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Snow-covered mountains. Rushing waterfalls. Secluded beaches. Otherwordly desert landscapes. If this description of Southern California surprises you, it’s time to head out and explore!
Stretching from just north of Los Angeles all the way south to the border of Mexico, the vastness of Southern California includes multiple mountain ranges, a series of islands that double as an overlooked National Park, and a huge expanse of colorful desert.
Although Lia’s lived in California for a decade – and Jeremy for over three decades – we’re woefully unfamiliar with Southern California. So, we tapped a local to create this guide to the best hikes in Southern California! Our contributing writer Mimi has lived and hiked all over SoCal. Take it away, Mimi!
Psst: Looking for more outdoor adventures in California? Take a look at some of our other posts:
We’ve also got a ton of borrposts to help you explore California. Take a look at our favorites below or browse them all!
The Best Hikes in Southern California
Joshua Trees, pristine beaches, and mountain climbs: there’s a lot that Southern California has to offer, from Disneyland to major cities like Los Angeles and San Diego.
But its natural beauty, dusty scenery, and outdoorsy communities are really what make it such a special part of California.
And one of the best ways to experience the region’s stunning deserts, palm trees, and coastal views is by hitting the trails.
Southern California is known for its hot, dry climate and near-perfect year-round weather (minus maybe its deserts that get scorching in the summer).
It might not have the cool redwoods forest hikes that you’ll find in Northern California, but Southern California hikes are a different kind of impressive.
Whether you’re looking for good views at the top of a mountain, cacti explorations, or breezy coastal walks next to the ocean, the hiking in Southern California is diverse, scenic, and one-of-a-kind.
After living in the region for five years, these are my picks for the top day hikes in Southern California to get out in nature and really see just how beautiful California can be.
Borrego Palm Canyon Loop, Anza Borrego State Park
- Miles: 3 | Elevation Gain: 462 ft | Guide
COVID-19 Update (as of 6/16/2020): Anza Borrego State Park is currently open with limited parking. All campsites still remain closed. This post will be updated once that changes.
An often overlooked state park, Anza Borrego is one of the most beautiful and underrated places to go hiking near San Diego.
Located within the stunning Colorado Desert and only about a two-hour drive from San Diego, the rugged terrain found within the park and its trails can best be described as otherworldly.
The Borrego Palm Canyon Loop is a relatively easy and quick hike that takes you through the San Ysidro Mountains, past various types of cacti and desert brush, to an oasis in the middle of the canyon.
This trail is a little more rugged than a standard walk through the desert with parts of the hike that require scrambling over rocks. Towards the end, you’ll reach a shady fan palm oasis, and a little further on a seasonal waterfall that usually pops up in the spring.
The Borrego Palm Canyon Loop is a fun day hike from San Diego, or a good intro hike to exploring Anza Borrego State Park if you plan to stay in the area longer.
If you’re craving good views, once you get back to the trailhead at Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, you can hop on the short 1-mile Panoramic Overlook Trail that leaves from the same area. This short out-and-back trail will give you a nice scenic view over Borrego Palm Canyon, and it’s a great way to end a few hours of hiking in the desert.
- Hiking tip: The trail is located in the middle of the desert so it’s recommended to only hike it between October and May. Summer temperatures at the park are scorching and not the best to hike in.
Brush Canyon Trail, Griffith Park
Miles: 6.5 | Elevation: 1,050 ft | Guide
COVID-19 Update (as of 6/16/2020): Some parts of Griffith Park are still closed but The Brush Canyon Trail is open.
One of the top activities to do in Los Angeles, hiking to the Hollywood Sign via the Brush Canyon Trail is an iconic way to spend an afternoon in LA. There are numerous hikes you can tackle to get up to the Hollywood Sign, but the Brush Canyon Trail is by far the most popular choice.
The trail is a moderate and steady climb of 1,050 ft to the back of the Hollywood Sign on the peak of Mount Lee. Along the way, you’ll have sprawling views of Los Angeles behind you and the Hollywood Sign in front of you – it doesn’t get much more LA than that!
And once you reach the top of the 1,700-foot mountain, you’ll be rewarded with even more views of the Griffith Observatory, Lake Hollywood Reservoir, Dodger Stadium, and the Santa Monica Mountains in the distance – as well as the back of the Hollywood Sign for that perfect Instagram-worthy shot.
Minus the very beginning of the hike, the trail is mostly unshaded and it can get very hot so it’s best to hike early in the day or just before sunset.
- Hiking tip: If you park at Griffith Park, the gates close right at sunset. This means you’ll have to leave before the sun goes down if you don’t want to have to call a park employee to let you out. So if you plan to hike up to the Hollywood Sign for sunset, make sure to park outside of Griffith Park to avoid being locked in. This will add an extra half mile onto your hike, but it’s worth it if you want to catch a stunning sunset from the Hollywood Sign! Bring a flashlight or headlamp with you for the hike down and wait until it gets dark to see the lights of Los Angeles at night from one of the best vantage points in the city.
Solstice Canyon Trail, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
- Miles: 3.2 | Elevation Gain: 300-797 ft | Guide
COVID-19 Update (as of 6/16/2020): The Solstice Canyon Trail is currently open, as well as parking lots and restrooms. Visitor centers remained closed.
Malibu has a lot of great hikes, but a local favorite is the Solstice Canyon Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. This is one of the most beautiful hikes in Southern California that features a lush canyon, some shade (a rarity for Southern California hikes), and a small waterfall.
The trail almost has a tropical feel to it, which is a nice change from the usual dusty hikes in the region!
This trail is relatively flat, and can even be walked in just a pair of comfortable sneakers as opposed to hiking boots. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see locals walking the trail in flip flops.
One thing to note is if you’re looking for less of an elevation change, you should stick to the counterclockwise direction (head left at the trailhead). This way, you can do an out-and-back hike where you turn around and walk back the way you came once you reach the waterfall. The full loop includes more of an elevation change on the way back if you continue on from the waterfall.
Besides the waterfall (best seen during the spring), the other highlight of the hike are the ruins of Roberts Ranch House. The house was originally designed by Paul Williams in 1952 as a relaxing retreat in the canyon, but it was burned down by wildfires in the 1980s. Today, you can still see the outline of the pool and a few features of the house that are now overgrown with flora.
If you’re looking for a full day of hiking, there are various other trails that go through Solstice Canyon that are around 3-4 miles long. These are good to add on if you’re looking for a longer day of hiking in Malibu.
- Hiking tip: This area is unfortunately a common spot for wildfires. The most recent one to hit the canyon hard with the Woolsey Fire in November 2018. The Solstice Canyon Trail has since reopened and it’s mostly back to its beautiful natural state. With that said, it’s good to check conditions and wildfire warnings ahead of time if you want to hike here, especially in the summer when wildfires happen more regularly.
Yucca Point Trail, Torrey Pines State Reserve
- Miles: 1.25 | Elevation Gain: 190 ft | Guide: Link
COVID-19 Update (as of 6/16/2020): Torrey Pines State Reserve is currently closed. This post will be updated once that changes.
You can’t find a much more scenic hike than the Yucca Point Trail at Torrey Pines State Reserve. This beachside trail takes you on an easy jaunt along the golden cliffs of Torrey Pines and down to the beach for a sandy afternoon near the water.
The reserve is just north of La Jolla in Northern San Diego County, and features 2,000 acres of coastal views, sunshine, and desert flora and fauna. It’s also home to one of the rarest trees in the world – the Torrey Pine Tree.
There are a few different trails at Torrey Pines State Reserve, but I especially like hiking the Yucca Point Trail because it’s the only one with beach access.
If you’re looking for a longer hike, first tackle one of the reserve’s loop hikes like The Guy Fleming Trail (0.6 miles) or the Razor Point Trail (1.2 miles) before jumping on the Yucca Point Trail down to the beach.
- Hiking Tip: This is one of the most popular hikes in San Diego, so plan to get to the reserve early if you want to avoid the crowds, especially during the summer. All parking at the reserve is paid parking ($12-$15 depending on the season). If you don’t want to pay for parking, there’s free parking along North Torrey Pines Road near Torrey Pines State Beach, which is about a 10-15 minute walk from the reserve.
Cowles Mountain Hike, Mission Trails Regional Park
Miles: 3 | Elevation Gain: 908 ft | Guide
A popular mountain hike near San Diego, the Cowles Mountain hike is a short but steady climb to the highest point in the city of San Diego at 1,593 feet. Your calves and thighs will definitely be feeling it after this hike, but the views at the top are well worth the workout.
From the summit, you’ll be able to see Lake Murray, most of San Diego County, and even Mexico on a clear day.
Similar to many Southern California hikes, the Cowles Mountain hike doesn’t have any shade, so make sure to stay hydrated and wear a hat!
- Hiking Tip: Because this hike is more inland from the coast, near El Cajon, it gets very hot and dusty in the middle of the day. Plan to hike either in the early morning or right around sunset for slightly cooler temperatures and a more pleasant hike.
Mount Woodson Trail, Poway
- Miles: 6.4 | Elevation Gain: 2,106 ft | Guide
One of the most popular things to do near San Diego for locals and tourists alike is hike the Mount Woodson Trail, known more fondly as the Potato Chip Rock Hike. The most well-known feature of this hike is reaching Potato Chip Rock, which, as the name suggests, is a rock that looks like a thin potato chip.
In order to get onto the rock, you have to be okay with making a slightly scary leap. But once you do, you’ll be able to take all the Lion King poses or yoga tree poses your heart desires. It goes without saying, but this is by far one of the most popular Instagram spots in San Diego County!
In addition to its most popular feature, the Mount Woodson Trail takes you through chaparral and granite boulders on your way to the tallest peak in the area. At the top, you’ll get stunning views looking out over Palomar Mountain, Lake Poway, and the Pacific Ocean in the distance.
- Hiking tip: Because of its popularity, this hike is much more strenuous than most people realize. The elevation change is intense right from the beginning and it’s pretty much all uphill for the first half of the hike, so be prepared to work your calves! There’s very little shade throughout the whole hike and Poway is hot, so always bring a hat, plenty of water, and sunscreen. There are also no restrooms at the trailhead, so use the bathroom before you set out on your hike.
Ryan Mountain Trail, Joshua Tree National Park
- Miles: 3 | Elevation Gain: 1,069 ft | Guide
One of Joshua Tree’s most popular hikes, the Ryan Mountain Trail is the perfect balance of good views and a decent workout. The trail is a fairly short and straight-forward out-and-back hike, but the real challenge comes in the steep elevation change of 1,069 feet in a mere 1.5 miles.
At the summit, you’ll have a bird’s eye view of Joshua Tree from above, including the park’s rare rock formations, Joshua Trees, and the ruins of ranches and mines down below.
If you’re visiting Joshua Tree for the first time, this can be a good hike to start with to get your bearings in the park. The 360-degree panoramic view of Joshua Tree from the summit gives you a good overview of the landscape and the main highlights the park has to offer.
Similar to other desert hikes in Southern California, it’s recommended to only hike up Ryan Mountain between October and May because of soaring temperatures in the summer. The spring is also an especially good time to hike Ryan Mountain due to the abundance of seasonal wildflowers!
- Hiking tip: Although the trail may seem short at only three miles, the climb to the top is definitely a workout and a somewhat strenuous hike, especially since it’s completely unshaded. Give yourself at a minimum an hour and a half to do the full hike.
Smuggler’s Cove Trail, Channel Islands National Park
- Miles: 7.7 | Elevation Gain: 1,400 ft | Guide
COVID-19 Update (as of 6/16/2020): Channel Islands National Park is currently open and boat transportation is running again, although at limited capacity.
One of the most overlooked national parks in California, the Channel Islands located off the coast of Ventura/Oxnard are an outdoor paradise for the adventurous hiker.
There are five islands that make up the national park, but one of the best for hiking is Santa Cruz Island.
On Santa Cruz Island, there are a total of 15 hiking trails, but the Smuggler’s Cove Trail is by far the most popular and scenic hike on the island. To get to Scorpion Anchorage and the start of the hike, you’ll need to take an hour-long ferry from Ventura – keep an eye out for bottlenose dolphins!
Starting from Scorpion Anchorage and ending at Smuggler’s Cove, this 7.7-mile hike takes you past diverse ecosystems and highlights some of the unique nature that makes the Channel Islands such a special place. Along the way, you’ll enjoy views of the ocean, rocky cliffs, and Ventura and Santa Barbara in the distance.
Once you get to Smuggler’s Cove, you can enjoy a nice picnic lunch on the beach before heading back the way you came.
Although this is the Channel Island’s most popular hike, you often won’t come across more than a handful of people on the hike (it really is that underrated). So if you’re looking for a secluded island hike in Southern California, this is one of the best ones to do.
- Hiking tip: Once you off-board your ferry, relax in the shade and fill up on water at Scorpion Ranch before getting on the trail. Once you start the hike, there will be little shade and no water along the route.
El Moro Canyon Loop Trail, Crystal Cove State Park
- Miles: 5 | Elevation: 807 ft | Guide
COVID-19 Update (as of 6/16/2020): Crystal Cove State Park is currently open, including parking lots, the beach, and all hiking trails.
In Laguna Beach, you’ll find one of the most beautiful coastal parks in California: Crystal Cove State Park. And one of the best ways to see some of the 24,000 acres of wilderness in the park is by hitting the El Moro Canyon Loop Trail.
This moderate trail takes you from the coast, through El Moro Canyon, and up to Moro Ridge for some of the best coastal views in the area. There are some steep inclines as you make your way to the top, but along the way you’ll be treated to a colorful display of wildflowers (in the spring), grassy hills, oak trees, willow trees, and glimpses of the ocean.
Once you’re done climbing down from the ridge, head to Crystal Cove State Beach to lay out near the water and enjoy the perfect weather of Orange County. There are tide pools and scenic coves to explore nearby as well.
One thing to note is that Crystal Cove State Park gets very busy in the summer and on weekends. If you’re going during peak times, parking can be difficult. Go early in the day or on a weekday to avoid the crowds and to have more solitude on your hike.
Hiking tip: Watch out for rattlesnakes along the hike. They’re commonly found in the shrubbery around the trail and even on the trail sometimes, so stay on the path and be mindful as you hike.
Mt Baldy Hike, Angeles National Forest
- Miles: 11 | Elevation: 3,990 ft | Guide
COVID-19 Update (as of 6/16/2020): Angeles National Forest is currently open, but campgrounds remain closed as well as some restrooms.
There is a giant, snow-covered mountain peak rising above the Los Angeles skyline. You’d be forgiven if you didn’t realize this, as on most days, Mount Baldy is obscured in the city’s ever-present smog.
Mount Baldy is the highest point in Los Angeles County at 10,064 feet. Accessing the summit will give you miles of views – from the ocean to the desert – on a clear day. Climbing almost 4,000 feet in elevation over 11 miles isn’t an easy feat, but if you’re looking for an all-day hike near Los Angeles, it’s well worth the journey.
For those who are looking for a serious hike, one of the more difficult hikes in Southern California is hiking Mount Baldy on the Devil’s Backbone Trail and the Baldy Bowl Trail.
Hiking Mount Baldy, also known as Mount San Antonio, is a rite of passage for any outdoorsy Los Angeles local and anyone looking for a hiking adventure near the city. Because it’s such a popular hike in the Los Angeles area, it’s best to leave at sunrise or tackle it on a weekday when there are fewer crowds.
The hike is conveniently located in Angeles National Forest and San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, about an hour outside of Los Angeles proper (and still in Los Angeles county because LA is sprawling, to say the least).
Also, if you’re looking for a difficult but manageable mountain hike, Mt Baldy is a good one to start with. In fact, it’s a popular training hike for those who want to eventually hike Mount Whitney and other more intense peaks in California and beyond.
There are numerous trails to get up to the summit of Mt Baldy. I recommend starting on the scenic Devil’s Backbone Trail from Manker Campground and then coming back down on Baldy Bowl Trail for a nice 11-mile loop.
- Hiking tip: Hikers die every winter up on the Mt Baldy trails. If you’re not comfortable and experienced with crampons and hiking a mountain in the snow, please only hike this trail in the summer to early fall (June-Oct).
Day Hiking Essentials for Southern California
Before you hit the hiking trails in Southern California, there are a few things to be aware of Southern California is hot and sunny, and it’s important to be prepared – heat and sunstroke are no joke!
Packing these essentials will help keep you safer, as will paying attention to the weather forecast before your trip. Hiking between October and May is the best time to take advantage of cooler weather as well as enjoy waterfalls, wildflowers and greenery from California’s seasonal winter rains!
- Hydration Daypack: When you’re hiking in the dry desert heat of Southern California, it’s worth it to pack extra water for day hikes. Dehydration is a common problem, especially if you’re not used to the dry heat of California deserts. Carry a comfortable hydration daypack filled with at least 100oz of water and sip from it frequently!
- Hiking Shoes: Having proper footwear when you’re climbing over boulders or avoiding cacti needles is key. Make sure you have a solid pair of hiking shoes, like trail runners, or boots will help you on rough terrain and to get more grip on dusty trails.
- Hiking Clothes: Although Southern California tends to be mostly hot year-round, parts of the coast can also be cool and breezy – particularly mountain summits. Depending on where you’re hiking, it’s important to have breathable layers that keep you cool, warm, and comfortable.
- Hat / Sunscreen / Sun Shirt / Sunglasses: Southern California weather is gorgeous but it can also be very HOT! Make sure you have the proper gear to protect you from the harsh sun rays, like a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses, and consider wearing a lightweight, longsleeved white shirt. It’s also usually good to avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day – or for some of these trails at the height of summer – to protect yourself from heatstroke, which is a very real thing in Southern California. If you’re prone to bad sunburns like me, it’s also worthwhile to make sure you have aloe vera or some sort of after sun care handy as well.
- Snacks: Regardless if you’re hiking for a few hours or a whole day, it’s good to bring snacks with you to keep your energy up on the trail. Plus, you never know what might happen. In case you get lost, it’s important to have some sustenance to keep you going longer than you originally planned. Look for snacks that are heat-proof and will keep you full and energized, like dried fruit, energy bars, peanut butter pretzels, or beef jerky. Just be sure to pack out all of your trash!
- Headlamps / Flashlight: Many of these hikes, especially up to beautiful viewpoints are stunning at sunset. This also means that it’s worthwhile to bring a headlamp or flashlight for when you’re coming back down the trail. And even if you don’t plan on doing a sunset hike, hikes sometimes take longer than expected or you might get slightly lost. A flashlight or headlamp is lightweight and easy to throw in your pack just in case.
- Trekking Poles: It’s good to have a solid pair of trekking poles for those strenuous inclines and, most importantly, declines if you’re tackling one of the many mountain hikes in Southern California.
- First Aid Kit: It pays to be prepared! It’s SO important to hike with a small first-aid kit just in case you run into trouble on the trail, or you find another hiker who has been injured. This is another thing that’s easy to throw in your pack and makes all the difference if you end up needing to use it.
- Compass: Just in case you’re sometimes directionally-challenged (is that just me?), your phone doesn’t have service, or you need some help finding the trail again if you go off track.
- Hand Sanitizer / Face Mask: These days, it’s more important than ever to sanitize and stay safe on the trails. In California, it’s currently required statewide to wear a mask when you’re within six feet of another person who’s not in your household.
Contributor Bio: Mimi McFadden is a travel blogger, avid hiker, and paneer enthusiast. Originally from California, she has been slow traveling the world and blogging since 2013. After living abroad for five years in Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Greece, and Portugal she has finally found a home in San Francisco, California. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, and her blog, The Atlas Heart.
Ready to lace up your hiking boots, slather on some sunscreen and hit the trails? Which Southern California hiking trail is at the top of your list? Drop us a comment below!
Psst: Looking for more places to go hiking in California? Check out some of our other posts!
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