Southern California is home to such world-class trails, they've received national recognition — and hikers travel from all over the country (and even the world) to hoof it here.
But even with the bounty of open spaces and wilderness areas at our disposal, getting uninterrupted access to them via a maintained trails system hasn't been an easy task. In fact, some of our most renowned trailways were decades in the making before their completion.
Some never fully came to fruition.
Fortunately, you don't have to be a long-distance hiker to enjoy SoCal's best thru-hiking opportunities. But if you're ready to go the distance, these trails are waiting for you.
Whether you've got just a couple of hours at a time or months to devote to the most epic trek of your life, here are the six best thru-hiking destinations in Southern California.
1. Pacific Crest Trail
The best-known of the California thru-hikes is the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, first designated in 1968 (although not actually completed until 1993). It's essentially the West Coast equivalent of the Appalachian Trail, but hundreds of miles longer and thousands of feet higher in elevation. The trail totals 2,650 miles starting in Campo, California at the Mexican border and extending all the way to Canada. In Southern California, the PCT passes through the Colorado and Mojave Deserts as well as the Sierra Nevada. Those who attempt to hike it all the way through generally start at the southern terminus in April and make it to Canada by September.
Hiking the PCT is a chance to pass through some of the "greatest hits" of outdoor spaces in SoCal — from Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (where it crosses Highway 78 at Scissor's Crossing in the San Felipe Valley) and Cleveland National Forest in San Diego County to Sand to Snow National Monument, San Bernardino National Forest (near Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead), and Angeles National Forest (near Mount Baden-Powell/Vincent Gap) before winding its way along the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Note that sections of Angeles National Forest are still closed as a result of the 2020 Bobcat Fire, so research detours before setting out.
Long-distance hiking permits for jaunts in excess of 500 miles can be requested through the Pacific Crest Trail Association. Shorter segments may require multiple permits from individual agencies. Hikers and equestrians are welcome, but bicycles and anything motorized are prohibited. Hiking it all the way through is the ultimate test of survival — so you'll need to pack much of what you'll need in terms of camping gear, water, food and other supplies. Be sure to pack it out and leave no trace.
Fortunately, there are lots of trailheads where you can pick up the PCT and experience it for a few hours or a day, rather than months at a time. These "section hikes" don't even have to be the entire length of one of the 30 officially designated sections of the PCT (Sections A through F in SoCal, G and H in the Sierra). Rather, you can take short jaunts from populated areas like the town of Idyllwild — where the PCT is accessible from the Deer Spring Trail at Strawberry Junction Campground and can take you all the way to Mount San Jacinto (permit required) — or major thoroughfares like Cajon Pass near the community of Phelan. One of the most accessible SoCal access points of the PCT where you can really choose your own adventure (and hike length) is Vasquez Rocks Natural Area, where the trail passes through the community of Agua Dulce.
2. John Muir Trail
The John Muir Trail is a 211-mile hike through the Sierra Nevada mountain range — following in the footsteps of the Paiute tribes, who used this path (called "Nüümü Poyo") as a trade route. Its construction began in 1915, a year after the death of Muir, the heralded naturalist the trail is named after; and it was completed in 1938, the year that marked what would've been Muir's 100th birthday.
The trail starts at Mount Whitney to the south and crosses through Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and Yosemite National Park, as well as the Ansel Adams Wilderness of Inyo National Forest, Sierra National Forest and Devil's Postpile National Monument. A common trailhead for hiking just a portion of the "JMT," as it's called, is located at Red's Meadow — south of Devil's Postpile and north of Rainbow Falls, located within the Mammoth Lakes trail system and accessible by the Red's Meadow shuttle.
However, the traditional starting point for this thru-hike along the backbone of the High Sierra is at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, where a permit allows you access to the trail's entirety without getting separate permits from other agencies. If you start elsewhere and plan to hike a long way, you'll need wilderness permits to camp in Sierra National Forest and Inyo National Forest, for example.
Many of these areas are closed for hiking during the winter season — and the snow-free season in spring and summer can be incredibly short, making the window to hike this long-distance trail relatively narrow. As much of the JMT actually overlaps with the PCT, you can find information on permits, regulations and other necessities from the Pacific Crest Trail Association.
3. California Hiking and Riding Trail
The California Hiking and Riding Trail is a fragmented thru-hike that never really was, despite having been planned and even put into law as far back as 1945, with the passing of the California Riding and Hiking Trails Act. But that legislation was repealed in 1974 with the passing of the California Recreational Trails Act — and focus shifted to establishing shorter trails instead of thru-hikes.
Today, you can find segments of the California Hiking and Riding Trail open to hikers and equestrians in SoCal areas such as San Diego (in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park) — but it's not the contiguous path it was originally intended to be.
One large portion of it serves as a kind of backcountry thru-hike within Joshua Tree National Park, where it starts at either the North Entrance or Black Rock Campground. This west-east (or east-west) route takes you along 38 miles (and 3,000 feet of elevation change) through such park highlights as Covington Flats, Keys View, Ryan Ranch, the Geology Tour and Pinto Basin.
If you decide to do the entire thing (which should take two to four days, ideally between October and May), you'll need a shuttle to get back to your car at your starting point. Make sure you register at one of the backcountry backpacking registration boards, like Black Rock, Juniper Flats, or Twin Tanks — especially if you'll be camping or leaving your car in any backcountry overnight. No additional fees (beyond park admission) or permits are required.
4. El Camino Real Walk (a.k.a. the California Mission Walk)
The California version of the Camino Santiago (St. James' Way) through France and Spain is The King's Road — a.k.a. El Camino Real, the path that the 18th-century Franciscan friars took through Alta California as they established missions up and down the California coast. Today, there are pilgrims — or "Mission Walkers" — who retrace those steps, either a little bit at a time or all at once, hitting all the missions between San Diego and Sonoma. The entire trek clocks in at 800 miles, a 54-day journey if done continuously (and entirely on foot, without the use of any vehicle).
The trail was first blazed (in its entirety, in one fell swoop) in 2011 by Ronald "Butch" Briery, who published a comprehensive guide with detailed maps, directions and suggestions as to what to see and where to sleep and eat along the way. Some pilgrims start at Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá — California's first mission — and work their way north, while others start at Mission San Francisco — the 21st, and last, California mission — and work their way south. Still others split the epic journey into two separate legs, starting separately at the northernmost and southernmost portions and ending each segment at Carmel Mission Basilica, where Padre Junipero Serra is buried.