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The ultimate backpacking bucket list for California

Wilderness as far as the eye can see.

By: The Outbound Collective + Save to a List

Did you know that California is home to over 14 million acres of wilderness. You read that correctly. Over 14 million! Even the most driven explorer with all the time in the world couldn’t hike every trail in California in a single lifetime. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try. If you’re able to carve out the time for one of the classic thru hikes like the JMT or the PCT, then get after it! For those of you who can only make time for a long weekend trip, this list of 50 backpacking trips in California is just what you need to fuel your next adventure to the backcountry.

Northern California

From the rugged Pacific coast to the dense redwood forests to the summit of Mt. Shasta, Northern California has no shortage of diverse backcountry terrain. Tackle the Lost Coast or spend a couple days relaxing in Redwood National and State Parks...you can’t go wrong.

1. Backpack Devil’s Punchbowl, Six Rivers National Forest

Photo: Joshua Contois

8.33-mile out-and-back with about 1660 feet of elevation gain

This adventure offers spectacular views of the rugged Siskiyou mountain range. The range is considered one of the most biodiverse coniferous forests in the world. Plus, you’ll get to pass by a breathtakingly blue glacial lake in the mountains known as Devil’s Punchbowl.

2. Climb Mt. Shasta via Clear Creek Route

Photo: Daniel Sherman

11.43-mile out-and-back with nearly 7615 feet of elevation gain 

At a high elevation, this adventure has potential for snow activities like skiing, snowboarding, and glissading. The hike begins with a tall red fir forest. There are plenty of camping areas along the way if you choose to make this an overnighter.

3. Hike to Etna Mountain Summit

Photo: Greg Balkin

6-mile out-and-back with about 800 feet of elevation gain

Make your way to the summit and be rewarded by incredible sunrises and sunsets. At the top, you’ll also delight in a pristine Mt. Shasta backdrop. The final stretch of the hike requires some rock scrambling, but the views are well worth it as well as the solitude.

4. Backpack the Sky High Lakes in the Marble Monutains

Photo: Chaney Swiney

11.88-mile out-and-back with approximately 2070 feet of elevation gain

You might be surprised by the handful of scenic lakes that sit in the Marble Mountains. You'll also be surrounded by forests and caves (unmarked). Dive right into the wilderness and explore the geologically diverse range of peaks and ridges on this hike.

5. Backpack Redwood National and State Parks

Photo: Austin Trigg

4.41-mile loop with about 1043 feet of elevation gain 

This adventure offers the unique opportunity to view and explore some of the tallest trees in the world. And far away from light pollution, the area is the perfect spot for some amazing night photography. There are campsites along the creek for you and some buddies to spend the night.

6. Backpack to Canyon Creek Lakes

Photo: Dan Loch

14.35-mile out-and-back with roughly 2605 feet of elevation gain

Look no further if you’ve been craving exploration in some of the most wild and pristine terrain in the West. Trinity Alps boasts over 55 alpine lakes and an abundance of additional rivers, streams, creeks, swimming holes, and camping spots. Note: Wilderness Permits are required, but are free and can be obtained at any of the ranger stations.

7. Backpack the Lost Coast: Mattole to Black Sands Beach

Photo: Whitney Whitehouse

A 25.05-mile point-to-point with about 653 feet of elevation gain 

This is an extensive stretch of Northern California’s coastline that does not disappoint with its spectacular coastal vistas. There are campsites and easy access points to the water along the way.

8. Backpack the Stuart Fork Trail to Emerald and Sapphire Lakes

Photo: Joshua Contois

27.06-mile out-and-back hike with approximately 4213 feet of elevation gain

This adventure takes you through pristine Northern California wilderness. You’ll find excellent fishing opportunities, an abundance of wildlife, and beautiful wildflowers in bloom during the warmer months.

Bay Area

Living around the Bay Area is ideal for anyone who wants to live a city life but needs to have quick access to the wild. You can drive anywhere from 1-3 hours from San Francisco and find some truly stunning landscapes. Beach camping, epic summits, and more redwoods await.

9. Backpack to King’s Peak from Shelter Cove

Photo: Aja Pete

30.85-mile loop with nearly 6204 feet of elevation gain

Follow the coastline on this gorgeous hike and camp overnight at Buck Creek. Note that parts of the beach may be impassable at high tide, so time your travels appropriately. Find peace among the sounds of rushing mountain streams and the crashing ocean. You may also get the chance to view otter pups playing in the water!

10. Backpack to Pt. Reyes Coast Campground

Photo: Josiah Roe

4.02-mile out-and-back hike with roughly 633 feet of elevation gain

This is a great hike for ocean lovers. You can spend the night above the coast of Pt. Reyes and later make your way down to the beach and tide pools below.

11. Backpack the Glen Camp Loop via the Palomarin Trailhead

Photo: Jeff Driscoll

15.72-mile loop with approximately 3091 feet of elevation gain 

This is the perfect coastal and lush green forest adventure, featuring steep hillsides, gorgeous overlooks, and mountainous terrain.

12. Backpack to Point Reyes Wildcat Camp

Photo: Miranda Leconte

11.19-mile out-and-back with about 1926 feet of elevation gain

This is an ideal backpacking trip to camp out on a wide open meadow situated on a bluff overlooking breathtakingly blue ocean water. Note that permits are required. You’ll also need to make a reservation if you want to spend the night at the Wildcat Camp.

13. Backpack Sam McDonald Park

Photo: Ashley Chang

12.19-mile loop with nearly 2192 feet of elevation gain 

This is a great escape into Sam McDonald Park’s redwood forest-- just a quick drive from San Francisco. You’ll need a permit to stay overnight, which you can obtain from the ranger station. Find peace grounded in nature on this forest adventure.

14. Backpack the Bear Valley to Coast Camp Loop

Photo: Jeff Driscoll

16.18-mile loop with roughly 2818 feet of elevation gain

This is a great adventure for camping enthusiasts who want to spend time among stunning coastal mountains and meadows. If you plan on staying overnight, note that having a permit is required. Keep your eyes peeled for whales just off the coast during the Humpback Whale migration season!

15. Backcountry Camp at Big Basin Sunset Trail Camp

Photo: Christian Arballo

9.46-mile out-and-back with about 2146 feet of elevation gain

This is a beautiful cascading waterfall adventure where you can wander among redwoods and across creeks. Note that Big Basin’s backpacking sites are only open from May 1st to November 1st, so be sure to plan accordingly.

16. Backpack to Redfern Pond

Photo: Ashley Chang

7-mile out-and-back with approximately 1263 feet of elevation gain 

This adventure in Gilroy, California is open year-round with thousands of acres of wide open grassy land to explore. There are a number of well-marked trails to set foot on for all skill levels to enjoy. Permits are required.

17. Backpack to Pat Springs

Photo: Max Berger

13.18-mile out-and-back with about 3645 feet of elevation gain

This is a beautiful adventure into the rugged Ventana Wilderness that features campsites overlooking Big Sur and the San Lucia Mountains. Pack ample water, especially if you plan on camping.

18. Backpack the Pine Ridge in Big Sur, North Coast Ridge Loop

Photo: Chris Diantonio

33.45-mile loop with nearly 11388 feet of elevation gain

This is a longer adventure that will give you the opportunity to spend several or more days in the Ventana Wilderness section of Los Padres National Forest located in Big Sur, California. This trip features primitive camping sites, ample water sources, and incredible coastal ridge line views.

19. Backpack to the Ventana Wilderness’ Sykes Hot Springs

Photo: Blake Maitoza

18.96-mile out-and-back with about 7339 feet of elevation gain

This adventure features hot springs situated adjacent to the Big Sur River. Visit in the off-season for more seclusion.

20. Climb Cone Peak in Big Sur, Sea to Sky Route

Photo: Josiah Roe

19.72-mile out-and-back with roughly 7484 feet of elevation gain

Located in Big Sur, California, this adventure is less than 3 miles from the ocean, offering spectacular seaside views. You can also camp near an old fire lookout at the summit to extend your time taking in the surreal scenery.

21. Backpack to Goat Camp in Big Sur

Photo: Andrew Conway

8.03-mile out-and-back with approximately 3320 feet of elevation gain

Take in the immaculate beauty of Big Sur with fewer crowds on this lesser-known trail. Though steep on the way up, the ocean views are a great reward.

The Sierra Mountains

The mighty Sierra are a major draw for people around the world. Early explorers like John Muir and Ansel Adams had obsessions with these mountains and made them famous with their writing and photos. But even the best writers and photographers can’t do these mountains justice...you need to see them for yourself.

22. Backpack to Ropi Lake

Photo: Emily Kent

4.87-mile out-and-back with about 1581 feet of elevation gain

Take an adventure to the serene and secluded Ropi Lake. On the way, you’ll pass by incredible waterfalls with Pyramid Peak providing a top-notch backdrop in the distance.

23. Backpack to Leavitt Lake in Stanislaus National Forest

Photo: Jake Young

7.44-mile out-and-back with nearly 1385 feet of elevation gain

Located on the eastern edge of the Emigrant Wilderness, Levitt Lake is an ideal backpacking opportunity in the Sierra Nevadas. The lake is a great spot for fishing with potential to catch species like brook and rainbow trout.

24. Backpack to the Waterfall Camp in Desolation Wilderness

Photo: Jake Young

10.5-mile out-and-back with about 840 feet of elevation gain

This is a breathtaking adventure in Desolation Wilderness featuring over 50 waterfalls! Do this as a day hike or choose to camp overnight. Note that an overnight wilderness permit is required and can be obtained at one of the ranger stations.

25. Backpack to Middle Velma Lake

Photo: Christian Arballo

9.18-mile out-and-back with roughly 2251 feet of elevation gain

Located in the heart of Desolation Wilderness, Middle Velma Lake is the perfect backpacking trip for some solitude and fantastic views of Jakes Peak. It’s a great escape from the usual crowds of South Tahoe.

26. Backpack to Susie Lake in Desolation Wilderness

Photo: Miranda Leconte

7.96-mile out-and-back with approximately 1496 feet of elevation gain

This adventure is located in Tahoe, California and features forest, lakes, the Old Glen Alpine Springs Historical Site, and breathtaking mountain views.

27. Backpack to Gilmore Lake in Desolation Wilderness

Photo: Jake Young

8.66-mile out-and-back with about 1919 feet of elevation gain

In Desolation Wilderness, soak in the beauty of a stunning alpine lake. Along the way, you’ll also get the chance to see Modjeska Falls, Soda Springs, and the historic Glen Alpine Resort built in 1884.

28. Hike and Climb to Mt. Conness

Photo: Alex Souza

19.03-mile out-and-back with roughly 5400 feet of elevation gain

This is a great adventure for the opportunity to see a series of beautiful small lakes situated among mammoth granite canyon walls. It also features panoramic views of the High Sierras– not a bad place to wake up if you plan on making this a multi-day camping trip!

29. Backpack to Vogelsang and Merced Lake High Sierras Camp

Photo: Julie & Brian

27.07-mile point-to-point with about 4596 feet of elevation gain 

Explore the remote high country of Yosemite. Get excited for the unique opportunity to glamp in the mountains at the High Sierra Camps! Right in the secluded wilderness, you’ll be treated with perks like a bed to sleep in and breakfast ready for you in the morning. Note that reservations for the camp are made through a lottery system.

30. Backpack Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley

Photo: Kevin Abernethy

 30.82-mile point-to-point with approximately 6109 feet of elevation gain

Though a long expedition, the work you put in will be well worth it. Along the way, you’ll see several iconic Yosemite landmarks in the secluded backcountry. This is a truly incredible route with stunning scenery at every turn, part of the historic John Muir Trail. This adventure is nothing short of spectacular and a huge accomplishment.

31. Backpack Cathedral Lakes

Photo: Addison Klinke

9.04-mile out-and-back with about 1100 feet of elevation gain

Experience captivating views of Cathedral peak, lush green meadows, and a high alpine lake. It’s a true nature lover's paradise.

32. Backpack atop Donohue Pass

Photo: Alex Souza

27.56-mile out-and-back with nearly 2953 feet of elevation gain

This adventure allows you to take in sweeping views across the Eastern Sierra all the way down through Lyell Canyon. Spend the night above the tree line and enjoy some spectacular star gazing.

33. Backpack Lower & Upper Relief Valleys and the East Flange Rock

Photo: Josiah Roe

21.6-mile out-and-back with about 3600 feet of elevation gain

Take a trip into Yosemite’s backcountry to explore stunning alpine lakes and peaks like Granite Dome and the East Flange Rock. This is a great adventure for those looking to escape some of Yosemite’s typical crowds.

34. Backpack Sunrise Lakes to Clouds Rest

Photo: Nathaniel Polta

18.93-mile loop with roughly 1775 feet of elevation gain

Do this epic hike for 360 degree views of both Yosemite Valley and Little Yosemite Valley from Clouds Rest. You’ll also be able to see the iconic Half Dome. Be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks for ample energy on this longer expedition.

35. Backpack to Duck Lake

Photo: Sierra Joy

9.29-mile out-and-back with approximately 1880 feet of elevation gain

This is a breathtaking adventure with lakeside camping and swimming opportunities in clear waters. This trek also features beautiful wildflowers, patches of forest, and extensive peak views. Note that to stay overnight you will need a backcountry permit.

36. Backpack Agnew Meadows to Tuolumne Meadows

Photo: Jeff Driscoll

30.14-mile point-to-point with roughly 4593 feet of elevation gain

This hike between Mammoth Lakes and Yosemite is part of a famous stretch of the John Muir Trail. Though it’ll require several days to complete this stretch of trail, you will find the adventure a rewarding one as you’ll encounter beautiful blue lakes, mountainous terrain, and lush treetops along the way. You’ll want to soak in the sights every step of the way.

37. Backpack Ansel Adams’ Garnet Lake

Photo: Addison Klinke

14.46-mile out-and-back with about 2717 feet of elevation gain

On your way to Granite Lake, enjoy incredible vistas overlooking impressive granite peaks. Night photographers will delight in the low light pollution in this area, making for some stunning night shots!

38. Backpack to Ediza Lake

Photo: Tobin Akehurst

13.54-mile out-and-back with approximately 1804 feet of elevation gain

Take in marvelous sunrises and sunsets at Ebiza Lake– a sight you likely won’t ever forget. If you wish to extend your adventure, take a few days in the area to camp, fish, hike some more, or do some mountaineering! Come prepared for whatever your inner explorer may be craving.

39. Backpack to Crater Lake, Sierra National Forest

Photo: Emily Rudger

8.4-mile out-and-back with roughly 2100 feet of elevation gain

This hike features incredible views of an isolated lake and the expansive mountain ranges of the John Muir Wilderness. Set up camp by the water once at Crater Lake and kick back with some friends or take in the natural beauty of the surroundings in peace and quiet.

40. Backpack from Onion Valley to Mt. Whitney

Photo: Jeff Driscoll

47.35-mile point-to-point with nearly 11745 feet of elevation gain

This is a nature lover and explorer’s dream. You’ll get to soak in the full majesty of the High Sierras while making your way to the highest peak in the lower 48 states. From mountains to lakes to treetops and grassy fields, you’re sure to see it all! If you’re searching for that on-top-of-the-world feeling… this is the expedition for you! Be sure to secure the appropriate permits in advance to ensure all is set for your trip.

41. Backpack the Rae Lakes Loop

Photo: Kevin Kaminski

39.08-mile loop with roughly 7316 feet of elevation gain

Located in Sierra, California, this adventure takes you through the stunning Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. It’s considered one of the most popular hikes in the Sierras– with good reason. You’ll explore diverse mountainous and forest terrain with incredible views of waterfalls, lakes, and beautiful meadows along the way.

42. Backpack to Mount Silliman, Sequoia NP

Photo: Debra Alison

11.24-mile out-and-back with about 4449 feet of elevation gain

In Sequoia National Park, delight in feeling small among giant Sequoias and Redwoods on your way to the Mount Silliman summit. At the top, you’ll be able to see down the mountain to Twin Lakes.

      Southern California

      Explore the desert expanse of Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks or charge the trails on the sunny California coast. Down south, the water is warmer and beach camping is that much better...not sold yet? Check out these adventures.

      43. Backpack to Panamint Dunes

      Photo: Sarah Eichstedt

      7.23-mile out-and-back with around 935 feet of elevation gain

      A secluded gem, this is one of the least visited large sand dunes in Death Valley, making for an exciting opportunity to swerve crowds and connect with the natural landscape in peace. Explore during the day and enjoy some spectacular stargazing at night. Permits are required for overnight stays.

      44. Backpack the Boy Scout’s Trail in Joshua Tree

      Photo: Ian Buchanan

      16.12-mile out-and-back with approximately 1539 feet of elevation gain

      On this diverse trail, experience expansive Joshua Tree forests to Mars-like terrain. Backcountry camping is permitted in designated wilderness zones. In addition to hiking and camping, try out rock climbing or bouldering if you’re up for the challenge!

      45. Backcountry Camp in Joshua Tree

      Photo: Lauren Shusterman

      2-mile out-and-back with varied elevation gain depending on desired trail or campsite

      This backpacking excursion is a great way to experience the beauty of the desert. Note that it can be easy to lose your way while in the desert, so be sure to prepare ahead of time and use landmarks to help with navigating.

      46. Beach Camp on Santa Rosa Island

      Photo: Michael Wigle

      16-mile out-and-back with about 50 feet of elevation gain

      Located in Ventura, California, visit California’s least visited national park for a unique camping experience on a secluded part of Pacific Ocean beach. Expect to see wildlife from Torrey Pines to a rare native fox species. On your way back, don’t forget to check out the sea caves along Santa Cruz’s volcanic north coast.

      47. Backpack Mt. Williamson from Shepherd Pass

      Photo: Jack Brumbaugh

      26.66-mile out-and-back with roughly 10653 feet of elevation gain

      Located in Seven Pines, California, climb to the second highest peak in the state! There’s plenty of wildlife, water access, and incredible scenery if you’re prepared to challenge yourself for these rewards! With climbing and rock scrambling involved, know your preparedness and experience level before embarking on this trip.

      48. Backpack Eaton Canyon to Idlehour

      Photo: Alan Leung

      10.99-mile out-and-back with about 3291 feet of elevation gain

      In the heart of Pasadena, California, check out a secluded campground where you can listen to the sounds of babbling brooks and wildlife in the background. On your way, take moments to look through breaks in the vegetation to get glimpses of downtown LA and Catalina Island.

      49. Backpack the Trans-Catalina Trail

      Photo: Drew Robinson

      36.67-mile point-to-point with approximately 8189 feet of elevation gain

      This adventure is perfect for viewing the entire Santa Catalina Island. You may get to see wildlife like bison and the island fox with a guarantee of beautiful ocean views along the way.

      50. Backpack Zaca Ridge

      Photo: Michael Wigle

      6-10-mile out-and-back with roughly 2200 feet of elevation gain

      Located in Los Olivos, California, soak in the great beauty of the San Rafael Wilderness. This is one of the best stargazing spots in Southern California, making it an ideal adventure for night photographers. Visit in early Spring for breathtaking sunsets that span across the Santa Ynez Valley to the ocean.

      Add these backpacking trips to your bucket list and let us know how you do. The truth is, this list only scratches the surface of the wealth of amazing backpacking you can find in California. But just because you’ve been told you can’t explore all of California’s wilderness in a lifetime, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

      Cover photo: Josiah Roe

      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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