From the barren Mojave desert and breathtaking natural formations of Yosemite National Park to its beautiful and brutal coastlines, California is arguably one of the most geographically diverse states in the entire US. And it's this variety that, naturally, makes it the perfect adventurer’s playground.
In his new book, Wanderlust: USA, hiker and writer Cam Honan celebrates the best hiking routes California has to offer (among other locations including Alaska and Hawaii). Each entry is immaculately researched and written through with true passion that is guaranteed to make you want to dig out your hiking boots and book a flight.
To celebrate the book’s release, we asked Cam to share his favourite Californian excursions. Here are his picks in case you need a little inspiration ahead of your next holiday...
Half Dome - A vast edifice of stone and space
Where? Half Dome, Yosemite National Park
Duration: 10-12 hours
Half Dome is among the world’s most famous rocks. A granite monolith that towers more than 1,466m above Yosemite Valley, its hulking presence has inspired wonder in generations of visitors. Ascending Half Dome is as logistically and physically challenging as it is aesthetically pleasing. Due to its popularity, hikers will first need to run the gauntlet of red tape that is the permit application process (apply here). If awarded a place, what awaits is a round trip to the top of the park’s most iconic landmark, entailing an arduous 2,932m of total elevation gain and loss – all within the space of 27.4km.
The hike begins at Happy Isles Trailhead (aim to start a few hours before dawn to avoid the crowds). The trail initially lopes through a forest of giant Sequoias before ascending past two of Yosemite’s most renowned cascades, Vernal and Nevada Falls. There are a couple of options for taking this section: The Mist Trail or the John Muir Trail. Taking the latter path up and the former back down is a good way to do it. This will allow for a wonderful anticipatory perspective of Half Dome at daybreak, and then dramatic, up-close-and-personal views of Vernal Falls as the sun sets.
Above the falls the terrain levels out for a while through Little Yosemite Valley before turning north to arrive at the ‘sub dome’. A steep and exposed precursor to the final climb is made via a switch-backing stair-climbing section of trail that ascends approximately 200m in a mere 20-30 minutes. Upon topping out, climbers will find themselves face to (rock) face with the legendary summit of Half Dome.
Due to its intimidating, 45-degree slope, the final push up to the monolith’s apex is done with the assistance of metal cables and wooden slats. Nonetheless, its vertiginous character has caused many a hiker’s knees to shake and will to (momentarily) waver.
Once you arrive at the summit, take a deep breath, or 20, and soak in the panorama. You’ve made it! Among myriad amazing features in view are Clouds Rest, Mount Starr King, Unicorn Peak, and of course the valley floor. Before descending, find a solitary spot and let your mind drift to wherever the breeze and clouds may take you.
Willow Hole Trail - Desert dreams in southern California
Where? Willow Hole Trail, Joshua Tree National Park
Duration: 3-4 hours
Legend has it that Mormon settlers gave Joshua trees their name, the sprawling branches reminding them of the bible prophet with his arms raised toward the sky in prayer. From an environmental perspective, Joshua Tree National Park is a tale of two interesting deserts. Located approximately 210km west of Los Angeles, you’ve got the low and arid Colorado Desert, and the higher, more vegetated Mohave Desert. The former lies in the western part of the park, and is hotter, drier, and distinguished by plants such as the cholla and ocotillo. The latter is found in the eastern and southern sections, and features the eponymous Joshua Trees, as well as myriad billion-year-old rock formations.
The Willow Hole Trail is one of the national park’s classic rambles – an easy 11.1km out-and-back hike that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and experience levels. Starting from the Boy Scout Trailhead, the flat and well-maintained pathway initially heads northwest through a wide expanse of Joshua trees. After 1.9km it diverges from the Boy Scout Trail and heads toward one of Joshua Tree’s most iconic features, the Wonderland of Rocks. An appropriately named 31 sq km collection of house-sized boulders, massive rock piles, granite domes, and monoliths, this section’s tread way transforms from hard pack to soft sand, and traverses multiple maze-like washes and side canyons, where you’ll need to pay attention in order to stay on track. As you delve further into the Wonderland, the formations grow larger and more fantastical, until the main wash widens and the trail finally arrives at the turnaround-point – the oasis of Willow Hole.
Once you’ve rested, there’s nothing left to do but make the two-hour return journey. On the way back, consider exploring some of the many side canyons that the trail passes to discover even more amazing formations, and possibly other ancient treasures as well. As much as any other national park in the United States, Joshua Tree is a place best appreciated at sunrise and sunset. In addition to these times offering cooler temperatures and enhanced wildlife viewing, they’re also the hours during which the park’s namesake trees truly come alive. Silhouetted against a vibrant orange sky, the zigzagging branches spread their largess toward the heavens as if asking for direction. Perhaps those settlers were onto something.
The Lost Coast Trail - California's hidden coastline
Where? The Lost Coast Trail
Duration: 3-4 days
The Lost Coast is California’s most pristine stretch of coastline – no roads, no cell phone reception, no cliff-hanging mansions. Just 129km of undeveloped shoreline marked by towering cliffs, secluded beaches, and pounding surf. Thanks to its rugged, inaccessible character, the possibility of building any state or country highways across its terrain has always remained too costly, leaving this ocean-front sanctuary closed to everyone except those who are willing to explore its untamed beauty on foot. And the premier way in which to do so is via the Lost Coast Trail (LCT).
Located entirely within the King Range National Conservation Area (about a five-hour drive north from San Francisco), the LCT extends 40km from Mattel Brach in the north to Shelter Cove in the south. Taking most ramblers three or four days to complete, it’s generally trekked in a southbound direction in order to keep prevailing winds at your back. Along the way, the trail passes through a diverse coastal environment of rocky headlands, rolling sand dunes, flower-laden prairies, and black sand beaches dotted with driftwood and seashells.
Though the LCT is suitable for hikers of almost all experience levels, it’s not without its challenges – principally the tides. When you hike the Lost Coast Trail, you will literally be on the Pacific Ocean’s timetable from start to finish. Approximately 30 to 40 percent of the LCT’s total length is impassible at high tide, which means that twice a day a large chunk of the 'trail' actually disappears under water. If you happen to get caught out in one of these intertidal zones, particularly in rough conditions, you may not have anywhere to go except west.
Fortunately, tide troubles are almost entirely avoidable as long as you carry a current copy of the tide timetable and plan accordingly. When mapping out your LCT trip itinerary, try to factor in as much flexibility as possible. There are plenty of campsite options along the way if you find yourself a little behind (or ahead of) schedule.
Negotiating the ocean’s highs and lows isn’t the only obstacle on the LCT. There’s also the terrain. For much of its duration, you will be walking over soft sand, loose pebbles, and slippery rocks and ledges. This lack of terrestrial firmness means that twists, strains, and tweaks are commonplace. But the following tips should help keep your ankles and knees in good shape throughout the hike:
- Keep your pack weight as light as possible.
- Trekking poles can help with balance.
- When hiking over wet rocks, focus on your footfall. Whenever possible, aim to land with your whole foot at once, rather than heel-to-toe.
- If you want to take in the scenery while negotiating the slick segments, stop walking. The number one reason hikers injure themselves on the Lost Coast Trail – along with rushing – is that they become distracted by a beautiful vista and end up slipping.
Sierra High Route - When the sun clocks out, and the moon clocks in
Where? Sierra High Route
Duration: 15-20 days
Level: Very challenging
The views you work the hardest for are invariably the ones that resonate the most. When it comes to long-distance hikes in the United States of America, rarely do these words ring truer than on California’s Sierra High Route (SHR). In the course of approximately 314 lung-busting kilometres, it negotiates more than 30 high-altitude passes, many of which include Class 2 or 3 scrambles (non-technical climbing sometimes requiring the use of your hands). The payoff for all the huffing and puffing comes in the form of an alpine Shangri-La of glacier-sculpted valleys, sapphire-blue lakes, and serrated granite peaks; it’s quite possibly the most scenic multi-week trek in the lower 48 states.
The SHR was conceived by veteran mountaineer Steve Roper in the late 1970s. Roper’s goal was to put together a route for experienced hikers that offered an off-the-beaten-track adventure, stayed mostly above the tree line, and avoided well-marked trails whenever possible. By any criteria, he succeeded, and then some. The SHR passes through some of the most pristine and rarely visited wilderness in the contiguous United States. The SHR stays between 2,743m and 3,658m for almost all of its duration, and more than half of its total distance involves cross-country travel; that is, it’s a route rather than a clear, established trail. Additionally, the SHR receives little in the way of hiker traffic. As of 2019, it’s estimated that fewer than 50 people complete it per year, and it remains relatively unknown outside of the US long-distance hiking community.
Spanning the heart of the Sierra Nevada range through Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Inyo National Forrest, and Yosemite National Park, the SHR takes most hikers between two and three weeks to complete. Distinguishing specific highlights along the way is like trying to pick the best spot to go for vodka in Moscow – practically impossible (although fun to research). Among an assortment of backcountry treasures, places such as the eminently swimmable Bear Lakes Basin, the difficult-to-reach Frozen Lake Pass, the cobalt-blue Marion Lake, and the organ-pipe basalt columns of Devils Postpile consistently rate high among SHR alumni.
Its combination of rugged terrain, untouched wilderness, and solitude can make you feel more in tune with both the natural world and your own spirit – a journey as outwardly challenging as it is inwardly illuminating. At route’s end, many hikers find that their most treasured memories of the SHR haven’t come in in the form of breathtaking vistas, but in the moments of clarity they experienced along the way.
Pacific Crest Trail - Mother Nature’s package deal
Where? Pacific Crest Trail, California, Oregon and Washington
Duration: 5 months
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is one of the world’s longest footpaths. It stretches for a mind-boggling, knee-wobbling 4,281km between Mexico and Canada, via California, Oregon, and Washington. Along the way it passes through seven national parks, 24 national forests, and takes most hikers around five months and a sumo-esque 600,000 calories to complete. Beyond the statistics, the PCT is a wilderness journey par excellence. And for those wayfarers fortunate enough to hike its entirety, it represents a once-in-a-lifetime experience they will carry far beyond the approximately six million steps it takes to walk from one border to the other.
One of the things that differentiates the PCT from most other long-distance pathways is its incredible ecological diversity. According to the US Forest Service, the PCT traverses six of North America’s seven ecozones, including alpine tundra, subalpine forest, upper montane forest, lower montane forest, upper Sonoran, and lower Sonoran. From its southern terminus in the high desert of California, to its northern terminus among the dense forests of Manning Provincial Park in British Colombia, you’ll find an all-star cast of Mother Nature’s finest works.
There’s America’s most aptly named geological formation, Eagle Rock; the fantastically twisted Joshua Trees of the Mojave Desert; the incomparable alpine landscapes of the High Sierra; and the majestic stratovolcanoes of the Cascade Range, to name but a few.
Aside from this smorgasbord of natural wonders, the Pacific Crest Trail is perhaps best known for its thru-hikers, those who traverse the entire trail in one calendar year. Among the most celebrated of these accomplished ramblers are Scott ‘Bink’ Williamson, and George ‘Billy Goat' Woodard.
The PCT is a transformative experience. After spending months walking in the wilderness, hikers will find that their lung capacity has increased, their legs have become stronger, and their smile lines have grown deeper. Along with the physical changes, they may also discover a peace of mind and clarity of thought previously unknown to them. Let’s call it Mother Nature’s PCT Package Deal – a six-million-step plan for bringing out the best in folks.