Five Bucket List Spots to Backpack in California

By Nancy Raven Kirk on June 17, 2024
5 min read

California is famous for its biodiversity up and down the coast, with an assortment of scenery that will impress any nature lover. The comfortable year-round climate makes it the ideal state for camping during almost any season. Before you go, make sure you have everything you need with the KÜHL Backpacking Checklist. Once you’re prepared, go explore some of our favorite spots in The Golden State.

trees under the blue sky
Joshua trees at sunset in Queen Valley. Photo by Joshua Tree National Park.

1. Joshua Tree National Park


  • Extreme summer temperatures 
  • Unique desert scenery 
  • Joshua Trees grow only in California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona

As you hike through this desert, you may feel as though you’ve been transported to whimsical, unique land with enormous boulders and the iconic Joshua Tree, which is technically a succulent and known for its unique, prickly appearance.

Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most beautiful parks in the country, and everyone should camp under this desert night sky at least once. You can camp outside of the park nearby on BLM land, but those who plan ahead will have the best experience.

There are more than 792,000 acres of wilderness with 13 trailheads designated for backcountry camping. Just make sure you register at one of the backcountry boards so rangers will know what vehicle is yours and the date you left, which will help avoid any potential concern about your safety.

Trails to Consider:

  • Black Rock Canyon
  • Cottonwood Spring
  • Covington
  • Geology Tour
  • Indian Cove
  • Juniper Flats
  • Keys West
  • North Entrance
  • Pine City
  • Pleasant Valley
  • Porcupine Wash
  • Turkey Flats
  • Twin Tanks

Make sure to bring enough water! Rangers recommend avoiding backpacking during the summer months when heat can reach extreme temperatures. Don't forget to follow leave no trace principles; if you pack it in, pack it out! 

Psst! To learn more about what the park has to offer, read our guide on what to do in Joshua Tree National park.

tall trees under the blue sky
Sequoia National Park. Photo by Matthew Dillon.

2. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park


  • See the largest remaining grove of sequoia trees at Redwood Canyon
  • Relatively few visitors 
  • Be aware of high elevation gain

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks sit side-by-side and can easily be explored on the same trip. Choose from a wide range of loop trails leading to groves of redwoods, including Redwood Canyon in Kings Canyon, which is the largest remaining grove of sequoia trees in the world. These two parks are less popular than Yosemite, meaning fewer crowds and more space for you to feel lost in nature. There are plenty of activities and attractions available in the area, so make sure to check out our guide on the best things to do at Sequoia National Park.

The High Sierra Trail is one of the more challenging trails, at 73 miles long with more than 15,000 feet of elevation gain, while Pearl Lake is great for beginners at 12.4 miles long with an elevation gain of 3,663 feet. 

Trails to Consider:

  • Lakes Trail to Pearl Lake 
  • High Sierra Trail
  • Rae Lakes Loop
  • Little Five Lakes Loop
  • Mineral King to Franklin Lakes 
  • Hamilton Lake 
  • Alta Peak to Alta Meadow 
  • Middle Fork to Redwood Meadow
gray rock formation in front of white and yellow sky
The sunrise as seen from the Mt. Whitney trail. Photo by Alan Carrillo.

3. Mt. Whitney


  • Tallest peak in the lower 48 states at 14,494 feet
  • Great option for beginner backpackers
  • See glacial lakes, waterfalls, and more 

Mt. Whitney is a classic “14er” that lies in between Sequoia National Park and Inyo National Forest. It’s the tallest peak in the continental United States and requires a permit to hike, whether or not you stay overnight. You can apply for permits from the website of either side you enter, which may be through the Sequoias or Inyo. It’s a great option for those who are new to backpacking, as the journey is relatively short and usually takes two days.

As one of the highest peaks in the country and the highest in California, you will need to acclimate to the altitude. It’s recommended to spend at least two days prior to the hike to allow your body to adjust, as many hikers have reported developing headaches, feeling breathless, and even getting sick. Enjoy the views as you accomplish ascending the highest peak in the state. 

Trails to Consider:

  • Trail Camp 
  • The John Muir Trail (A whopping 212 mile-trail, which begins in Yosemite!) 
  • Ascend the backside of the peak through Whitney’s Backdoor
body of water with gray rocks
Tuolumne River facing east and Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite. Photo by Jim Bahn.

4. Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite

Highlights of Yosemite

  • Lakes and swimming holes 
  • Generally moderate weather 
  • Mecca of granite-face climbing 

The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne

The Tuolumne Meadows side of Yosemite National Park is far less crowded than the valley and its endless waterfalls, swimming holes, and signature granite cliffs will leave you in awe. The epic Tuolumne Meadows to White Wolf trail is 33 miles one-way, but it can be made into a 50-mile loop. This trail will take a few days to complete, and a permit is required. You can start from either end, although most people choose to hike from White Wolf to Tuolumne Meadows; both of which are also two of the best Yosemite camping spots.

Be bear aware, and make sure to bring a bear-proof canister for all your food and scented items. There are also less-demanding trails throughout  Yosemite, with our suggestions listed below. The length of these trails ranges from six to 20 miles round-trip. 

Other Trails to Consider: 

  • Polly Dome Lakes 
  • Cathedral Lakes 
  • Sunrise Lakes 
  • Young Lakes 
  • Ireland and Evelyn Lake 
  • McCabe Lakes 
  • Glen Aulin 
  • John Muir Trail 
  • Waterwheel Falls 
  • Clouds Rest 
  • Lyell Canyon
  • Sunrise High Sierra Camp 
  • Vogelsang 
gray road with green pine trees on the sides
Redwood National Park, California. Photo by Wall Boat.

5. Redwood National and State Parks


  • California's redwoods are literally the tallest trees in the entire world!
  • A collection of shorter hiking trails
  • Scenic drives 

There are more than 200 miles of hiking trails with access to gorgeous backcountry camping featuring redwood forests, waterfalls, beaches, prairies, and marshes. Marvel at these impressive giants, which can grow to 300 feet or more and can live for more than 2,000 years. They are literally the tallest trees in the entire world, yet their root system is surprisingly short, at only 6 to 12 feet deep. A unique aspect of this park is the number of scenic drives available. For more info, check out our guide on some of the top things to do in Redwood National Park.

Noteworthy Trails to Consider:  

  • James Irvine-Miners Ridge Loop 
  • Boy Scout Tree Trail a
  • Redwood Creek Trail 
  • Salamander Flat Trail
  • Trillium Falls Trail

Camp in Style with KÜHL

No matter where you go, a backpacking trip through scenic sights can rejuvenate the soul! Just pack up your belongings and head out. Shop our outdoor gear below.

Featured Image - Night sky at Joshua Tree National Park by Henrique Pinto.

Nancy Raven Kirk
Nancy Raven Kirk

Nancy is a writer, traveler, and outdoor enthusiast originally from Los Angeles. She's had work published in the L.A. Times, OC Weekly, and various other publications. Check out her website at


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