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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 fall hike through NorCal, where you can 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 trails all to yourself as you discover Northern California on foot.
Coastal Trail: Crescent Beach Section
Location: Redwood National Park
Parking: Parking is available in the lot at the Crescent Beach picnic area, located on Enderts Beach Road off Highway 101.
Distance: 3.5 miles
Time: About 1.5–2 hours
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 the trail.
Stroll along the secluded beach showcasing the vast blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Admire the redwoods growing along the rugged coastline as you walk on the sandy paths that feel like a trail into heaven. Look up at the gigantic Sitka spruce, and spot Roosevelt elk grazing in the open grasslands near the beach. (Always keep your distance and be respectful of nature and wilderness when hiking trails in Northern California.)
Lost Coast Trail
Location: King Range National Conservation Area
Parking: There's a parking area near the Mattole Beach Trailhead.
Distance: 24.6 miles
Time: About 3 days
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.)
Grizzly Giant Loop Trail
Location: Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias
Parking: Park at the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza.
Distance: 2 miles
Time: About 1.5–2 hours
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 when in Yosemite. (Before you go, check the National Park Service site for more information regarding restrictions and transportation in the park.)
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 trail. 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.
Location: Yosemite Valley
Parking: There is parking at the Yosemite Valley Trailhead.
Distance: 4.2 miles
Time: About 3 hours
Most fall hikes are 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 your trek 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.
Mount Diablo Summit Trail
Location: Mount Diablo State Park
Hours: 8 a.m.–sunset
Parking: There is street parking on South Gate Road.
Distance: 7 miles
Time: About 4–5 hours
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.
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