Best Thru Hikes in California
April 15, 2020
The first installment of this series will feature California’s best thru-hikes. The sheer amount of hiking opportunities across the state made it tough to narrow this list down.
Although this best-of list is heavy on the Sierra Nevada, there is plenty of camping and hiking opportunity all across the state. Looking to explore the otherworldly landscapes of the desert? Check out Joshua Tree or the Mojave Desert. Looking for some peace and quiet in the mountains? Spend some quality time secluded in Northern California’s Klamath range. Want some salt water with your sand? Maybe hiking down the Lost Coast Trail is for you.
California also contains two-thirds of the Pacific Crest Trail, one of the more popular thru-hikes in the country. In 2019 I hiked a section of the PCT from Cabazon to Cajon Pass. I was forced to stop early with an Achilles injury, but had the time of my life. But I’ll cover that trail along with other interstate National Scenic Trails in another article.
John Muir Trail
Perhaps one of the most scenic thru-hikes in the world, the John Muir Trail runs right down the backbone of the Sierra Nevada. This 211 mile trail has it all, easily making it California’s best thru-hike. At the north terminus is the extraordinary Yosemite National Park. The southern terminus is home to the highest point in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney.
Traditionally, this trail is hiked from south to north starting from the Mount Whitney Portal. But with increased difficulties in getting permits out of the Whitney Portal, most hikers now choose to head southbound. I have hiked most of this trail, including a large chunk two summers ago from Horseshoe Meadow to Le Conte Canyon.
The John Muir Trail passes through three National Parks (Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia), the John Muir and Ansel Adams wildernesses, and Devil’s Postpile National Monument. From the 12,000 ft mountain passes and alpine meadows to the glacial fed lakes and river crossings, the JMT captures the entirety of the Sierra Nevada’s beauty.
High Sierra Trail
The High Sierra Trail is the most iconic trans-sierra trail, running from Crescent Meadow in Sequoia National Park to the Mount Whitney Portal. This 72-mile trail is typically hiked eastbound in less than a week. It crosses over the Kaeah Gap and Great Western Divide before joining the JMT for the final 13 miles.
The initial climb up the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada brings you into an Ansel Adams Picture book. After about 15 miles you will reach the gorgeous Hamilton Lakes Basin and Precipice Lake. Later on, the trail loses no allure after joining up with the John Muir Trail. There’s plenty to see between Wallace Creek and Mount Whitney, including Crabtree Meadow and Guitar Lake.
This is a great alternative to the John Muir Trail, if you’re short on time or resources. One of the toughest parts logistically is arranging transportation back to Kings Canyon. The easiest solution is to leave a car at the Whitney Portal, but that’s not always an option. However, Lone Pine is only a short hitchhike away and offers many amenities.
Lowest To Highest Trail
This trail is quickly climbing to the top of my bucket list. Starting at Badwater Basin and ending on Mount Whitney, this trek takes you from the lowest to the highest point of the United States in only 140 miles. From 282 feet below to 14,505 above sea level, the Lowest to Highest Trail has an impressive elevation profile.
Starting off in the heart of Death Valley National Park makes water and heat the main obstacle of this trail. Strategically placing your own water caches beforehand is crutial for coming out alive.
Combine that with needing to beat the first fall snowstorms in the Eastern Sierra and you have about a two week window to start your hike. Desert temperatures approach 130°F even in late summer months, and it’s not rare to see Mount Whitney summit drops below 0°F in the fall.
Sierra High Route
This beautiful Sierra trail is considered a more rugged alternative to the John Muir Trail. While only 195 miles long, this trail rarely dips below 9,000 feet. Sierra High Route thru-hikes typically start northbound from Road’s End through Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks before ending near Twin Lakes outside Bridgeport.
Although it runs parallel with the John Muir Trail, they only share roughly 28 miles of trail. The High Sierra Route also contains some class-3 rock scrambling and talus field traverses. Because of the rugged terrain, it typically takes longer to complete this trail than the JMT.
Tahoe Rim Trail
Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake and second-deepest lake in the United States. That’s enough reason for me to check out the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail loop around the lake. The western side shares about 50 miles with the Pacific Crest Trail, while the eastern side contains the highest point in Relay Peak(10,338 feet).
While the trail is technically open year-round, it is not marked well for winter use. The optimal hiking season lies between July and September, which is perfect with only two weeks needed to finish the loop. Two of the best starting places are Tahoe City and South Lake Tahoe near Echo Lakes.
Honorable Mention: Trans-Catalina Trail
The often forgotten island off the coast of California, Catalina Island, has a 45 mile trail that takes you from end to end. The best way to arrive is via a 90 minute ferry ride from San Pedro or Newport Beach. This trail is home to the native Catalina Island fox, as well as plenty North America Bison. And don’t forget to keep your eyes on the waters for a Blue Whale sighting.
According to the California Protected Areas Database (CPAD), just under 50% of California’s land is protected. California has such a large and diverse geography that its massive size makes it perfect for long distance trails. So whether you have experience with thru-hikes or are just getting started with backpacking, there’s no shortage of beautiful trails to explore here.