The word is out. Southern California has a veritable plethora of hiking trails. And a plethora and a half of hikers exploring them. 99.9% of hikers are firmly in the day-hike only camp, and usually it’s just a matter of not knowing how to start and where to go to gain some backpacking experience.
With this in mind, I’ve come up with a list of ten great overnight backpacking trips. Most of these trips can be modified to make them easier or more challenging, depending on what you’re after. But they all provide a taste of outdoor adventure that can be enjoyed by anyone with a free night.
1. Crystal Cove State Park
Most people don’t realize this, but Crystal Cove State Park in Orange County has several backcountry camps that you can use — and they have sweeping ocean views! The trails are busy during the day, but you can hike up and setup your camp after work and still have time to cook dinner and watch the sunset. And as the sun goes down, the day-hiker (and mountain biker) crowds go with it, leaving you with a pretty sweet view.
Why this trip rocks? My friend Tracy uses this park for what she calls a “gear shakedown” before any bigger trips, testing new gear in a relatively low-risk situation. It’s a great way to dip your toes into backpacking without traveling far.
2. Santa Cruz Trail
This is a longer, more strenuous out-and-back trip in the Santa Barbara backcountry that’s best done in the spring (it gets a bit too hot in the summer). Hike 10 miles in with 2,500′ vertical gain, setup camp by a stream under the shade of 100-year old oaks, and hike back the next day.
Why backpack this? The distance and elevation gain are an almost perfect match for a typical day on the John Muir Trail (although at a much lower altitude). It’s a good way to see how your body responds to the climb and the distance. Time it right, and you’ll be rewarded with a spectacular wildflower show.
3. Barker Valley in the Palomar Mountains
Fellow hiking blogger Scott Turner has a super guide to this great little overnight trip to Barker Valley in the Palomar Mountains in northeast San Diego County. It’s what I call an “upside-down” hike, meaning you go down 1000′ feet to the river, camp overnight, then hike up 1000′ to get back to the trailhead. But at 6.5 miles round trip, it makes a gentler introduction to backpacking.
Backpack this for… meadows, a river and a waterfall. And it’s dog-friendly. Woof!
4. Santa Anita Canyon
You can stay at Hogee’s on Winter Creek, or Spruce Grove on the Gabrieleño Trail. And if you’re feeling ambition in the morning, you can bag Mt Wilson — one of the Six-Pack of Peaks. Here’s a guide to a grand loop up Gabrieleño to the summit and down via Winter Creek. You can hike it either direction, or modify it to suit you time and energy.
I love this overnighter for… a healthy dose of LA’s hiking history. Hoagie’s and Spruce Grove campgrounds date back a hundred years. And these lush canyons feel like a world away from the freeways and traffic jams.
5. Cucamonga Peak
Joan and I backpacked to Cucamonga Peak and spent the night for our Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge (that’s her silhouetted in the setting sun en route to the summit. Pack in all your water (I took six liters).
Hike this for… the sunset. And the sunrise. And the stars and city lights in-between. We even saw the Disneyland fireworks from the summit! Did I mention this hike is also dog friendly? Woof!
6. Mt Baldy
Camping on the top of Mt Baldy is an experience. You have to pack in all your water. It’s cold, windy and exposed. But oh those sunrise and sunsets! And it’s dog friendly.
7. San Bernardino Peak
The San Bernardino Trail goes all the way up to San Bernardino Peak (and beyond). But you can stop at Limber Pine Flat and camp overnight.
Why on earth? For views like the one shown above. Says it all.
8. Catalina Island
You don’t have to hike the entire Trans-Catalina Trail to enjoy overnight backpacking on Catalina. Take the ferry from San Pedro into Two Harbors, and you can day hike to either Little Harbor or Two Harbors to Parsons Landing. Each is on a different side of the island, and each has it’s own distinct vibe.
Why backpack here? Are you serious? If you live in SoCal, you must do this at least once!
9. San Gorgonio
Most people hike up San Gorgonio — the highest peak in Southern California — in a single day hike. But they would be missing out on views like this one, from my High Creek campsite in 2013. Another great option is Halfway Camp (supposedly halfway to the summit from the trailhead). And once you’ve spent the night, you don’t have to continue to San Gorgonio. But you probably will.
Why backpack San Gorgonio? Because it’s the tallest damn mountain in SoCal, and you should make the journey last as long as you can.
10. San Jacinto
San Jacinto is my personal favorite! I’ve been backpacking on this mountain since I was a teenager, and I’ll never tire of it. You can hike in from Idyllwild or take the tram up. I took my daughter up there on an overnight backpack trip before she even was walking!
Why is San Jacinto my favorite? Options to bag San Jacinto, or just go check out Wellman’s Divide. Beautiful alpine meadows, and peaks that remind me of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Here’s a peek at our overnight trip from the Tram to the summit of San Jacinto.
All of these overnight these overnight trips include some bureaucracy, usually in the form of a wilderness permit obtainable from the local ranger station.
Those are some of my top picks for short overnight backpack trips all over Southern California. Leave a comment to share your favorites.
I love Santa Anita canyon, but not all the poison oak! If you wanted a higher mileage option, You could hike up the Gabrielino Trail past Spruce Grove, head over Newcomb pass, and down to Devore trail camp. One of my favorite camps in the San Gabriels. Then back up to Newcomb pass, and take the Rim trail to Mount Wilson, then down Winter Creek.
Wild Southland says
The Sespe Trail to Willet Hot Springs (or Sespe Hot Springs) in the SLP is a classic.
I love that every place seems to have it’s own Mt. Baldy. I’ll definitely be forwarding this list to a few friends…
I am surpriced about the landscape, which looks much more green that I expected. I would love to go hiking there sometime.
Larry H says
Camped at the summit of San G and loved it up there. Sunset over Baldy in the distance and sunrise on that moonscape made the trek up (with 7 liters of water) worth it!
Really love this list, I’ll definitely share this to my friends. Thanks for sharing with us, Jeff!
Tom Brown says
Love the Mt Baldy picture. Thanks for sharing this great list.
William Douglas says
As a resident of Palm Desert, I was hoping you’d mention Jacinto! I love it up there. Great hikes halfway down the hill too. Cactus Springs leads 6.5 miles up to snowy forest with running water. Absolutely gorgeous!
Nancy R says
I agree on San J. It’s my favorite too. I complete all hikes as day hikes but I’m seriously considering branching out to overnight camping next year.
Hi Jeff! I did round valley solo a few months ago because of this article. It was a great intro as a first time solo backpacker. Thanks for that!
Which of these do you recommend to do early January?
Danielle Schear says
Hi! Looking to do some guided backpacking in SoCal in march 2017. I am inexperienced with backpacking but would look to give it a go- however i’m having some trouble finding a relatively priced- 2 night 3 day tour. Any ideas?
Trans Catalina Trail is amazing!
Anne Bernard says
I have so many great memories of Crystal Cove State Park – would definitely recommend if you’re in the area!
So my wife and I are looking to do our first so-cal backpacking trip this spring and we have run into a wall with our planning. We have one big issue–a dog! He has done parts of the PCT with us and we were all set to go to Catalina for three nights and then boom! We found out he is not allowed in the campgrounds there! 🙁 We really wanted to do Catalina and will wait a few years to do the Trans-Catalina trail, but does anyone have any suggestions for a 3-5 day trip, that is 30-50 miles, in So Cal that is close to the ocean, with water, and is dog friendly? If not close to the ocean, then something scenic?? Thanks for any suggestions!
Does this work the same as site camping?
Do you need to make reservations?
How does this work? can you just find a trail, hike it, and pick a random spot to pop up a tent?
Gloria J. Britt says
You post ten beautiful area for outdoor backpack trips in southern California. I am love hiking. Every vacation goes out with my husband. We are planned next destination Cucamonga Peak. Please let me know about your Cucamonga peak.
I am looking to do a weekend backpacking trip with a buddy in the fall. I would like to keep it in southern California. Anything from a 6-10 mile hike is good enough. Somewhere that we can actually get rugged and take in the wilderness… Maybe some place between beginner and intermediate camping/backpacking experience..Any suggestions?
Phil Goodrich says
A hidden gem is Lower Bear Creek off of the West Fork of the San Gabriel. You hike exactly one mile in on the fire road and come to a bridge. Scramble down the rocks; go under the bridge, and there is a lovely little trail meandering up Bear Creek. Its an easy hike, very level, shaded, and you have the creek for company almost the entire time. There are a lot of stream crossings so it is a little problematic in the spring. There are three trail camps. Hold out for the third which is under a huge oak (and next to a field of poison oak). This is my go to spot for an overnight getaway with my dog. Beautiful, peaceful, good swimming holes, and I have only seen three people in the six times I have been there.
Jeff Hester says
Thanks for the tip, Phil! We will definitely check it out!
Does anyone know about any of these hikes with a dog? Thanks
Thomas S says
Great list! Thanks for sharing. I’m always looking for overnight/weekend hikes in SoCal and will definitely have to check a few of these out.
Hi, I’m a native Californian living in Australia with my husband and two daughters ages three and one. I’ve done plenty of trails in the Santa Ynez mountain range but none down south. We would love to find a day trail we could backpack with our girls. What could you recommend to us? We are looking for a challenge but need to keep our girls in mind.
Michelle Jenn says
My husband and I are avid backpackers from Georgia and will be in LA for a wedding in late March. I’d like to arrive early for a 3 night backpacking trip in SoCal (28 – 38 miles). Any suggestions of a trail that will be possible that early in the spring? Thanks in advance!
Karthik S says
I was looking for some information to create an infographic on Hiking with dogs and came across your site.
Very informative and thanks for taking the effort. After completing the infographics., I would like to share it.
Sarah Higgins says
Wow, your 10 overnight backpack trips southern tips is really so helpful, thanks for sharing with us.
Sarah Higgins says
I don’t have any idea about southern california tour at the past. This is an amazing article about 10 overnight backpacking about the southern california. Many many thanks for sharing with us.
Oliver John says
amazing content. love it
Any suggestions for anyone who has never done done this. Where to start?
Sarah L says
Thank you for the list, so sad so many of these trails are closed due to recent fires. Can’t wait to try them once they open again !