When it comes to outdoor recreation, few states boast the biodiversity and sheer size of accessible terrain that California can. With 840 miles of coastline and over 14,000 designated areas protected by public agencies and non-profits—including nine national parks spanning over 6.2 million acres, 17 national forests covering over 20 million acres, and 300 state parks totaling 1.3 million aces—finding public land to explore is easy. It’s doing so while avoiding crowds that’s the real trick.
With this in mind—not to mention a nationwide urge to get out and explore more after being cooped up for two plus years now—it’s best to plan a ways ahead. The following five zones each offers a unique backpacking experience, whether going out for a weekend for an extended trek. Click through to access insider tips, 35mm film photography, and dos & font’s for visiting.
Now, let's be real, it's not going to be easy to hike this trail alone. But as you'll see in this story, it's all about timing and getting proper permits—knowing a local wouldn't hurt either. If you make it out, hit up FM Contributor Andrew M. Upchurch, a talented film photographer and hiking guide for the Yosemite Mountaineering School. Play your cards right and you might see the valley like few do. SEE GUIDE
This loop is everything one could ask for. It’s roughly 30 miles and has just under 10,000 feet of elevation gain. You find yourself winding through lush pine forests, up incredible switchbacks, dipping your toes into lakes and summiting two peaks right around 11,600 feet.
Once, on top of Blackrock Pass you get your first glimpse at Mount Whitney and a beautiful view of the Sierra Range. Trails like this are good at reminding you that the simple things in life are the best—each step on the long ascents are like a form of meditation. SEE GUIDE
Nestled between Yosemite National Park and Mammoth Lakes, this wilderness area is one of California's most special landscapes. As a one-time favorite of renowned naturalist John Muir and oft-cited inspiration for photographer and conservationist Ansel Adams, the aptly named Ansel Adams Wilderness is worth doing your homework on. SEE GUIDE
A solid alternative to Yosemite National Park, this lesser trafficked area is full of deep lakes and towering craggy peaks, and offers some of the best star gazing just about anywhere. This one sits high on this writer's must-visit list, that's for sure. SEE GUIDE
As any experienced outdoorist knows, often the campsites that take the most effort to reach turn out to be the best. And well, you're going to have to work for every single site on this trail—that includes walking on wet sandy, through rock fields, against battering wind, and maybe even through a bit of rain. But as you can see, the juice is worth the squeeze on Northern California's legendary Lost Coast. SEE GUIDE