An Expert Guide to Hiking in Southern California

Planning a trip to Southern California? Head to hiking expert Hannah Kaufman’s favorite trails.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop

Southern California is a wild place within the Golden State! A five-minute drive in any direction will take you to a new culture, lifestyle, and vibe. From Hollywood (and the famous Hollywood sign hike) to Malibu to the Mojave to the Mountains, Southern California truly has it all. You will see celebrities, lots of doggos, and every type of terrain imaginable filled with palm trees and cacti. There are hikes for everyone in southern California, even beginners. So in no particular order, here’s a list of some of my favorite Southern California hikes!

Runyon Canyon: A hike perfect for spotting celebrities

A black and white photograph of a woman standing on a hill looking out at Los Angeles
Photo by Carl Nenzen
  • Location: Los Angeles
  • Distance: .85 to 3.3mi
  • Time to Complete: 1.5 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 800ft
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Season: Year-round

Runyon Canyon is one of the most popular spots in Los Angeles County and will pop up in every Google search of “LA’s best hikes”—and for good reason. I personally love to hate the trails in the 130-acre park, but they have their perks. Close to the city and easily accessible, this city hike is a celebrity hot spot. This isn’t the hike with the best views or some quiet moment for transcendence, but rather a noisy, dog-filled trail that is great for a quick workout. The first time I hiked this trail, I was in fifth grade and was the slowest of all my friends—long story short, it wasn’t an enjoyable experience. But I learned to love the intense elevation and the views of the city once I got to the top. The trails range from 0.85 to 3.3mi, with the option to connect them and hike about 800ft of elevation. Don’t forget to bring your doggo along, and for helpful tips on how to hike with your dog, check out this article!

Get driving directions here.

Switzer Falls of Angeles National Forest: A waterfall hike with lots of stream crossings

A waterfall surrounded by rocks and a pond
Photo by Hannah Kaufman
  • Location: Pasadena
  • Distance: 4.5mi
  • Time to Complete: 2.5 to 3 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 700ft
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Season: April to October

Make sure to wear shoes with good traction here. The first time I hiked this 4.5mi out-and-back trail I slipped on some wet rocks and landed in the stream—but it was also a hot Southern California day, so I was not mad about it! This shorter hike is mostly shaded and just under 700ft of elevation. Dogs can hike this trail on leash, although there are some narrow sections with a drop on one side. Once you get to the first waterfall, there is a pretty slippery and narrow trail for two miles or so further to an even bigger waterfall if you are up for the task! Wear a bathing suit, bring some snacks, and jump in the water after your hike—although even on a hot day, the water doesn’t get too warm. Don’t forget to download the map first; you will quickly lose reception when you drive up to the trail head!

Get driving directions here.

Sandstone Peak: A perfect first peak hike

Rolling green hills stretch into the distance and disappear into clouds
Photo by Hannah Kaufman
  • Location: Malibu
  • Distance: 6.25mi
  • Time to Complete: 5.5 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 3,111ft
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Season: Year-round

Deep in the Santa Monica Mountain Range in Malibu is Sandstone Peak. I did this peak as part of a four-day backpacking trip through the Santa Monica Mountains that ended on the beach. This peak has an epic view, especially at sunrise. I recently re-hiked this peak, and a stranger gave me a pack of kale seeds and a mini watermelon (which I did carry the rest of the way)...anything can happen on this hike! The trail will have you overlooking a canyon with some pretty epic rock formations and wild flowers. With a high elevation gain of 1,075ft and a 6.25mi loop, this peak, at 3,111ft, has views for days of the ocean. Close by is Circle X Ranch, a popular campsite where I specifically remember eating the most amazing peanut butter and jelly sandwich I have ever had. It’s also close to Yerba Buena Road. Don’t forget to sign your name at the top of the peak and look out for a note from Dan Nichols.

Get driving directions here.

The Grotto Trail: A short but chaotic hike

Three people and a dog navigate a mossy trail surrounded by trees and water
Photo by Hannah Kaufman
  • Location: Malibu
  • Distance: 3mi
  • Time to Complete: 2.5 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 475ft
  • Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
  • Season: Year-round

The Grotto Trail hike will take you through streams, caves, over boulder formations, and to a grotto. Near Sandstone Peak across Yerba Buena Road, this 3mi hike is a great way to start your day. Near Circle X Ranch, Neptune’s Net (which I highly recommend and is a highly underrated restaurant in Malibu), and the crashing waves—this hike will wake you up and make you feel all the feels. I hiked it as a midnight hike under the stars, but I wouldn’t recommend this. Try to go during the day so you have plenty of light to see whatever secrets the trail carries. You can also head to Malibu Creek State Park for some shorter day hikes and a campground with a nice ocean breeze to cool you down in those warmer temperatures.

Get driving directions here.

Ranchos Palos Verdes Coastal Trail: A hike on the beach

The sun sets while a person stands on a rock overlooking the ocean
Photo by Hannah Kaufman
  • Location: Palos Verdes
  • Distance: 5mi
  • Time to Complete: 8 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 1,020ft
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Season: Year-round

This five-mile out-and-back trail is a very popular and scenic trail with 1,020ft of elevation. You can choose to do all of it or break off at any time. Parts of Pirates of the Carribean, the O.C., and other shows and movies have been filmed here because of the natural beauty. This trail takes you along cliffs overlooking the beach and has sections where you can hike down right to the water. Bring your dog, but keep them on leash. There are plenty of picnic areas to stop along the way and tidepools to check out where starfish and crabs have been spotted on the daily. This is one of the most beautiful coastal trails I have ever done; I did it in the winter to avoid the crowds and it was truly amazing. Go for the wild flowers in the spring and summer, or the changing leaves in the fall.

Get driving directions here.

Skull Rock in Joshua Tree: A hike with cool rocks and J-Trees

The sun sets behind Joshua trees
Photo by Hannah Kaufman
  • Location: Joshua Tree National Park
  • Distance: 1.5mi
  • Time to Complete: <1 hour
  • Elevation Gain: 160ft
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Season: October to April

Joshua Tree National Park is a great desert escape from Los Angeles where many hikers and climbers go for the weekend. Skull Rock is arguably the most popular hike in the national park that leads to the “skull rock.” It is just over a mile and a half loop with only 160ft of elevation gain. A small portion is paved next to a campground but the rest includes minor scrambling along a very sunny trail. This hike is kid-friendly, but look out for the tarantulas that have been spotted. There is no shade along the way, so make sure to bring a lot of water and a hat with you. You can also choose to drive right up to skull rock if you want the view and don’t have time for a hike. Don’t forget to climb some rocks along the way and have a snack next to skull rock—ideally hummus and pita chips. While you’re here, head to Palm Springs to head to some natural hot springs (just not in the summer).

Get driving directions here.

Mount Baldy: Second, third...maybe seventh peak

A person does a headstand on a mountain while another person looks on
Photo by Hannah Kaufman
  • Location: San Bernardino
  • Distance: 11mi
  • Time to Complete: 7 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 3,990ft
  • Difficulty: Hard
  • Season: May to October

With the peak at just over 10,000ft and a high elevation gain of 3,990ft across a total of 11mi, this is a hard hike with an average completion time of seven hours. Chug that water, eat that bar, don’t forget to bring a beer to the top. On a clear day, you can see all the way from the desert to the Pacific Ocean at the peak—some have said they can even see Catalina Island from the peak. If you aren’t up for the hike but still want to see the spectacular view, there is a ski lift, but you’ll still have a 6.6mi hike with 2,350ft of elevation gain. I recommend hiking this between June and October, but avoid winter time. If you want to stay the night, there are cabins and campgrounds available so you can sleep well and get an early start to avoid the crowds.

Get driving directions here.

Zabriskie Point Trail in Death Valley: A moderate desert hike

A rocky slide formation stretches up towards the sky
Photo by Hannah Kaufman
  • Location: Death Valley National Park
  • Distance: 5.7mi
  • Time to Complete: 3 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 1,092ft
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Season: October to May

There are a few options to make it to the peak, but I suggest looping this with Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch Loop via Zabriskie Point. This is a 5.7mi loop with 1,092ft of elevation gain but boy is it scenic. Avoid heading there in summer though. You will pass narrow canyons, the Red Cathedral, and an old mine—but keep an eye out for the trail markers, all while walking over layers and layers of desert floor and history. The rock formations are out of this world and humbling to say the least. Stop and stare at the Red Cathedral, one of the most impressive rock formations I have been privileged enough to see. If this seems too much, you can drive right up to Zabriskie point and take a five minute stroll to the peak with views of the Badlands of Death Valley National Park and Furnace Creek, a nearby campground within the park. If you choose to do the full trail, bring a lot of water and a hat.

Get driving directions here.

Crystal Cove Perimeter Loop: An escape from suburbia

Waves crash on a sandy beach
Photo by Vladimir Kudinov
  • Location: Laguna Beach
  • Distance: 9.1mi
  • Time to Complete: 5 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 1,020ft
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Season: Year-round

Nestled in the hills of Laguna Beach, Crystal Cove State Park is a beautiful park that runs along the coast. The perimeter loop trail will take you around the entire park and shows off the very best features. In total, the loop is 9.1mi and 1,354ft of elevation gain. This day hike will take you up and down through ridges of the valley and get views of the Pacific Ocean. Keep in mind this trail isn’t shaded, so bring a hat, sunscreen, and extra water. The first two miles are the most strenuous part of the hike, but the last two miles are the best as you get up close and personal with the ocean breeze. There are signs at every fork in the road so you can opt for a shorter trail or head down to the ocean. The scenery and location make this one of my favorite hikes.

Get driving directions here.

Big Laguna Trail: A trail with a little bit of everything for everyone

A woman walks across a grassy field with a hill in the background
Photo by Hannah Kaufman
  • Location: San Diego
  • Distance: 13.3mi
  • Time to Complete: 7 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 1, 240ft
  • Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
  • Season: April to October

In Cleveland National Forest, outside of San Diego, is the Big Laguna Trail. There are many starting points, so the length depends on your path, but the full length is just over 13mi with 1,240ft of elevation gain. Dogs are permitted on-leash, and you’ll often see cyclists, hikers, and some people dipping in the lake. The day hike options are endless, and you can easily pick and choose what you would like to see or do. Some parts are heavily shaded while others are fully exposed. Trails are wide and following the trail is very straightforward. Look out for some wild cows, birds, and the wildflowers, but avoid going after a heavy rainfall as it can flood and get muddy and slippery. There are a few unmarked trails that break off from this route that lead to views and some have wooden swings for a nice snack break—maybe some trail mix with a lot of chocolate, or just chocolate and skip the trail mix.

Get driving directions here.

San Jacinto Peak via Marion Mountain Trail: The second highest peak in SoCal

A woman stands on rocks and looks out over tree-covered hills
Photo by Marsela Sulku
  • Location: Palos Verdes
  • Distance: 13.2mi
  • Time to Complete: 9 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 4,500ft
  • Difficulty: Hard
  • Season: June to October

This trail is a 13.2mi round-trip hike that takes you up about 4,500ft. The peak offers full views of the San Jacinto Park. You’ll climb staircases, switchbacks, and more, all while getting epic views of wildflowers and forests—and you’ll even cross the Pacific Crest Trail along the way. There are some streams along the way to sit next to, relax, refill your water supply, eat that peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and tape up those blisters that I definitely got on this popular but challenging (long) day hike. You will also pass a historical stone, one-bedroom building that is open to the public. The hike down is steep and my legs were shaking, but I could only help but smile at the accomplishment. Just don’t bring your dog along—they aren’t allowed.

Get driving directions here.

While these are just a few of my favorites, Southern California is full of state and national parks with a variety of terrain and panoramic views. From canyons and valleys to streams and peaks, Southern California has hikes for just everyone, beginner to professional. Hit me up with your favorite trails, tips, and places to escape the city in SoCal...I’ll be so glad to join you! Southern California hikes are like no other trails. I also would love some snack recommendations—although pita chips and hummus, chocolate, and mushroom jerky are normally my go-tos, and lots of peanut butter of course. Click on the link to my profile and hit me up!

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Written By
Although I've been hiking for most of my life, I didn't start backpacking and camping until college when I joined the University Outdoors Club at my school. My first backpacking trip was ambitious, the Batona Trail in the Pinelands in New Jersey done in two days. To do that, we had to walk a maratho...

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