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10 Overnight Backpack Trips in Southern California

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

Photo: teakwood

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

Spring wildflowers in the Santa Barbara backcountry

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


Rising out of the valley

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 on the Approach to 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


Full Moon hike up Mt Baldy
Full Moon hike up 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


Photo: Mitch Barrie
Photo: Mitch Barrie

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

Camp at Parsons Landing
Camp at Parsons Landing

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

Sunset from our campsite at High Creek

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

First Look at Round Valley

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.

Wrapping Up

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. 

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