7 California Backpacking Trips You Need To Try In 2024

It has always been my dream to go on California backpacking trips. After all, California is one of the best places for a beginner backpacker to get started!

California’s landscape is so diverse with picturesque views that are simply best enjoyed on a backpacking trip. The mild weather throughout the year also helps and winter backpacking is indeed possible.

There are so many options for backpacking trips in California once you start looking out for them. In fact, I’m also using this list to get started with my adventures. I’ll make sure to add links to future articles and tips after I’ve gone on these trips so that you can get a glimpse of what to prepare for.

Whether you’re a seasoned backpacker or a beginner to the trail, join me as we explore these must-try backpacking trips in California.

What are the best California backpacking trips?

I’m so excited to share my list of California backpacking trips that I’m personally making plans for! I’ve also added some notes on the suggested duration, best time to go, and difficulty level. That way, you can gauge which trips are right for you.

1. Lost Coast Trail

The Lost Coast Trail is on the bucket list of many backpackers, and rightly so! This trail is located north of San Francisco in Humboldt County and features rugged coastlines through King Range. It is incredibly scenic and worth the 3-4 days. Since there are no roads cutting through this stretch of coast, the best way to experience it is by backpacking through it.

What you need to know

  • One of the important things to plan is the tide timing you will be walking on the beach as some parts of it will be submerged during high tide.
  • As it is a point to point trail, you might need to hitch a ride/book a shuttle in advance/bring 2 cars and leave one at each end. Do note that the driving distance is about 2 hours.
  • A popular way to start is from Mattole River Beach, hiking southwards to end at Black Sands Beach near Shelter Cove.
  • Permits are required to camp in King Range Wilderness. They are available 3 months in advance at 7am, and 2 walk-up permits are available daily. In addition, only 30-60 permits are available each day so it never gets crowded.
  • This not a beginner-friendly backpacking trip because of physically gruelling terrain and the amount planning involved regarding tide timings. Expect 1 mile per hour pace while crossing rocky and sandy coastlines.
Don’t take tide safety lightly! Watch this video provided by BLM California to get a better idea.

Duration: 3-4 days (25 miles)

Best time to go: May to September (open year-round)

Difficulty: Strenuous

2. Point Reyes Beachside Camping

Point Reyes Beach - Backpacking trips in California

Located slightly north of San Francisco, Point Reyes offers a unique coastal backpacking trip. Wildcat and Coast Camp are the popular beachside campgrounds that you’ll never forget. My first time camping in Point Reyes was during a 10-day California road trip. It was simply amazing to be able to walk out to the beach just a few minutes away to watch the sunset.

Coast Camp is fairly easy to get to, and serves as a great introduction to backpacking. Hiking in to the campsite takes about 30 minutes to 1 hour, and there are several routes you can take to get there. I would really like to check out Wildcat Campground as well, since it’s an excellent base for hiking to Alamere Falls.

You could even spend a few days backpacking in Point Reyes and trying out several campgrounds. The nice thing is that you’re never too far from your car if you need to bail.

What you need to know

  • Make reservations for the campgrounds in Point Reyes in advance as they are very popular.
  • When planning a hike across the beach, make sure to check tide timings.
  • Stay alert for sneaky wildlife that try to get to your food, such as raccoons.
  • For beginners, I suggest camping at Coast Camp as the hike is shorter than the one required to get to Wildcat Camp. Coast Camp is also closer to other attractions like Point Reyes Lighthouse and Elephant Seal Overlook.

Duration: 2-3 days

Best time to go: April to June (open year-round)

Difficulty: Moderate

3. Trans-Catalina Island Trail

Catalina Island Hiking (Two Harbors to Little Harbor) - Backpacking trips in California

Catalina Island is so stunning that it even featured as a default Macbook wallpaper. Did you know that you can hike across this whole island via the Trans-Catalina Island Trail? It is a unique backpacking adventure in Southern California with amazing ocean views. You can even share a campsite with an American Bison!

My first ever camping trip was actually in Catalina Island, and we camped at Little Harbor. It was such an amazing experience hiking a short portion of the Trans-Catalina Island Trail from Two Harbors to Little Harbor. The view of the campsite from our hike was amazing and I told myself that I’ll have to go back for the whole island someday.

The Trans-Catalina Island Trail is relatively beginner friendly as there are options for you to cut the trip short, such as by heading straight to Two Harbors. In addition, you may be able to rent equipment to some sites. For example, we rented a portable stove and bought firewood to be delivered to our campsite while we were at Little Harbor.

What you need to know

  • You will need to take a ferry to Catalina Island from the mainland.
  • Campsite reservations are required. Despite the 2-night minimum requirement in summer for certain sites, it can be waived for those on the Trans-Catalina Island Trail. You’ll need to call Two Harbors Visitor Services at 310 510 4205.
  • A suggested route is to start at Avalon, camp at Black Jack, continue to Little Harbor campground, then Two Harbors campground, then finally Parson’s Landing and back to Two Harbors. This would be a total of 5 days.

Duration: 4-5 days (38.5 miles)

Best time to go: November to March (open year-round)

Difficulty: Moderate

4. Yosemite National Park

Backpacking trips in California - Yosemite National Park
View of the High Sierras from above Yosemite Valley

Yosemite National Park needs no introduction. If you’ve ever been to Yosemite Valley, you’ll know that this is one of the most beautiful places in California. Beyond the granite peaks lie lush meadows, alpine lakes and iconic trails like the John Muir Trail. Yosemite is a backpacking paradise because 95% of it is actually wilderness, and what you see in the valley is just a small part of the landscape.

Popular backpacking trails here include:

  • Hike to Half Dome with an overnight stay at Little Yosemite
  • Tuolumne Meadows to Tenaya Lake
  • High Sierras Camp Loop

What you need to know

  • You definitely need to bring a bear canister and make sure you know all the best practices for keeping wildlife at a distance.
  • Wilderness permits are required for backcountry camping.
  • Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road which lead to higher elevation areas are typically open during the warmer seasons from May to November.

Duration: Varies

Best time to go: July to October (open year-round)

Difficulty: Varies

5. Lake Tahoe Desolation Wilderness

Lake Tahoe - Backpacking trips in California

Discover the pristine beauty of Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe. The trails, often less traveled, lead to alpine lakes and breathtaking vistas. For example, you can spend 3 days and 2 nights camping by Tamarack Lake (zone 41) and Lake Aloha (zone 33). As these lakes are along the Pacific Crest Trail, you’ll get a small glimpse of what it could be like to go thru-hiking.

What you need to know

  • Permits are required for the zone you intend to camp, and these are available 6 months in advance. There are quotas up till October so make sure to reserve your permits early, especially for popular zones.
  • You definitely need to bring a bear canister and make sure you know all the best practices for keeping wildlife at a distance.
  • Make sure to bring crampons/microspikes if you’re hiking in early summer as you might have to hike on compact snow which can be slippery.

Duration: 2-5 days

Best time to go: June to October (open year-round)

Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous

6. Sykes Hot Springs

For a unique backpacking trip, venture to Sykes Hot Springs in the Ventana Wilderness of Big Sur. Sykes Hot Springs is a natural hot spring along the central California coast and requires some effort to get to. The trail you’ll be following is the Pine Ridge Trail which starts from Big Sur Station.

As a reward, you’ll get to check out 3 different pools of hot springs. It does get popular so going on weekdays or early morning is a great idea for getting the hot spring to yourself for a short time. You can also look out for wildlife including salamanders and banana slugs.

What you need to know

  • Most people bring a swimsuit to use the hot spring.
  • Bring cash to pay for parking at Big Sur Station.
  • There are limited amenities along Big Sur, so do prepare anything you need beforehand (such as food from Monterey).
  • You need a permit to use a camp stove.
  • There are several river crossings required, so be mindful if you are hiking after a period of rain.
  • The campsites are on first-come first-served basis with designated occupancy limits. Sykes campground is the most popular as it is close to the hot springs. However if it is full you will need to walk to another campground.

Duration: 2 days (20 miles round trip)

Best time to go: May to October (open year-round)

Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous

7. Big Pine Lakes

The Eastern Sierras are stunning in so many ways. From mountain peaks to alpine lakes, there’s no shortage of backpacking trips in this part of California. One of the items on my California bucket list is definitely to backpack through a few of the lakes in Big Pines.

It’s also possible to do a day hike to the first lake, but why not make it a multi-day trip to explore more of the backcountry. There are actually 7 gorgeous lakes in this region, and it would be really cool to see the Palisades Glacier as well. The second lake famously features a view of Temple Crag, which is a pointy rock structure that makes this place look so unique.

What you need to know

  • Permits are required for the trail, but can be competitive as this is a popular hike. Specifically, this is called Big Pine Creek North Fork. The quota is 25 per day from May to November, of which 15 are available 6 months in advance. The rest are available 2 weeks before.
  • The trailhead sits above 7,000 ft elevation, so you might feel short of breath.
  • You definitely need to bring a bear canister and make sure you know all the best practices for keeping wildlife at a distance.

Duration: 2-3 days (13 miles round trip for 2 lakes)

Best time to go: July to September

Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous

Additional Tips on California Backpacking Trips

  • Before you go, make sure to learn the Leave No Trace principles. You’ll want to know this as it applies to human waste too!
  • It also helps if you have the right camping gear, especially if you’re going somewhere cold or rainy.
  • Although backpacking can be a little daunting, it helps if you go on some tent camping trips in developed campgrounds as a start. After that, try backpacking trips that only involve a short hike to build confidence.
  • Layering is key so that you can remove layers of clothing before you start sweating excessively through them. Sweat tends to make you feel cold once you stop moving, and moisture wicking base layers will help to manage this. Consider getting merino wool base layers as they are great for warmth even when damp from sweat.
  • Pack a set of dry and clean clothes to sleep in.

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