|Hike||Best season||Worst season||Difficulty|
|Pt Reyes||Winter/ Early Spring||Summer||*|
|Anything on the coast||Winter||Summer||*|
|Mt Tamalpais||Spring, Fall||Summer||*|
|Mission Peak, Ohlone Wilderness||Spring, Fall||Summer||*|
|Portola Redwoods||Spring, Fall, Winter||Summer||*|
|Big Basin||Spring, Fall, Winter||Summer||*|
|Yosemite High Country||Jul-Aug||Oct-Nov||**|
|Yosemite Valley (Half Dome, El Capitan)||Jun-Jul||Sep-Nov||***|
|Mt Williamson||Jul 1-15||Winter||*****|
|Kings Canyon and Western Sierra||Jul-Sep||Winter||****|
|Eastern Sierra (Bishop area)||Jul-Sep||Winter||*****|
Are you physically fit?
This suggested calendar is also taking into consideration the fact that one needs to train before getting into the most strenuous hikes, a fact that many inexperienced hikers tend to forget. I call "the REI generation" the crowd of casual hikers who want to do the most epic hikes no matter how little training they got. The REI generation (which includes young people, yuppies, retired people, surfers, rock climbers, and just about anyone who lives in California and is physically fit) is getting more and more fascinated by the epic hikes, the Half Dome or Mt Whitney hikes that experienced hikers talk about. But often the "REI generation" doesn't have the time or the patience to get in shape before attempting those epic hikes. The result is a growing number of permanent injuries (people who can't hike anymore because their knees or ankles always hurt). Another result is that the rate of failure is very high even for hikes that are not particularly technical (e.g., Half Dome or Mt Whitney). An even less pleasant effect is that fewer and fewer people enjoy these epic hikes: how can you enjoy a hike that lasts 10-15 hours, that you will suffer from the very beginning and that will leave you sore legs for weeks? Most people do Mt Whitney so they can tell their friends "I've done Whitney" not because they want to enjoy the hike. It is important to realize that there is a big difference between "hiking Mt Whitney" and "hiking Mt Whitney AFTER four months of gradually more difficult hikes".
The only way to train properly is to hike. You shouldn't jump from the beginning of that calendar to the hikes at the end, and assume that it is equivalent to doing all those hikes in that sequence.
A gym is not a good way of training for hiking. When you hike, every step is uneven. The stress on your muscles, ligaments, nerves, bones, skin (not to mention your psyche) is completely different from the (almost inexistent) stress that they receive in a gym. The gym is an artificial environment: it is to the oudoors what fast food is to a home-made meal. In a natural environment the pace varies all the time. The grade changes all the time. Altitude and temperature can be major factors. A gym is in no way a substitute for the real thing. Also, the psychological factor is very important: ideally you should get to the point that you don't even realize that you are hiking, and this is only 50% physical. Only by hiking long distances does your mind get used to... hiking long distances. Also, resistance to stress, exhaustion, temperature, etc can be built only by "doing it". "Training" in a gym (a concrete building inside a city) is indoor exercise, that does little to prepare you for outdoors exercise.
Exercising in a gym can actually be detrimental and even plain dangerous. In a gym, you mainly develop muscles. Thus your body feels that it is in shape. But the reality is that your body is in shape for doing... what you do in a gym; not necessarily for the outdoors. Some muscles are strong and tell your body that they can do a strenuous hike. But there are countless muscles and ligaments that have not been stressed in a gym and will be stressed in a strenuous hike. If you are simply out of shape, your body tells you "stop and go back". If exercise in a gym has given you strong muscles, your body will not get any alarm signal. Many people get sore body parts and injuries (and serious ones) precisely because they exercised in a gym: they fooled their body into thinking it was in shape for a strenuous hike, when in fact only some muscles were. On the other hand, if you hike for months, you may not develop big strong muscles, but you stress, little by little, all the parts that need to be stressed. It is the classic story of natural and artificial behavior: artificial behavior is never a substitute for the natural one. Exercising in a gym could be the reason that you screw up your knee or ankle for the rest of your life.
Last but not least, a gym does not train you for the common sense that you need on a trail. It is mostly gym regulars who make me roll my eyes in disbelief, as they show up totally unprepared: not enough water, not enough food, no headlamp, no walkie talkie (all things that you don't need in a gym) but... a state-of-the-art cell phone.
The best thing that you can do to improve your hiking performance is to stop going to the gym. Save your money: stop going to the gym, and start hiking. It's healthier, a lot more fun, and it's even free!
Marathon vs hikingPlenty of people run a marathon (in the hundreds of thousands). Only a handful of them could do an average mountain hike. So if you have done a marathon, don't even think for a second that you are fit for the outdoors. The marathon is a highly organized event that runs through paved roads and concrete buildings. The route is mostly flat. There is virtually none of the physical stress due to the uneven terrain of the outdoors. The general rule is that three kilometers on flat terrain equal one kilometer uphill, and that two kilometers on asphalt equal one kilometer on non-paved terrain. A marathon is 42 kms. It is the equivalent of a 15-20 km hike on a rolling-hill terrain, i.e. what i would consider an easy-to-medium hike. (Of course, the speed at which you run it makes more or less challenging). Last but not least, the psychology is wildly different: if you fail a marathon, there are plenty of structures to help you get home. If you fail a hike, you're stuck in the middle of a forest or on top of a mountain. The pressure is totally different. No, if you have done a marathon, you are not ready for a serious hike.
Rock climbing vs mountain hikingIf you are a rock climber, think twice before embarking into any of these day hikes. The mindset is, in my opinion, wildly different, no matter how physically fit you think you are. First of all, my experience is that these are two very different sports. Hikers are basically people who love nature and adventure. "Nature" stands for lakes, waterfalls, creeks, wildflowers, birds, etc. "Adventure" stands for roaming vast territory, studying the topography to find out the route, dealing with countless different types of terrain, from wading creeks to (free) climbing boulders.
Rock climbers tend to think of physical effort as an intense but short event. The physical effort required by hikes is typically much longer. It is more about endurance over long periods of time than physical strength.
Even from the viewpoint of safety, i found that rock climbers tend to panic more easily than hikers. Rock climbers are used to act in a protected environment (rope, helmet and the likes). When they have to cross a creek or jump over talus rocks or even climb rocks, they are the ones who hesitate first. My experience is that rock climbers are more likely than hikers to get injured and lost when hiking in the wilderness (just like hikers are more likely to get injured when they try rock climbing).
Rock climbers and hikers argue which of the two sports is more of a mind-game (i.e. requiring intelligence). As a hiker (and, alas, a mathematician), i think that hiking requires a lot more intelligence, but of course i'm biased. If you are a rock climber, though, remember this: when you are really into the wilderness or climbing a 4,000 meter mountain, you are hours away from your car. If you get lost or get hurt, you are in real trouble. Whether it requires more intelligence or not, remember that this is wildly different from rock climbing a few minutes away from your car, from a paved road and from a telephone. Personally, i think that hiking requires two levels of planning: micro-planning (deciding where you put your foot next) and macro-planning (deciding which route to take), neither of which is obvious for
So the psychology is wildly different. In fact, i tend to think of rock climbing and hiking as opposite sports. If you are a rock climber, think twice before doing what i do.
CampingOne of the worst obstacles to enjoying the wilderness of California is how difficult it has become to simply camp near a trailhead. Many people will never enjoy the parks and forests that their taxes support because they will turned off by campgrounds that require a booking well in advance. For day hikers who just need to sleep a few hours before an early start, it is also annoying to have to pay steep prices for a campground that offers facilities that they will never enjoy. If there is a national forest near your trailhead, check whether you can camp for free in the forest. As long as you can park your car safely, you are usually allowed to camp anywhere. You do need a campfire permit if you want to have a campfire.
I cannot give you tips for camping near trailheads because what i do is probably illegal and i could get in trouble by publicizing it.
Regardless of what the laws say (not even a professional lawyer can keep track of them), i encourage you to camp in environmentally friendly ways. In my humble opinion, you don't disturb nature if you: 1. sleep in the car, 2. pitch your tent on asphalt, 3. pitch your tent in a picnic area, 4. pitch your tent right on a trail, 5. get a site in a campground. Whether these are allowed under the current laws when you read this is beyond my ability to doublecheck. The law is often friendlier to greedy private business and to incompetent government bureaucracy than to the environment.
It is sad that so many people never visit their parks and wilderness (it belongs to you, not to the agencies or to the corporations that run the campgrounds) simply because it's too difficult to camp.
Recommended hikesThis page has a list of my favorite hikes in California. They are ranked (in the right column) to respond to the most frequently asked question.
High-altitude hikesFor hikers who do not enjoy carrying crampons and ice axes, the Sierra peaks are open basically only from july till early september. June to august is an ideal time because days are long and storms are rare. Depending on how much it snowed in winter, the best month for hiking on the Sierra peaks is either july or august. September is borderline: days get shorter, temperatures drop, thunderstorms become more frequent, etc.
This page has the list of my favorite Sierra hikes.
I pride myself with having bought all my equipment from 99 Cents Only stores and Payless Shoes stores and Big Lots stores. I am not the right person to ask "where should I buy this or that?" or "what is the best brand for this or that?". All my hiking equipment combined is probably worth less than $50.
To backpack or not to backpack?
The vast majority of the California hikes described
on this website were done as day hikes (all except one).
You don't need more than one day if you get in shape.
The problem is precisely... getting in shape.
If you are in shape, you can do 30-35 kms without suffering and with plenty of
stops, and maybe even
40-42 kms (and i have done as many as 48 kms in one day), and get to see
amazing things with no need to camp away from the car and no need to carry
heavy backpacks. Just get an early start (before sunrise) and you can cover
long distances in 12-14 hours, even including several breaks (i routinely
take hundreds of pictures on my hikes,
as you can see at Pictures of California hikes,
which means that i stop hundreds of times during my "lightning-speed" hikes,
which means that the speed is not really that high).
Of course, some people just enjoy camping in the wilderness for the sake of camping, not hiking, in the wilderness. In that case the goal is not to reach the top of a mountain but just to sleep under the stars (no matter how far one went).
Just be aware that you could have probably done a much longer, more comfortable and more rewarding hike by carrying a lighter backpack (no tent, no sleeping bag, no camping gear, minimal water/food) if you were in better shape.
Psychologically, a day hike is much more stressful than a backpacking trip. When you backpack, your tent is never too far. When you day hike the same distance, your tent is in your car: you have to make it all the way back to the parking lot to get anything that you may need. A day hike requires a mindset that you are really (really) on yourself for the whole day. If anything happens, you have to make it all the way back to the car. No surprise that older people tend to backpack: experience tells them that "things" do happen, and age tells them that the number of things they may need is huge.
A note on dangers/ wildlifeCalifornia bears have not killed anyone in decades. There have been only 12 bear attacks between 1980 and 2000, none resulting in deaths. Mountain lions have killed one person between the mid 1990s and 2007. Over the same period of time, rattlesnakes have killed 10. There have been 2 reports of attacks by mountain lions in ten years, versus 800 rattlesnake bites EVERY year. See this page. The vast majority of injuries are unrelated to animals: Yosemite has had more than 1,000 emergencies last year, of which only five were animal-related... and they were all rattlesnake bites (not counting cars destroyed by bears). Rattlesnakes are found all over California. Mountain lions are not as numerous as rattlesnakes, but they roam bigger territories and, yes, they too are to be found all over California (including the Bay Area) except at high elevations and in the deserts. California bears live mainly along the Sierra.
Best of all: more people are killed by dogs than by mountain lions. On average, one American is killed every year by a dog. The number of injuries caused by dogs is virtually infinite. See this page.
Before you panic, put things in perspective: you are much more likely to be attacked and injured by a dog in your own neighborhood than by a rattlesnake in the wilderness. And you are very unlikely to be mauled by a mountain lion, and almost certainly will never be attacked by a bear.
That said, it is a good idea to study what to do in the event you meet a mountain lion, bear or rattlesnake (especially rattlesnakes):
If you are hiking in the spring and early summer in areas with creeks and ponds, you should be much more concerned about mosquitoes than bears or lions. Many parts of California (including the Bay Area) are also infested with ticks.
On average ten people die in Yosemite every year. Usually, drowning accounts for more than 50% of the deaths, and rock climbing is a close second. Traffic accidents are more frequent than animal attacks. Nobody gets killed by animals. Yosemite gets more emergencies because of heart attacks than animal attacks.
I admit that i tend to overlook the danger of high altitude. I consider myself blessed that i was born at high altitude (on the Alps) and that i visited so many places at high altitude (from Tibet to the Andes). So i am a bit reluctant to admit the danger of high-altitude sickness. But do read this Scientific American article for the other side of the coin.
A note on dangers/ stormsLightning kills about 100 people each year in the USA, way more than mountain lions and rattlesnakes combined. A rule of thumb is that most thunderstorms on the high mountains of California happen between 2pm and 4pm, so, first and foremost, plan your hike to be out of the summit way before 2pm. Whenever you are above the tree line and there are clouds hovering in the sky, you are in danger of being struck by lightning. So the first rule is to run down to the tree line and mix with the trees. Lightning will typically strike the tallest object, so don't stand near the tallest trees. If you are still on top of the mountain, the "tallest object" would be you: crouch in a way that your heels touch (search for pictures of "lightning crouch"). Lightning spreads through the ground and might kill you even if it strikes away from you. Crouching is a way to make yourself smaller and minimize chances of a direct strike, and the heels have to touch so that a ground current can flow through your body before reaching vital organs (if you are lying prone on the ground, the current will traverse your whole body, and if you are standing up it will go up one leg and go down the other leg). The time between the thunder and the flash is a rough measure of how distant the lightning is, but electricity travels so fast that it is usually pointless to count the distance: if you see the lightning, you "are" in the electrical field of that lightning. Danger persists about 30 minutes after the end of the storm: the sky is still full of electricity and just waiting for a tall object to discharge. It is also a good idea to keep your hands over your ears: if lightning strikes nearby, you might have permanent damage to your hearing. Your backpack obviously does not help when you are trying to protect yourself from lightning, and any metal object (hiking poles) or electrical object (camera, GPS, phone) is a potential lightning rod. If you are inside a tent during a thunderstom above the tree line... you probably shouldn't be. There is nothing that "insulates" you. In fact, air is an excellent insulator: if lightning propagates through kms of air, imagine what it can do through tiny tents. There are different opinions on whether lightning is more likely to strike near water or not (it should): to be on the safe side, stay away from creeks and lakes. Based on my experience, don't stay near other people: most people are dumb and their actions may attract lightning that will kill you too. If a friend is struck by lightning, his life can probably be saved with CPR and he may get away with simple (if painful) burns. Only about 10% of lightning victims die.
What to packMy friend Ksenya (way more responsible than me) has prepared this checklist of what to pack for a day hike and camping trip.
Books and mapsI personally don't trust any book, map or website that still uses the ancient imperial system (gallons, feet, miles, etc). All the new USGS maps (as well as the new signs inside the national parks and forests) use the metric system, like anywhere else on this planet. The most popular maps and books are way obsolete, no matter how many fo your "experienced" (i.e. old) friends own them, Unfortunately, the USA is cursed with a chronic dearth of good maps and books. In most cases the topomaps from the USGS (available for free online) are the only educated choice.
A note on waterAs for water (perhaps the number-one concern in the USA), natural water (the water found in nature) is the water that we have been programmed to drink by millions of years of evolution. The bottled water that we buy in a store is not "natural" (despite of what the label says) but very artificial: it comes from a chemical factory. Most bacteria that live in natural water are harmless. Most minerals are actually useful (thus the business of "mineral water"). The fear that Americans have of natural water goes back to a well-publicized event of the 1970s, when a group of people got sick. They blamed the water, and started a nation-wide panic, but it turned out that the cause of their disease had not been the infamous "giardia" but simply dirty hands (US citizens rarely wash their hands before eating, and *that* is definitely a bad habit). See this article. I and most of my friends have been drinking natural water (the water of creeks) and never used tablets or filters for more than 20 years, and never got sick once. We wish we could say the same of food served in restaurants.
(Also be aware than when you filter water from creeks and waterfalls you may be removing harmful germs but you are also certainly removing the "commensal" bacteria that your body needs in order to stay alive (read "In Good Health? Thank Your 100 Trillion Bacteria" in the New York Times or "How Bacteria in Our Bodies Protect Our Health" in Scientific American), and, if you are the kind who uses antibiotics for anything, your body desperately needs those bacteria: totally worth getting giardia).
And a note on water containers!Nothing pollutes more than plastic. Plastic pollutes when it is made, when it is used and when it is recycled. Please consider leaving your plastic at home instead of taking it to the wilderness: eventually you WILL lose your favorite plastic bottle, and it will stay there forever. I have found plastic garbage (mostly in impeccable conditions) is some extremely remote parts of the planet: very few people lose their plastic bottles in those remote places, but those "very few" are immortal, and eventually become "a lot". There are metal and glass bottles that are just slightly heavier. It is not true that metal and glass containers pollute too: you will not found aluminum cans or glass bottles in the same place where you find mint-conditiond plastic bottles because cans decay rapidly with heat and water, and glass breaks/melts and returns to its condition of sand.
If you don't care about the damage to the world that you will cause the day you drop/lose your plastic bottle, at least care for your health: plastic releases poisonous toxins into your drink. Small quantities, sure, but you would not drink those toxins if i poured them (in even smaller quantities) into your drink.