California’s 20 Best Fall Hikes, Nominated by Outdoor Experts and Locals

It's not all about Yosemite: here are some hidden gems in NorCal and SoCal

October 4, 2022 7:13 am
Sunrise over Lake Tahoe's Emerald Bay, one of the best places to hike in the fall
Head to Lake Tahoe and seek out the short, but worthwhile, Vikingsholm Trail.
George Rose via Getty

Our autumn leaves in California might not get quite as brilliant orange, red and yellow as elsewhere in the country, but the cooler air, perfect sunlight and superior trails make up for the foliage. What better time of the year to get outside? 

For a list of the state’s best fall hikes, we reached out to some of California’s leading outdoor types, plus a couple creative folks who are experts at knowing what trails to pick. Now get out there! 

Switzer Falls, Angeles National Forest

“It’s in the Angeles Forest, so you get a nice mountainous drive on the way to the trail. It’s right off of the 210 freeway. It’s pretty close to the Rose Bowl, which isn’t far if you live in the central L.A. area. I’m not quite sure how long the trail is [Editor’s note: it’s 3.6 miles], but the great turnaround point for us is a beautiful waterfall with a small little pond that you can actually swim in and cool off in. It’s best in the fall, because in the summer it’s actually too hot to be in the mountains and inland. It’s somewhere we usually don’t go in the summer, but tend to go in the mid-spring and throughout the fall period.” Woodie White, founder of Oyster Holdings and Oyster Expedition 

Mount Umunhum Trail, Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve   

“A gradual uphill climb to the 3,486-foot summit (highest point on the primary Ridge Trail spine) leads to incredible 360-degree views for nearly 150 miles from the visitor observation platform. Most of the trail is in a bay, oak and madrone woodland, with sections opening up to fantastic views of the Santa Clara Valley.” — Marie Sayles, Development Director at Bay Area Ridge Trail

Solstice Canyon Loop Trail, Malibu

“Talk about magically beautiful — this hike gives a three-in-one experience (well, four if you count the parking situation, as there’s only a handful of available spaces at the hike’s entrance so you’ll likely end up parking along the Pacific Coast Highway). The start of the hike is pretty flat and shaded by tall trees, where you can truly feel your breath because of the openness. Then, you’ll meet a fork in the road, where you can either take a five-minute pitstop to the left, for a small waterfall moment, or make a right where you’ll lily-pad across some rocks through a very small stream of water. 

“Here, you’ll start to ascend higher and higher in a zigzag pattern with some rock-formatted stairs through this part of the hike. Your pulse will start to rise and some trickles of sweat might start forming, but don’t give up, because you’ll eventually reach the height of the hike and find yourself stepping into the picturesque views of all shades of greens rolling into each other with deep to light blues of the ocean and sky dancing into each other. The rest of the hike is with this majestic foreground, and deep within the canyon taking you into a whole new experience as you hike farther into the canyon. And then, eventually, you’ll get looped right back to the beginning!” Gianina Thompson, Communications Director, SpringHill Company

Araby Trail, Palm Springs

“The best hikes in greater Palm Springs this fall include Araby Tail, Lykken Trail and Ladder Canyon. Go in the morning to stay cool, though fall presents a much more mild climate than the summertime. Araby Trail is a roughly four-mile round-trip hike with beautiful mountain views, which also offers mountain biking and horseback riding. For lovers of both architecture and celebrity, the trail provides close proximity to the legendary, John Lautner-designed Bob and Dolores Hope estate. For something a bit more challenging, South Lykken Trail is a somewhat steep hike with big rewards: a spectacular view. It’s a popular area for birding, hiking and running. On this trail, hikers can get a view of the whole Coachella Valley. In the Mecca Hills, don’t miss Ladder Canyon, which is best to visit from the fall to early spring and is a great spot for hikers, as well as rock climbing.” — Jason Bruecks, Founder, Distance To Be Traveled 

Strawberry Peak Trail via Redbox Canyon, Mount Wilson

“Great hike! It has mountain layers after layers. The first half (~2.5 miles) is easy, narrow and a little slippery. Then there are about five to six small peaks before reaching Strawberry Peak (which gives the hike a thrill — each time you touch a peak, you think it’s the final peak, but it’s not). The second half is hard. It’s a rock trail with dirt, and very steep but not dangerous. The best part is reaching the peak. It has a great view over the city which makes you feel like you’re on top of the world.” Scrappy Ramirez, Pro Boxer

Murphy’s Ranch Trail in Rustic Canyon, Los Angeles

“If you’re looking for a trail that has a beautiful display of fall foliage, a gorgeous view of the coast and a bone-chilling history just in time to celebrate Halloween, we say head to Murphy’s Ranch in Rustic Canyon! Start down 500 steep and narrow steps into a secluded canyon, walk through tons of Western Sycamore trees sure to be changing color just in time and end up at mysterious abandoned buildings, remains of a secret Nazi hideout from the 1930s. The coastal fog is sure to roll in for an added effect. Once reading about the history and paying a visit, it’ll be easy to see why Murphy’s Ranch is our favorite fall hike in LA.” — Andrea, Kelsey & Madison,  LA Hike Club founders

Elysian Trails via Chinatown, Los Angeles

“With this half-road, half-trail run, you get great inclines, doggies on the trails and views of Dodger Stadium. The round trip is about eight miles. Start near Sunset Blvd. and Douglas St. and connect to the trail if you want a shorter option.”Erik Valiente, Director/Head Coach, BlacklistLA

Vikingsholm Trail, Emerald Bay State Park

“An easy 1.7-mile out-and-back with beautiful views of Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay. It’s most unique feature: It ends at an old castle after which the trail is named, as well as a waterfall (Lower Eagle Falls) a little past it. Not much in the way of fall foliage, but the evergreens are beautiful, and it’s still hikeable even if there’s an early snow.” Jessie Beck, Editor at AFAR and founder of Eat Bike Travel

Sycamore Grove Park, Livermore Valley

“Fall in the Livermore Valley is one of the beautiful times of the year. With miles of trails, dozens of parks, plenty of sunshine all year round and clean, fresh air, the outdoor lifestyle awaits in the scenic beauty of the Livermore Valley Wine Country. The views are breathtaking and so peaceful. A favorite trail for locals is to start at Dante Robere Winery and then cross the street to the beautiful trails of Sycamore Grove Park. You can travel through the park and stop at the end to enjoy a tasting at the Wente Vineyard Tasting Lounge. To finish the day, hike through Holdener Park and end at Rodrigue Molyneaux for a tasting in the tranquil setting of the garden curated by Master Gardeners of Alameda County. In total, the hike is approximately 5.5 miles.” — Brandi Lombardi, Interim Director of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association

Inspiration Point, Santa Barbara

“One of Santa Barbara’s most picturesque hikes — Inspiration Point — will get the heart rate going with a moderate 3.5-mile trek, giving city and coastal views and a dose of inspiration lasting all day long. Once reaching the top, hikers are known to use rocks to make words or symbols to leave as inspiration to fellow hikers. Just outside of Santa Barbara in the coastal town of Goleta, opt to explore the 78 acres of trails at Ellwood Mesa that lead to beautiful bluff tops overlooking the ocean. These are popular, easy nature walks for families, leading from eucalyptus groves out to beautiful wide-open spaces.” — Meghan Leon, Recreation Manager, Ritz-Carlton Bacara Santa Barbara 

Islip Saddle to Mt. Islip via Little Jimmy Campground, Angeles National Forest

“This is one of my favorite hikes. It’s a long drive up to Islip Saddle along the winding roads of Angeles Crest highway. With scenic views the whole drive up, you can really get lost in the beauty of what the Angeles Forest has to offer. The hike starts at the Islip Saddle and goes through the Little Jimmy campground where you can take a break if needed after the first initial ascent. Once you get to the windy gap you will be presented with one of my favorite views of Los Angeles before making your final ascent to Mt. Islip.” Chris D. Wong, Physical Therapist/Strength and Conditioning Coach

Griffith Park Merry Go Round Hike, Los Angeles

“Everyone who visits L.A. has done the Observatory Hike in Griffith Park, but this little gem is on the other side of the mountain, facing out to the San Gabriel Mountains. It’s a moderate climb but seeing the 360 of the nature and city L.A. has to offer will show you a side of the park not everyone ventures out to.” Zeena Koda, Head of Digital, The North Face

Parker Lake Trail, Ansel Adams Wilderness

“There’s a feeling that creeps in as you climb 395 from Bishop to Mammoth Lakes and beyond. Thinner air, sure, but also the effect of worry and stress flowing downhill, letting nature in. Hiking up here is the closest I’ll probably come to transcendental meditation, and the moment Parker Lake opens up to you on this trail causes an audible gasp. The trail has multiple terrains, offers a great look at Mono Lake near the beginning, then dives into a Shire landscape painting with a creek next to you. It’s not a walk in the park, but it’s also not the most formidable hike either. 

“A satisfied grin later, the whole return trip back is a dream. The drive in is a bit rocky once you pull off 395, but if you’re already in the area to hike, you’re likely bringing a vehicle that can handle it. Make sure to bring some water, or even a picnic lunch to eat while you peer out at the lake. This one is also a great one for dogs!” Martin Rickman, Editorial Director of Sports at Uproxx

Westridge Trail via Mandeville Canyon, Sullivan Canyon Park

“I seriously need to hike more than I currently do,  but if I had to pick my favorite spot, it would easily be the Westridge Trail in Mandeville Canyon. Hiking often seems like such an effort before you head out the door, but then you get up there and you’re mentally like, ‘Wow, nature is extremely tight.’ This quick loop has a ton of free street parking (an absolute essential here), isn’t too crowded and has just the most lovely views.” — Matthew Carpenter, Founder, Driveway Paradise

High Peaks Trail, Pinnacles National Park

“Pinnacles National Park is a hidden gem located only two hours away from San Francisco, encompassing one of the most unique trails in Northern California. While the High Peaks Trail is fairly strenuous with nearly 2,000-feet in elevation gain, you’re rewarded with stunning views of the rock formations after you’ve made it through the caves and you might even see a California Condor at the very top. Come prepared with ample water and protection from the sun, as it can get hot!” — Trent Hodson, @BayAreaExplorer on TikTok 

Grotto Trail, Santa Monica Mountains

“A scenic drive through the Santa Monica Mountains will get you to this very nice hiking trail. Heads up that you will be driving on a one-way road along curvy mountainsides (where fast and fancy sports cars often roam) to get there. Once on the trail, you will quickly be mesmerized by rolling green hills and shrubbery reminiscent of a stroll through Jurassic Park. After views of some beautiful greenery, you will soon begin to cross over streams of water and rocks to get further down into the valley. 

“There are plenty of rock ledges to rest on and sip some water before venturing all the way down into this trail’s namesake, the grotto. There you will find high rock walls with a water basin at the bottom, a nice cave-like environment. Take your time and chill here for a minute; the thing to always remember for hikes down into valleys is you have to pull yourself back up out of them. Enjoy the climb/walk up the rocks and stream, through the lush greenery and flowers, and back to your car. There is a small parking lot at the trailhead. Enjoy!” — Ryan Jordan, Manager, Advertising & Media at Disney

Four Mile Trail, Yosemite National Park

“Four Mile Trail is one of the most popular hiking trails in Yosemite National Park, and for good reason. The trail offers gorgeous views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome and Glacier Point and is a relatively easy hike compared to some of the park’s other trails. Fall is an ideal time to hike Four Mile Trail, as the leaves change color and the crowds thin out. The trail is well-maintained and clearly marked, making it an excellent choice for first-time visitors to Yosemite. If you’re looking for a great hike with a breathtaking view, the Four Mile Trail will not disappoint.” — Steve Morrow, Founder, Paddle About

Three Sisters Rock via the Pacific Crest Trail, Acton

“My ideal fall hike in California is the Three Sisters Rock via the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s in Begonias Lane Park near Santa Clarita, and it’s a gorgeous 7.6-mile, four-hour hike that’s great for both birding and hiking. It’s classified as “moderately strenuous,” which means it would be challenging for an unfit person because of steep inclines, but the views are incredible and well worth it. The trailhead begins just after the Indian Canyon campground where there’s a sign welcoming Pacific Crest Trail hikers, and you can park on the road and walk there. There isn’t any forest cover on the trail, which means it’s not as enjoyable in the summer heat, but perfect for the fall.” — Alex Gillard, Founder, Nomad Nature Travel

Mattole to Punta Gorda, King Range Wilderness 

“My favorite fall hike in California is the Lost Coast Trail near Petrolia (south of Eureka). The Lost Coast is definitely a trek to reach, but you’ll be rewarded with a truly off-the-beaten-path hike that follows the coastline of the Pacific Ocean — much of it right on the beach! The entire Lost Coast Trail is just under 25 miles (one way from Mattole Beach to Black Sands Beach) and is definitely more of a backpacking trail.

“But the initial section heading south — Mattole Beach to Punta Gorda Lighthouse — makes a fantastic day hike at seven miles round trip (out and back). It’s a mostly flat hike through the sand with stunning ocean views. You’re almost guaranteed to see elephant seals, and if you’re very lucky, you might even see Roosevelt elk right on the beach! Fall is the best time to hike here because of the smaller crowds, beautiful fall colors on the trees on the hillside above the beach and decent weather. The Mattole Beach trailhead starts just steps away from the beachside Mattole Campground if you’d like to camp before or after your hike.” — Jake Heller, Founder, Campnado

Malibu Wine Hike at Saddlerock Ranch, Malibu

“Malibu may be known most for its beautiful beaches and celebrity homes, but for those who aren’t afraid to explore the inland hills, it holds fantastic hiking with soaring views throughout the majestic, rocky Santa Monica Mountains. The best of both worlds, Malibu Wine Hikes caters not only to nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts but to wine drinkers, too! You don’t have to be a wine connoisseur or an expert hiker to enjoy this two-hour, 2.5-mile guided hiking tour. The hike is mild to moderate, with gorgeous views of Ronnie Semler’s 1,100-acre ranch and the surrounding area. Tasting a bit of Saddlerock Ranch’s wine at the end is just the cherry on top of a beautiful day in the wilderness of Malibu! 

“Saddlerock Ranch boasts a gorgeous vineyard to trek through, multiple photo-ops for life’s little Instagrammable moments, knowledgeable guides to answer questions, a beautiful trail throughout the Santa Monica Mountains and a chance to try one or two of the wines that the Saddlerock label produces. The trail is beautiful, welcoming and approachable. A tour guide caters to each tour group to ensure that each person finds the tour informative, fun and comfortable. As fall approaches and the weather turns cooler, there has never been a better time to hike the ranch and watch the grapevines change colors before going dormant for winter.” — Marissa Davis-Perfect, Manager, Malibu Wine Hikes

Looking for more adventures? Try our Northern California adventure bucket list and one for Southern California, too.

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