Overnight Backpacking in Southern California: Trails for Your Trek

Troy De Ville

couple camping at night

Hitting the trails for an overnight trip in Southern California? You’re in for a treat, and the state has a good mix of some of the best hiking in the world. Imagine hanging out at your campsite, surrounded by tons of trees, or soaking up views from a mountaintop — these moments make it all worth it.

Don’t let your time be wasted in Califonia, thought. In this guide, you can skip the junk trails and go straight to the good stuff!

Key Takeaways:

  • Southern California provides a stunning variety of backpacking experiences.
  • Efficient planning is significant to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip.
  • Familiarize yourself with navigation and safety while embracing the wilderness adventure.

Planning Your Adventure

Hiking equipment. View from above. Pine forest.
Image Credit: Deposit Photos

Choosing Your Trail

When choosing your trail, are you looking for coastal views or a mountainous challenge? Think about that, but also consider trail difficulty, weather conditions, and your own fitness level to ensure the story ends on a high note.

Trails like the Santa Cruz Trail serve up a healthy dose of backcountry and vertical gain. If ocean views are your thing, Crystal Cove State Park might just be your Eden. Or, for a unique island twist, the Trans-Catalina Trail offers miles of diverse landscapes.

Permit Essentials

Before you march off on a trail, let’s talk red tape. As you already know, California is different from other states. Many trails, especially those meandering through wilderness areas, require a wilderness permit. It’s not a big deal, but you’ll need to get one for your trip.

For example, Desolation Wilderness is strict on permits to preserve its untrammeled beauty.

It’s a game of first-come, first-serve most of the time, so be quick on the draw. And remember, respecting Leave No Trace principles isn’t just cool; it’s your ticket to maintaining California’s rugged charm for the sequel.

Packing Guidelines

A well-packed backpack is your loyal sidekick. You need the essentials:

  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Cooking gear
  • Enough food

Additionally, put on extra layers for chilly nights and bring a first-aid kit. Also check on weather forecasts to tailor your kit. Lastly, always bring plenty of water – dehydration is what you want to avoid!

Now that we got some of the basics out of the way, let’s look at the trails you’ll be on.

Also, make sure to check out our article on the Best Beginner Backpacking Trips in California!

Top Trails for Overnight Backpacking

Beautiful snow-covered Mount San Jacinto rises above the Coachella Valley and San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm, Palm Desert, California
Image Credit: Deposit Photos

1. San Gorgonio Treks

At San Gorgonio Wilderness, you’ll find yourself challenging the highest peak in Southern California.

You can also consider the Vivian Creek Trail, which has a steep ascent to San Gorgonio Mountain. Here, you can have a breathtaking view of San Bernardino’s landscapes.

2. San Jacinto Peaks

When you reach new heights and take in the breathtaking views that extend way beyond Palm Springs’ valley floor, you’ll feel like you’re on top of the World.

Moreover, the Marion Mountain Trail is a solid pick, especially when looking to witness a sunset that you’ll chat about for ages.

3. Desert Backpacking in Anza-Borrego

Hit the trails at Anza-Borrego for a unique desert escapade.

Then trek across vast sandy landscapes, and admire the persistence of life as flora and fauna thrive in arid conditions. Hiking in the cooler months is also wise, you might catch the desert bloom, a real-life display that puts any firework show to shame.

CoreM Pro Tip: For an unforgettable overnight trip, head to Barker Valley. It’s a gem with natural springs and perfect conditions for stargazing, thanks to the complete absence of city lights

4. Catalina Island Trail

Catalina Island feels a world away with its serene beaches and mountainous trails like the iconic Trans-Catalina Trail. It’s the kind of place where you can watch the sunset over the ocean view with a symphony of waves in the background.

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself sharing the trail with a bison, yes, a bison! It’s all part of the Catalina charm.

What to Expect on Your Trip

a man on a backpack hiking.
Image Credit: Deposit Photos

Weather and Climate in California For Your Hike

Southern California’s weather can be as unpredictable as a plot twist in your favorite series—sunny one moment, chilly the next. Always be ready for rain at any moment!

In spring and fall, you’ll enjoy moderate temperatures, while summers can be a scorcher, especially inland.

Therefore, always pack layers because when the sun dips, it can feel like the desert’s throwing you some cold shoulder.

  • Spring/Fall: Mild, with cool nights
  • Summer: Hot days, especially in the backcountry
  • Winter: Possible snow at higher elevations

Terrain and Wildlife Encounters

Get your camera ready for the bighorn sheep photo bomb, and keep an eye on the trail, as rattlers love a good sunbathing session.

CoreM Pro Tip: When you’re out hiking, keep an eye out for cool critters like bighorn sheep and rattlesnakes. Just stay sharp and enjoy spotting them!

On the other hand, the trails in this area range from sandy washes to rocky ridges, offering a varied hiking experience.

Elevation Info and Hiking Difficulty

Trails like San Gorgonio Peak offer a whopping 11,500 feet of elevation gain and can demand over 10 hours of hiking.

So better be set for some serious elevation climbs. They’ll give you major bragging rights but be warned, they’re going to be a workout for your legs!

LocationElevation Feet
San Gorgonio PeakA breathtaking 11,500 feet with a hefty elevation gain
General Elevation GainExpect 1,500 to 5,000+ feet, varying by trail

Navigation and Safety

Before you set off to conquer the Pacific Crest Trail or meander through San Bernardino National Forest, make sure you’ve got your safety ducks in a row.

Using Maps and GPS

Maps are your new best friends. Even if you’re a tech-savvy hiker, a good old-fashioned paper map won’t run out of battery. If you’ve never read a trail map, check out this source for a quick walkthrough.

Keep a detailed map of the area you’re exploring, including the PCT and any other hiking trails you plan to tackle. It’s like having a dependable pal who’s got your back, no charging required.

  • Go digital when you can. A GPS device or a GPS-enabled smartphone app can be a real lifesaver, especially on less-traveled trails.

Emergency Preparedness

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Southern California’s backcountry can throw you curveballs, from sudden weather changes to unexpected detours. Here are some essential emergency gears:

  • Whistle
  • Water Purification
  • First Aid Kit
  • The buddy system rocks. If you can, hike with a friend. There’s truth to the saying, “Two heads are better than one,” especially if one of those heads knows CPR.

For a great guide on how to not die in the woods, check out our guide here.

Beyond the Trail

Shoes of trekking in wood and walking in row.
Image Credit: Deposit Photos

Camping and Overnight Stays

Heading towards Cucamonga Peak or Mount Baldy both offer access to designated camping areas where you can revel in sunsets and awaken to crisp mountain air.

If you prefer the water’s edge, Big Bear Lake and Little Harbor on Catalina Island cater to water enthusiasts and are also dog-friendly.

CoreM Pro Tip: Don’t forget to pack some extra tasty snacks for your trip. It’s wise to have something satisfying to munch on!

And hey, for a more solitary experience, hunt down primitive camping spots in wilderness areas—just check for permits!

Leave No Trace and Local Wildlife

Keep it clean, keep it green, and keep it serene—that’s the camper’s creed. Always pack out what you pack in, from trash to apple cores, and respect local wildlife by storing food securely.

Wildlife SpottingCrystal Cove State ParkIf you spot a deer, remember to “snap a picture” with your eyes. Memories make the best souvenirs.
Interacting with WildlifeForests and TerrainWild animals are not after your snacks; they’re just living their lives.

Exploring Local Towns and Hidden Gems

After you’ve nailed the wilderness part, hit up the nearby towns to grab a bite. They’ve got loads of character and trial tales to share. Keep an eye out for a cool café or a secret hot spring. The best spots are usually off the beaten path!

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some recommended beginner trails for overnight backpacking in Southern California?

Crystal Cove State Park is perfect for new backpackers. You hike out just far enough to catch that ocean breeze for your campsite serenade, but it’s an easy trek so you won’t feel like you’re lugging your house on your back.

Which trails offer the best four-day backpacking experience in Southern California?

You’ll get a solid mix of coastal views and challenging hikes at Trans-Catalina Trail. It might feel like a mini-vacation with the chance to spot some bison, which, yes, is as cool as it sounds!

What should I know before planning an overnight trip to Joshua Tree?

Always pack more water than you think you’ll need. Remember, there’s no water available in the backcountry. Ensure you have a permit if you’re camping outside of designated campgrounds.

How can I find the most scenic overnight backpacking routes near San Diego?

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is your go-to for a scenic desert backdrop. Meanwhile, you can also hit the Palm Canyon Trail.

Can you suggest any rewarding three-day backpacking itineraries in Southern California?

Set your sights on the San Gorgonio Wilderness and Vivian Creek Trail. With a variety of trails, you’ll get a full-body challenge.

What are the essential tips for backpacking in the Santa Cruz Trail?

The Santa Cruz Trail can be a doozy with its vertical gain, but don’t let that scare you. Make sure to give yourself a pat on the back – setting up camp by a stream and chilling under century-old oaks is epic.

Wrapping Up – Turn Your Ordinary Treks Into Extraordinary Hikes With California Trails

An overnight backpacking journey in Southern California transforms ordinary treks into extraordinary hikes.

With planning, learning the fundamentals of travel, and safety principles, your backpacking expedition becomes not just a journey through nature, but a heartfelt journey within.

Overall, the trails in Southern California are more than just routes; they’re doors to self-discovery, pushing your boundaries, and experiencing significant encounters that promise not only lifelong memories but also major transformations.

Author: Troy De Ville

Title: Founder

Expertise: Outdoor, Travel, Coffee


Troy De Ville is a journalist who founded Core Mountaineering. He is also an avid explorer and an advocate for sustainable outdoor practices. With years of experience traversing the globe's most challenging terrains, Troy aims to inspire and equip adventurers with the tools they need for responsible and uplifting outdoor experiences.

Leave a Comment