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10 California Backpacking Trips on My Bucket List

Getting this list down to 10 California backpacking trips was tough.

By: Liam McNally + Save to a List

I remember my first backpacking trip in California like it was yesterday. I was working at a summer camp on Fallen Leaf Lake and my day-off crew decided to head up to Aloha Lake to spend the night at the “Waterfall Camp.” We made our way past several smaller alpine lakes, scrambled across giant granite boulders around the edge of the Aloha Lake and set up camp in an oasis surrounded by granite walls overlooking the lake. After an early morning dip, we summited Price and Aggasiz and eventually made our way back down to camp for something like 15 miles round trip.

From the first mile out to finally crashing on my bed in my cabin, all I could think was how long I’d lived in California - about five years at that point - and how many nights I’d spent in the backcountry - a big fat zero. Since then I’ve managed to step my game up a bit, but California is freakin’ huge and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t see all the places I want to in five lifetimes. You gotta start somewhere though, right? I’ve narrowed my to-do list down to these 10 backpacking trips, so take a look and let me know if you have any favorites that I left off.

1. Backpack to Grizzly Lake

Photo: TJ Orton

The Shasta-Trinity National Forest is a name I’ve heard thrown around over and over. With the promise of this jaw-dropping waterfall and as a guy who likes to pretend that he can fly-fish, this one was an easy pick for me. Learn more.

2. Backpack the Lost Coast

Photo: Whitney Whitehouse

I can’t think of a lot of places more rugged than the Northern California Coast and who doesn’t love waking up to the sounds of crashing waves? Learn more.

3. Backpack in Redwood National and State Park

Photo: Austin Trigg

In the last couple years living in San Francisco I’ve gained a love of surfing (surfing in my case means getting my ass handed to me at Ocean Beach) and a love of Redwoods (Muir Woods is less than an hour from my house). This trip combines them both so naturally, I gotta do it. Learn more.

4. Backpack to the Ventana Wilderness Sykes Hot Spring

Photo: Blake Maitoza

I love hot springs. Who doesn’t? Especially after a 10 mile hike in, I can’t imagine a better way to end the day. The pools only comfortably fit about 5 people, so I’m tabling this one until the fall or winter when the crowds will die down. Learn more.

5. Camp at Glacier Point

Photo: Sarah Vaughn

You gotta be in the right place at the right time to set up camp at Glacier Point. This is typically a pretty crowded lookout spot that doesn’t allow camping, but if you come in the shoulder season on a dry year you can wake up to one of the most iconic views in California. Learn more.

6. Backpack the Full John Muir Trail

Photo: Bo Baumgartner

The mountains are calling and all that good stuff. Call me soft but I don’t know if I’ve got a full Pacific Crest Trail trek in me and the JMT covers 160 miles of the PCT so that basically counts, right? Learn more.

7. Backpack the Rae Lakes Loop

Photo: Kevin Kaminski

This trail runs through both Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, two parks I have yet to visit but have heard only great things. Learn more.

8. Backpack to Duck Lake

Photo: Sierra Joy

Just the other day I drove into the Mammoth Lakes area for the first time and was blown away by the scenery. I’ll be tackling one of my California hiking bucket list items on this trip (Mt. Whitney) but I know I’ll need to come back and spend a night in the Mammoth backcountry. Learn more.

9. Beach Camp on Santa Rosa Island

Photo: Michael Wigle

I’ve explored very little of Southern California. Most of my time in that part of the state has revolved around eating donuts and drinking beers in Newport Beach. Santa Rosa Island looks like a good spot to crack open a beer I actually earned with a long hike in. Learn more.

10. Backpack to the “Waterfall Camp” in Desolation Wilderness

Photo: Jake Young

Yeah, I know this is the trip I mentioned above. My first backpacking trip in California was one of those trips where before it was over, I knew I’d have to come back and I’m sure I will. Learn more.

Cover photo: Whitney Whitehouse

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We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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