This is a list for the entire United States. It has been so hot lately that I can barely get out of my chair…. so I loved looking at National Geographics extensive list, and have pulled out some California highlights. If you can go anywhere, you’ll want to see the entire National Geographic GREAT HIKES list, it is a fantastic addition to any Just Say Yes, or bucket list.
These four choices are great, and I would add San Bruno Mountain (Daly City, CA) and Mt. Tamalpais (Marin) to the list because they are easy to get to and have the best vistas in the bay area. If it is a hot day, try San Bruno Mountain in the morning, the fog will lift your spirits and cool you off. Ahh!
A Great Lodge: Sorenson’s Resort // California
GPS: 38°35′N 119°48′W
Set in the Sierra Nevada Mountains south of Lake Tahoe, Sorenson’s Resort is a kind of hiker’s dream town, containing 33 whimsical log cabins, chalets, and homes—a sod-roof Swedish cottage and a bungalow rescued from a defunct Santa’s village among them—moved from elsewhere and rearranged here. Hikers can depart directly from the lodge into the surrounding national forest on Indian Head Trail or drive a short distance to unlimited options. In late summer try the six-mile (ten-kilometer) round-trip to Round Top Lake from Carson Pass on Highway 88. Beginning at 8,573 feet (2,613 meters), the trail wastes no time reaching timberline. Back at the resort, the café’s beef burgundy and berry cobbler can elicit Proustian nostalgia.
Vitals: $115; www.sorensensresort.com
A Classic Hiking Trail: John Muir Trail: Ritter Range // California
GPS: 37°41′N 119°11′W
Every backpacker dreams of someday hiking the John Muir Trail, that 211-mile-long (340-kilometer-long) pageant through the High Sierra from Mount Whitney to Yosemite Valley. Rightly so. The JMT traverses some of the finest alpine scenery in the U.S. But until the ol’ vacation account accrues 17 days (that’s the length of an average JMT thru-hike), content yourself by sampling one of the trail’s best and most accessible sections on a weekend-length, 31-mile (50-kilometer) route into the Ritter Range. Even if you don’t know the Ritters by name, you’ve seen their stony facades on calendars and posters, especially the shark-tooth Minarets. “There’s nothing like the Minarets elsewhere in the Sierra. They’re dark and intimidating, especially on a cloudy day,” says David Roberts, who leads weeklong backpacking trips into the Ritters for the Sierra Club. Your tour begins at Reds Meadow near Mammoth Ski Area, where you pick up the JMT northbound to Shadow Lake. Leaving the JMT, walk west to camp at Ediza Lake, which reflects the 17 Minaret spires. At this point you face a no-lose decision. Backpackers with off-trail know-how can proceed south to Cecile Lake, where the trail ends and the ad hoc Sierra High Route takes over. The less experienced should double back at Ediza Lake to rejoin the JMT to the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. Follow the PCT southeast to Agnew Meadows, where you can catch a free shuttle bus to your car.
Vitals: For wilderness permits, visit www.fs.fed.us/r5/sierra.
City Hike: Topanga State Park // Los Angeles, CA
GPS: 34°07′N 118°25′W
Located between Malibu and Beverly Hills, this 22-acre (9-hectare) parcel of wildland may be the most valuable park in the country. But for now, no Hollywood mogul manses or rehab centers blight the prime real estate surrounding 2,126-foot (648-meter) Temescal Peak. Everyone hikes the seven-mile (eleven-kilometer) circuit from Trippet Ranch to Eagle Rock, which is why you should opt for the 14-mile (23-kilometer) out-and-back from Trippet up Hondo Canyon to Saddle Peak, with its meadows, stream crossings, and blockbuster views of the Pacific. The ten-mile (sixteen-kilometer) backcountry trail will also lose any Vinnie Chase-style entourage.
Vitals: For maps, visit www.tomharrisonmaps.com.
National Park: Yosemite National Park // California
GPS: 38°01′N 119°57′W
John Muir was prophetic when he wrote that in Yosemite Valley “Nature had gathered her choicest treasures, to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her.” That communion can get downright cozy with the park’s 3.6 million visitors in 2007. But the truth is, they don’t all need to squeeze into the seven-mile (eleven-kilometer) valley. Marvel at the temple, by all means, but look to high country, low country, and the unsung glories of the Sierra Nevada for your solitude. There’s a lot of park out there.
Just off Tioga Road in Tuolumne Meadows is the trail to Elizabeth Lake. It’s only a five-mile (eight-kilometer) hike, but one that distills all the joys of the High Sierra into an easy jaunt. You’ll take in granite outcroppings; lodgepole pines; grassy, flower-strewed meadows; and, finally, the frigid reflecting pool of Elizabeth Lake. The glacial tarn lies at 9,508 feet (2,898 meters), beneath 10,823-foot (3,299-meter) Unicorn Peak. Camp here and you’ll have seen Yosemite‚ even if you never venture into the valley.
Three Days or More
If Yosemite has a gentle side, it’s near the settlement of Wawona, in the southern portion of the park. The elevations are lower but this is still the majestic Sierra‚ just with a longer hiking season and fewer crowds. For a three-day highlights tour, forge a 22-mile (35-kilometer) clockwise loop, hiking from Wawona to Buena Vista Pass. Along the way, stop off at Chilnualna Fall, a series of foamy tumbles that would be a major tourist attraction were it in Yosemite Valley. Camp the first night just down from the pass at Buena Vista Lake, in a beautifully carved cirque below 9,709-foot (2,959-meter) Buena Vista Peak. On day two take it easy: Wind your way through forest until you reach the picture-perfect campsites at either Johnson or Crescent Lakes.
It sounds preposterous, but there’s a hidden path in the heart of Yosemite. The 13-mile (21-kilometer) Valley Floor Loop Trail is an old bridle path that hasn’t seen much traffic since the 1950s. Still, the trail is signed and very much intact. Pick it up behind Yosemite Lodge or Camp 4 and walk west, hugging the base of El Capitan, as far as Pohono Bridge. There, the trail crosses over to the south side of the valley, then east past Bridalveil Fall, through El Capitan Meadow, and across Swinging Bridge over the Merced River for a stunning view of Upper Yosemite Fall.
Vitals: The cedar-shrouded cabins at Evergreen Lodge, about 500 yards (457 meters) from the park’s western boundary on the road to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, are a good way to dodge the larger and louder campgrounds in the valley (www.evergreenlodge.com). For park info and free backcountry permits, visit www.nps.gov/yose.