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The Most Challenging Trails to Hike in SoCal

The Most Challenging Trails to Hike in SoCal

Let’s explore the south of the Golden State with a new perspective: the most challenging hikes in SoCal await!

Palig Dzadourian


5 min read

June 29, 2022

While we mostly flock to the beauty of the beaches of Southern California, they are not the only gems SoCal has to offer. If you spend a bit more time exploring this part of the state, you might be surprised to find so many wondrous things. From rugged mountains and vast deserts to stunning waterfalls, SoCal has it all!

Southern California is home to a plethora of locations for relaxing getaways, a break from the fast-paced lifestyle we all lead. However, if you feel like a different type of getaway, a sort of natural activity workout, you are at the right place. For those of us who like challenging ourselves with outdoor activities, hiking is the way to go, as it is demanding yet greatly rewarding. We’ve prepared a list of the most challenging hikes in Southern California you can take, let’s go.

La Jolla Canyon Loop, Mugu Point

All along this difficult trail you will be accompanied by the ocean, which is quite the encouragement indeed.

On the west end of the Santa Monica Mountains, right between Malibu and Oxnard is the Point Mugu State Park, where 15 000 acres of beautiful wilderness are protected. There are more than 70 trails to be found at Mugu Point, some of them being the best hikes in SoCal you’ll ever walk on. The La Jolla Canyon Loop trail is six miles long, and it will take up to four hours to complete, and it is a strenuous one indeed. You have the option of starting from La Jolla Canyon itself or taking on the Chumash Trail first, which stretches on until you reach the junction of the main trail of Mugu Point.

The reason why you might want to consider starting at the Chumash Trail is that it’s considered to have one of the most amazing footpaths, not only within the list of SoCal hikes but throughout the entire State. This trail is also an old one— The oldest in California — as it dates back a good 7000 years when the Chumash traveled between the Santa Monica Mountains and The Pacific. It starts off quite intensely, as the first half-mile runs up the mountainside, without having anywhere you can relieve yourself.

Once you get close to the La Jolla Canyon trail junction, the trail will descend from the summit, with breathtaking views of the blue ocean on the way.

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Fish Canyon Narrows 

Not to be confused with Fish Canyon Falls, the Fish Canyon Narrows in the Angeles Forest is one of the most frequented trails for hiking lovers of SoCal. This out-and-back trail of 8 miles is considered to be a moderately challenging hike. It will take up to six hours to complete this trail, and the beauty of the surrounding scenery will make every second worth it. The abandoned Cienaga campgrounds will reveal themselves to you after about three miles into the hike.

This trail is one of the most impressive hiking trails in Southern California, even for veteran SoCal hikers. It is exceptionally breathtaking in the fall, with the colorful leaves of the sycamore and cottonwood trees lining the trail. However, hiking here any time of the year is something that will not disappoint. Explore the wonders of the Angeles Forest while you take the challenge of completing the Fish Canyon Narrows trail.

Bridge to Nowhere, East Fork Trail 

The San Gabriel Mountain range is somewhere you should definitely consider hiking in for a time to remember.

This next trail is 10 miles long, and it takes 4 to 8 hours to complete, depending on what you wish to see. It is located in the San Gabriel Mountain range in the Angeles Forest, near Mount Baldy, the rocky trail in the East Fork Trail is one of the most unique SoCal hikes, it is also considered to be among the best ones found in Southern California’s mountain ranges. Entrance to the trail requires you to get a National Forest Adventure Pass, and its popularity makes way for quite a number of people to venture through the trail, so while you will not have the East Fork trail all for yourself, it is still a riveting experience.

This trail's highlight and selling point is the Bridge To Nowhere, a mysterious bridge built in 1936 over the East Fork; it gets its name from the now nonexisting road that led up to it once upon a time, quite an eerie sight to set your eyes on.

All along the hike, you can freshen up in the San Gabriel River the trail follows, it is home to arguably the most beautiful gorge in Southern California. If you want to add to this adventurous endeavor, one of the few bungee jumping companies in California offers the exhilarating activity on the bridge itself during weekends.

Mount Lowe Railway Loop 

There are few hikes in Southern California that include a historical side to the fun outdoor adventure, and the Mount Lowe Railway happens to be one of them. Located in the Angeles Forest, this 10-mile trail will take you about 5 hours to complete, and it is a challenging one. Walk through the ruins of the Mount Lowe Railway, Echo Mountain, and Alpine Tavern. Once one of the most popular locations in Southern California before being destroyed by fires and floods. You will find many labels with information about the fascinating history of the Railway.

This is a very known SoCal trail, so you will be finding a lot of other fellow hikers along the way. Filled with stunning views of the area, including pine forests and deep canyons. The Mount Lowe Railway loop is also a great spot for camping.

Iron Mountain to Baldy Traverse

The Mount Blady Summit will make you feel like you are on top of the world.

There are endless debates on which of these hikes are the hardest hikes in Southern California, as that can be a subjective topic. The Iron Mountain to Baldy Traverse comes close to being considered the hardest hike in Southern California, with absolutely incredible views to see all along the way. It is a 15.7-mile-long out-and-back trail with a lot of ups and downs, as it’s traversed along mountains, and it approximately takes 10 hours to complete. Starting at 2000 feet at the Heaton Flat, you will experience a few elevations and descents along the way to Iron Mountain.

This difficult hike is worth the effort, however, once you reach the summit of the Iron Mountain, you will be met with some fantastic picturesque scenery. The Mountain reaches up to 8000 feet, and you should expect quite a high elevation during the hike. This is a SoCal hike that will grant you breathtaking views of Northern San Diego County. Backpackers, campers, and hikers alike all gather here to undertake this daunting challenge, but the greater the difficulty the greater the rewarding aspect of this experience will be.

Stunt High Trail, Santa Monica Mountains 

The striking views of the Santa Monica Mountains are enough to make you want to brave whatever trails are available.

Another out-and-back hiking trail, The Stunt High trail near Calabasas in Santa Monica Mountains. This hike takes up to 2 hours, as you will be covering about 4 miles. This is one of the most popular hiking trails in Southern California, so you will be met with a lot of fellow hikers and adventurers. This SoCal hike starts off rather gently, as you make your walk through Cold Creek and then make its way up meadows onto Saddle Peak, which will give you spectacular views of the Santa Monica mountains. If the 2.7 miles of this trail seem too short and unexciting to you, continuing on the Backbone trail onto Saddle Peak is something you can definitely do! Saddle Peak is the sixth tallest summit of the mountain range, adding 7.2 miles (round trip) to the challenge.

Once you are atop Saddle Peak, you can see panoramic views of Malibu and the Pacific, incredibly breathtaking scenes.

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