Finding the best hikes in Northern California isn’t too difficult, because there are so many gorgeous trails peppered across the state.

My first bit of research for this post was to do a quick search of the blog for hikes, and it turns out I’ve been on quite a few of them in Northern California.

So get ready to be wowed by some beautiful views, on trails that are not too difficult (some are actually pretty easy), or long.

And if you’re keen on making a day of it, why not check out some San Francisco day trips for even more hiking opportunities!

Best hikes in Northern California

Since I’ve “only” lived here for (almost) five years, I haven’t hit up all the best hikes in Northern California yet.
But there is no shortage of fabulous bloggers out there, who have put their muscles on the line in the pursuit of conquering an epic trail and snapping a beautiful view.

This post kicks off with their favourite trails in Northern California, and then I get to present you with mine.

Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park

Written by Amanda from My Backpacker Life.

If you’re looking for spectacular waterfalls, you can’t go past Yosemite’s Mist Trail. Picture: Amanda, My Backpacker Life.

Location: Yosemite National Park
Length: 1.8 – 6.8 miles (3-11km)
Difficulty: Moderate/difficult

If you’re looking for beautiful hikes in California, you have to visit Yosemite National Park! This park has a lot to offer, but if you’re looking for a day hike with amazing scenery, hiking the Mist Trail is a must. This hike has several different viewpoints, which means you don’t have to do the whole hike to get stunning views.

Two days in Yosemite National Park

The first viewpoint is at Vernal Falls Bridge. From here you’ll get a view of, you guessed it, Vernal Falls. If you turn around here, you’ll get a 3-kilometre (1.8 mile) round trip. If you have the time though, I’d highly recommend to at least hike to Vernal Falls – it’s absolutely magical!

If you’re able, try to hike to the Nevada Falls point, you won’t be disappointed. Picture: Roan Lavery.

If you decide to turn around at Vernal Falls, it’ll be a 5-kilometre (3 miles) round trip. However, if you’re planning on going all the way to the top of Nevada Falls, be prepared for a steep but rewarding hike.

Being so close to the waterfalls while having amazing views over Yosemite makes the Mist trail a must-do when you’re in California!

Pfeiffer Falls Trail, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Written by Kaisa from Glam Granola Travel.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is well known across the world for it’s beautiful coastal views. Picture: Kaisa, Glam Granola Travel.

Location: The trailhead is convenient and centrally located at the Big Sur Lodge parking area on Highway 1.
Length: 1.4 miles (2.25km) round trip (the hike is out-and-back, so it is 0.7 miles each way)
Difficulty: Easy. Pfeiffer Falls trail is pretty much all uphill to the falls, then downhill back.

The elevation gain is only about 400 feet, which is mild. If you want a bit longer of a hike, you can keep going to the Valley View overlook — another half mile uphill past Pfeiffer Falls. I highly recommend this detour, as you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the Coastal Redwood forest. Big Sur is rightly famous for its coastline, but the forest and falls are so special in their own right.

Like most hiking trails around Big Sur, these can close seasonally or due to rain and landslides, so always check with the state park website before you go.

Big Sur is one of the most beautiful spots in California, capturing the hearts of many travelers. This trail will show you the best of the area, from the Coastal Redwood forests and waterfalls to the dramatic moody beaches Northern California is known for.

Mount Whitney Trail, Sequoia National Park

Written by Allison, from She Dreams of Alpine (click to read more about hiking Mt Whitney).

The Mount Whitney Trail is not for the inexperienced hiker. Picture: Allison, She Dreams of Alpine.

Location: Sierra Nevada Range, Sequoia National Park
Length: 22 miles (35km)
Difficulty: Difficult

Mount Whitney is the crown jewel of hiking in Northern California! At 14,505 feet, Mt. Whitney is the tallest peak in the lower 48 states, making it a challenging but rewarding adventure to reach the summit.

The beginning Mount Whitney trail will take you through the John Muir Wilderness. Since you’ll need to get an early start if you’re day hiking, you will be rewarded with some lovely sunrise views.

It’s a long slog, but completely worth the hike. Picture: Alan Carrillo.

After passing several lakes, you’ll head above treeline, and start the serious uphill slog of the 97 switchbacks. While this might feel never-ending, eventually the trail will level out as you approach the summit.

Soon you’ll find yourself on top of Mount Whitney and at the highest point in the contiguous United States.

Because Mount Whitney is such a popular hike, a permit is required. These are distributed through a lottery system, so you’ll need to plan ahead for this hike. But the logistics are totally worth it to stand on the soaring summit of Mount Whitney!

Fern Canyon Trail, Prarie Creek Redwoods State Park

Written by Kelly from The Awkward Tourist

Bring a change of shoes and socks because you’re going to get wet feet. Picture: Kelly, The Awkward Tourist.

Location: Prarie Creek Redwoods State Park
Length: 1.5 miles (2.4km)
Difficulty: Easy

The Fern Canyon hike is located in Prarie Creek Redwoods State Park in Northern California, about an hour and fifteen minutes north of the town of Eureka. From Highway 101, turn west onto Davidson Road.

To get to Fern Canyon, you have to drive 8 miles (13km) on a dirt road with a few stream crossings. You don’t need a 4WD for the road, I drove it in a Saturn station wagon and didn’t have any problems.

The hike itself can be done in either a loop or out-and-back, and it’s only just over a mile with almost no elevation gain. It’s fairly flat the whole time, although a lot of it is along a stream and chances are you’ll get wet! I would wear water shoes or something that’s waterproof. Hiking poles are also a good idea for stability.

The biggest risks posed on the trail are wet, slippery rocks, downed branches and trees, and wet socks. The canyon itself is gorgeous, and is literally a scene out of the movies, as several have been filmed here (including The Lost World)!

The lush greenery and beautiful sounds of clear running water makes this place well-worth the adventure it will be to drive to it. Just make sure you go early to avoid the crowds and have this tranquil oasis to yourself!

Burney Falls Loop Trail, McArthur Burney Falls Memorial State Park

McAurthur Burney Falls is an unmissable stop if you’re a fan of beautiful views and gorgeous waterfalls.

McArthur Burney Falls Memorial State Park
Length: 1 mile (1.6km)
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Don’t get scared off by the “moderate” hike classification here, it’s there because although this is a short loop hike, to get to the falls and back up from them, there are a couple of switchbacks that are steep. So take your time, stop and enjoy the falls on your way back up.
Best time to visit Burney Falls, California
This short nature trail will give you views of one of the most spectacular waterfalls in California, so get ready to be awed. The waterfall is one of the first things you’ll see as you descend at the very beginning of the hike (if you need to skip the hike for some reason, you can still view the falls from the overlook).
The hike will take you to a frootbridge where you’ll cross over Burney Creek, which is fed by the falls, and then down into the valley. You’ll want to bring a light jacket even if you’re visiting in summer, because the temperature does drop noticably along this hike.
You’ll notice some rock slides (not over the trail), oak tees and Douglas firs before you cross back over Burney Creek at the Rainbow Bridge.

Castle Lake Trail, Shasta-Trinity National Forest

While this is a popular hike, you’ll dodge the crowds closer to Mt Shasta.

Location: Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Length: 2.5 miles (4 km)
Difficulty: Moderate
Don’t let the short distance of this out-and-back hike fool you, this hike will get your heart pumping. It is 645 feet (197m) of elevation from the Castle Lake parking lot where you’ll begin, to Little Castle Lake, where you can turn around and enjoy the downhill slope.
Experience Castle Lake Trail's epic views
Apart from that, the trail is rocky and has exposed tree roots in parts, so keep your wits about you, but make sure you stop every now and then to take in your surroundings as well.

The best thing about having to stare at the ground to make sure you’re not going to stumble, is that you don’t miss the wildflowers.

This hike is pretty popular since it is located so close to Mount Shasta, and is dotted with beautiful wildflowers in the spring months. Be warned that you might encounter snow even in the warmer months.
Not only does it give spectacular views of Castle Lake and of Mount Shasta, but you also get a bonus of the beautiful Little Castle Lake at the top as well.

Muir Woods Panoramic Trail, Muir Woods National Monument

The Muir Woods Panoramic Trail gives you a taste of lots of different landscapes.

Location: Muir Woods National Monument
Length: 4.4 miles (7km)
Difficulty: Moderate

This is one of the first “proper” hikes that I did when I moved to San Francisco from Australia way back in 2015. The Panoramic Trail is a loop that gives you a glimpse of both the Muir Woods National Monument and Mount Tamalpais State Park.

A Muir Woods Tour (Redwoods, hikes, and critters!)

So there is some climbing involved – about 1,023 feet (312 metres) of it – and you’re in pioson oak country so stay on the marked trails and try not to touch anything that you’re not sure about. Start at the Redwood Creek Trail, then move onto the Fern Creek Trail, and then the Canopy View Trail, before joining with the Panoramic Trail. From there head onto the Redwood Trail, and the Sun Trail, finally the Dipsea Trail will take you back to the parking lot.

You’ll be able to really marvel at the beauty of the giant coastal redwoods that this part of the world is famous for. But you’ll also be surrounded by ferns, and shrubs, and you’ll finally make your way out of the trees and to a view of the canopy and meadows.

Fern Canyon and Waterfall Trail Loop, Russian Gulch State Park

Think about camping at Russian Gulch State Park if you’re looking for cheap accommodation in Mendocino County. Picture: Mick Haupt.

Location: Russian Gulch State Park
Length: 6.2 miles (10km)
Difficulty: Moderate

Follow the Fern Canyon trail through lush rainforest and towering coastal redwoods to see the waterfall that most people hike this trail to see.

Stunning things to do in Fort Bragg & Mendocino, California

You’ll be climbing about 200 feet (60 metres) of elevation and there are some stairs along the trail, so be prepared for that. The trail eventually splits off – this is where the loop part comes in – so stay to the left.

Soon you’ll come across the waterfall, which either isn’t named at all or my research skills are waning in my old age. The falls drop 36 feet into the bowl below. Take some time here to sit on the benches and enjoy the falls before crossing the bridge and heading back.

Bear Gulch Cave Trail, Pinnacles National Park

Bear Gulch Reservoir is a sight to see on a clear day.

Location: Pinnacles National Park
Length: 2.8 miles (4.5km)
Difficulty: Moderate

This hike is best done in the spring or autumn months because it can get swelteringly hot out at Pinnacles National Park in the summer months. I did this hike in May and it was alrady hotter than I would have liked.

Pinnacles National Park day trip

I’ve suggested that this hike is a moderate one because you’ll be doing some boulder scrambling along the way, and also hiiking through Talus Cave where you’re probably going to get your feet wet. Bring extra shoes and socks for the ride home, and a flashlight because the cave is pretty dark in some spots.

You’ll see lots of rock climbers traversing their way up rocky cliff faces on your hike.

Talus Cave is the home of some protected bats, so sometimes the cave is closed and you’ll have to take an alternative route via the Moses Spring Trail to get to Bear Gulch Reservoir.

I thought the caving portion was lots of fun, and made the hike to the reservoir that much more interesting.

Rodeo Beach Coastal Trail Loop, Marin Headlands

Breathe in that fresh Marin County air and enjoy the views.

Location: Marin Headlands
Length: 4.8 miles (7.7km)
Difficulty: Moderate

The Marin Headlands are where San Franciscans escape to when they want to feel surrounded by nature. The Rodeo Beach Coastal Trail Loop follows the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean and is a great spot to watch the sun rise or set.

Hidden Gems of San Francisco: Hiking Marin Headlands Rodeo Beach

You can bring your dog with you on this hike, which will take you past Fort Kronkite, which was used during World War II, and  Battery Townsley was constructed in 1940, and its two 16-inch caliber guns.

Bicycles are allowed on most trails along Rodeo Beach. I love this hike because of the sweeping views you get once you climb up from Rodeo Beach.

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