5 Winter Backpacking Trips to do in California

A few years ago, quota was established for the northern portion of the hike, and since then it has been difficult to get permits. All of the available quota for the year is released in October the year before. Fortunately, winter is a less popular time to be hiking, so it is a bit easier to get last minute permits.

Sespe Hot Springs

I’ll start this list off with one of my absolute favorite backpacking trips in al of California: Sespe Hot Springs. There are a few different trails you can take, but the most popular one is the Sespe River Trail.

This is an out and back trail that is in total about 30 miles. It’s ~9 miles to Willet Hot Springs; a tub that thermal waters are pumped into. And then it is another 6 miles to Hot Spring Canyon. The river in this canyon is thermal, and the temperature gets hotter the further you travel up canyon.

There are no permits or quota to do this hike. You need the California Adventure Pass to park at the trailhead. This area gets really popular on weekends so be sure to show up early to get parking.

Point Reyes

Only an hour from San Francisco is the fabled Point Reyes. This National Seashore is exceptionally beautiful, and the weather is fairly nice year round. The most popular backpacking trip within the park is the Palomarin Trail to Wildcat Camp. 

The trail is about 12 miles round trip, so it is perfect as an overnight. The camp is extremely nice, and situated just behind the beach. If you walk a mile and a half south along the coast, you will arrive at Alamere Falls – one of only 3 waterfalls in the US that empties directly into the ocean.

One caveat about this trail: getting campsite reservations is extremely competitive. If you are trying to go on a weekend, then permits will be gone very quickly within being available. It is still possible to get other campsites within Point Reyes. One option is to get boat in campsites that require kayaking up Tomales Bay to reach.

Death Valley

Death Valley is most famous for being the lowest point in North America and regularly hitting summer time temperatures of over 110º F. But, in the wintertime, the weather is much more enjoyable, and Death Valley has plenty to offer visitors. The most famous backpacking trip within the park is the Cottonwood-Marble Canyons Loop.

This 30 mile loop travels between two canyons. While the terrain is not particularly difficult, it is important to check with rangers before you go about water availability. Additionally, parts of the canyon can be quite overgrown.

Death Valley has a very relaxed approach when it comes to backcountry camping. There are no permits. Instead, you just have to camp a certain distance away from paved roads and day-use areas. This makes the park a wonderland for those who feel confident enough to get away from trails. For people willing to travel deep into the wilderness, there are painted hills, towering sand dunes and remote hot springs!

Joshua Tree

For some, Joshua Tree might only remind them of a U2 album. For others, it might seem like a place dedicated for climbers. Joshua Tree, however, should be considered a premier backpacking destination. The longest official trail in the park is the California Riding and Hiking Trail.

The California Riding and Hiking Trail is 40 miles and travels point to point across the main part of the park. This trail pass no water sources along the route, so it is important that you cache water before you set off.

Like Death Valley, Joshua Tree is very relaxed with its permitting. If you want to do backcountry camping, then you need to self-register at the trail head. As long as you camp a quarter of a mile away from roads and day use areas, then you are free to camp wherever.

The Lost Coast

Last on the list is the Lost Coast. Way up in the far northern reaches of California is the longest stretch of undeveloped coast line in the state. The trail is technically divided into two sections: the Northern Section and the Southern Section. The northern section is more famous and more popular.

The Northern Section travels primarily directly on the beach. It is usually done in 3 days. One thing to be mindful of is the tides. There are certain sections of the trail that are impassable during high tide, so it’s important to know when that will be.

A few years ago, quota was established for the northern portion of the hike, and since then it has been difficult to get permits. All of the available quota for the year is released in October the year before. Fortunately, winter is a less popular time to be hiking, so it is a bit easier to get last minute permits.

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