Wind your way through the Golden State with the best hikes in southern California.
From the Sierra Nevadas to sun-kissed beaches, you could spend weeks exploring these trails and still not see it all. With so many places on your bucket list, the choices can be overwhelming. Five years ago, I moved from the rainy city of Seattle to start college here. And I’ve been hooked ever since. I’m the kind of person who needs to take a lot of little road trips to stay sane. I can’t stay in one place for too long. With this said, I scoped out the best hikes in Southern California during my time.
Here Are My Picks for the Best Hikes in Southern California
1. Black Star Canyon Road
Almost four years ago, I gathered some friends and decided to do a morning hike in Black Star Canyon. Located in the foothills of south Orange County, it’s easily one of the most beautiful trails. One of the main draws is the waterfall. While the hike itself is gorgeous, the problem with hiking in southern California is that more often than not, these waterfalls dry up. So, if you’re going to see the falls, make sure you’re hiking a day or two after the rain.
If you’re a history nerd like me, you’ll appreciate the story behind the canyon as well. Did you know that Black Star Canyon is actually an important archaeological site? Back in the 1830s, there was an armed conflict between American fur trappers and the Native American Indian tribe, the Tongva. The battle was recorded as the bloodiest battle to ever take place in the Santa Ana Mountains. Rumor has it that if you hike the trail at night, you can still hear the whooping cries of the braves carried along with the wind.
2. Mount Wilson
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Almost every hiker in southern California knows about Mount Wilson. But if you’re looking to escape some of the crowds, we’ve found the road less traveled. Take Chantry Flat, an arduous 13-mile trek will wind you through some of the most beautiful sites. While most hikers opt to drive most of the way to the top, I’m a big believer that it’s about the journey, not the destination. Will you work up a little sweat? Sure.
But you will also get to walk among dense forests, traverse steep mountain ridges, and scenic streams. We all need to disconnect from the city and tune into nature every now and then. Why not do just that on one of the best hikes in southern California?
I found that it’s easiest to park over at Adams’ Station. From here, you will find signs pointing towards Winter Creek Trail. This road creeps up a series of small switchbacks. Stick to the trails or use the road. It’s easy to get turned around because some of the trails are a little overgrow in spots.
3. Cucamonga Peak
If you’re looking for amazing views over the Inland Empire, you’ll find some of the best hikes in southern California at Cucamonga Peak. Hiking from Icehouse Canyon is an 11.6-mile trek. While this is one of the longer ones on our list, it’s more than worth the journey. When you’re traveling, keep in mind that the northern end of the peak holds more snow than most others in the region. Even in June, it’s not uncommon to find the peaks a little icy.
From the top of Cucamonga Peak, you’ll be able to scope out some of the best-known peaks in the area. Among them include the Saddleback Mountains, Mount San Jacinto, Mount Baldy, and San Gorgonio. The trail starts about a mile out from Mount Baldy Village; you’ll need a permit to explore. The Icehouse Canyon Trail makes all the effort and expenditure worthwhile.
You’ll find the trail winds through a beautiful dense forest, past babbling streams. This is one of the best hikes in southern California. These years, finding greenery in the midst of a drought is no easy task. After all, we don’t get that much rain here. Since this is a wilderness hike, come prepared with all of the essentials. It’s good practice to keep a map and water bottle on hand. All in all, this is a 13 mile hike, which will take you about 7 to 8 hours to complete.
4. Hollywood Sign
Is this touristy? Sure. But you’ve got to do it at least once in your lifetime. Nothing says California like a trip to this quintessential landmark. You’ll be able to get some good pictures close to the sign with the city as a backdrop. Add in the Bronson Caves famous from the 1960s Batman sitcom and you’ll have a day made of exploring old film nostalgia. After all, this is one of the best hikes in southern California.
One of the shorter routes you can take is from the Burbank Peak Trail. This 3-mile loop runs from the west passing a gorgeous summit viewpoint over at Cahuenga Peak. It’s a shorter alternative to the 6.5 mile Brush Canyon trek and the 3.5-mile trail from Hollyridge Trail. Make sure to bring the right shoes and plenty of water. Don’t underestimate the trail; it’s still a good workout and you’ll go up some steep inclines.
Like anywhere else in LA, the parking situation is a bit tricky. You won’t find it atop Wonder View Drive. Instead, you can use the free street parking along Lake Hollywood Drive and walk a quarter mile up to the start of the trail. Pass around the yellow gate at the top of Wonder View Drive and you can head out on your way. One of my favorite places to stop for a rest and take some cool photos is Wisdom Tree.
From here, you can take in sweet views of Burbank, Hollywood, and Toluca Lake just beneath the peak. An American flag marks the peak, an unofficial reminder of September 11th. The trek to Wisdom Tree is 1.6 miles but why stop here? You’re more than halfway to the summit.
5. San Gorgonio
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Located in the eastern San Bernardino Mountains, San Gorgonio stands at a towering 11,503 feet. As the tallest peak in southern California, climbing to its summit is a rite of passage for serious adventurers and locals. There are a fews to go about getting to the top. We recommend taking the Vivian Creek Trail, at 10 hours roundtrip. It’s a difficult trek but it’s doable if you train for it. Its gray and rounded peak has earned it the name Old Greyback; it’s also the only peak in SoCal with a summit well above the treeline. Similarly to Mount Whitney, the top is rocky and barren.
We’ve got some good news for you. You no longer need a permit for a day hike at San Gorgonio! If you plan on doing an overnight hike, that’s when you’ll need one. Since this is a long day hike, you have the option of splitting it into an overnight backpacking trip.While you have a few options, High Creek Camp is the most popular one. To get a permit, you’ll need to call the Mill Creek Visitor Center and check if there’s a spot open for you at your desired time.
6. Bridge to Nowhere
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
For outdoor-loving LA residents, Bridge to Nowhere is a local treasure. This abandoned bridge crosses over a the San Gabriel River in the mountains. A ten-mile hike with a 900 foot change in elevation, it’s not for the faint of heart. But for those who can brave the trek, you’re in for a whole lot of fun. The trail offers several river fords to reach the bridge, which make for good places to stop, cool down, and take a swim. You’ll need to get a wilderness permit to hike here as well as a national forest day pass.
You’ll find that the trail isn’t too steep. Since there are four river crossings, wading through deep water is part of the journey. With this said, make sure you pack the right footwear. Hiking boots, water shoes, and a towel are all essentials. While it’s a long route, don’t be surprised if you’re sharing the trail with quite a few others. This is a popular route among Angelinos and no doubt one of the best hikes in southern California.
7. Eaton Falls
Do you want to catch Eaton Falls at its prime? Come in the spring. If you can time your visit after a good rainstorm, you’ll be in for a treat. First things first, though. You’ll need to know the specifics. You’ll find Eaton Canyon in Altadena at the front of the San Gabriel Mountains. While there are several points of entry for the trail, one of the easiest is at the Nature Center in the Eaton Canyon Natural Area Park. Since there’s a lot of foot traffic here, try and come early. More often than not, the parking can fill up fast.
The hike runs for four miles round trip and will take about two hours to complete. Why do I love it? Besides getting to splash in waterfalls, this trail is open year-round and is dog friendly. Any place I can bring my pooch is a winner in my book. The first mile and a half is a smooth, easy walking trail. After you pass the Mount Wilson Toll Road, the scenery changes all for the better. The shaded brown dirt trail gives way to lush green trees, the canyon narrows, and all you can hear are the sounds of the babbling brooks, birds, and your own breath.
We swear we’ve never come across a more quiet place in all of Los Angeles. Remember to bring a good travel camera and take lots of pictures. The trail crosses over the creek many times with well-placed rocks to walk over. Give the trail another half a mile and you’ll begin to hear the sounds of the falls. Unless you’re an early bird, prepare for a lot of people at the falls. After all, waterfalls are basically a giant tourist magnet.
8. Potato Chip Rock
I’m sure you’ve seen thousands of pictures of this iconic SoCal spot before. That’s right. I’m talking about San Diego’s famous Potato Chip Rock. While the standard route for this hike runs almost eight miles, I’ve found a little shortcut that cuts off some of the foot traffic too. Interested? While most people enter via the western route from Lake Poway, there is a quieter, less crowded trail off of Highway 67.
This route traverses the northern part of the mountain, the Fry Koegel Trail. It’s a much more enjoyable 5.6-mile loop. To weed out even more tourists, try going during the off season. During the summer heat, tourists flock to Potato Chip Rock in droves. Whatever season you do decide to go, bring sunblock, sunglasses, and plenty of water. There is virtually no shade at any part of the trail and much of it is up a fairly steep incline.
When you get to the top though, the view is worth it. Not only do you get to see all of Lake Poway before but you’ll also get to have that Rafiki and Simba moment you’ve always dreamed about. Don’t pretend you don’t want to.
Explore Breathtaking Views on Some of the Best Hikes in Southern California
Isn't it fascinating how our heart has a tug for the great outdoors? With work, school, and just life in general, we move at such a fast pace. There's something about getting away from the city and connecting with nature that makes us feel grounded. Take time to breathe, be mindful, and appreciate the little things in life.
It's time to visit California. The SoCal landscape can take years to explore and it can be difficult to check off everything on your list in one visit. However, its natural beauty and diverse landscape make it a destination worth coming back to again and again. We hope you enjoyed reading through our picks of the best hikes in southern California. While these are just a few of our favorites, we would love to hear about some of the top places you have been to. Feel free to leave us a comment below with your stories. For some other epic hike recommendations, check out these hiking apps. Happy travels.
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