Eagle Lake Trail in Lake Tahoe. Park your car and venture down to Emerald Bay’s Vikingsholm for the ultimate step back in time. This 38-room mansion constructed in the early 20th century is unlike any other trailside attraction and takes your Northern California hike up a notch.

Soon, you’ll hear the sound of Lower Eagle Falls long before you reach them. The loop trail ends at the Upper Falls—you have the option to either return to your car or continue to the Eagle Falls Trailhead at this point on your fall hike. The second part of the hike will take you through a dense forest until the path reaches the glistening Eagle Lake. The mystical views of the lake alone qualify this trail as one of the best hikes in Northern California.




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