Northern California Hiking

5 Best Northern California Day Hikes for Fall

Fall rains bring an end to California’s Mediterranean summer. As a result, many of NorCal’s popular trails become less-crowded. Deciduous trees begin to change colors. Cool, crisp mornings and warm afternoons make for ideal hiking weather. Autumn is the perfect time to explore the amazing landscapes of the region before winter snows and heavy rain inundate trails. Here are 5 Norcal day hikes you can safely enjoy after the rains commence.

The Miners’ Ridge and James Irvine Loop

Walk among towering, ancient, old-growth redwoods are that between 500 and 2000-years-old.

Length: 7.5 miles round trip
Elevation gain:  1000 feet
Trailhead:  Prairie Creek State Park Visitor Center,  Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, Humboldt County

Redwood National Park and California State Parks co-manage Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. This is the only park in the United States where such a relationship exists. Located in far northern Humboldt County, Prairie Creek is home to the world’s tallest tree, Hyperion, measuring 379.1 feet (its location is undisclosed for protection). It is also home to the Murrelet State Wilderness area.

The James Irvine-Clintonia-Miner’s Ridge loop will take you through a remarkable old growth forest. The trail begins at the Prairie Creek Visitor Center on Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway. There are two exits off the 101 for the parkway. In the meadow in front of the visitor center, Roosevelt elk are often grazing.

Start on the James Irvine Trail. Approximately 3.5 miles down the trail, turn south on the Clintonia trail. The Clintonia trail meets Miner’s Ridge after 1.5 miles. Follow Miner’s Ridge back to the James Irvine trail to return to the visitor’s center.

Miner’s Ridge is home to many burly, gnarly, old redwoods. You will also see Douglas fir, grand fir, huckleberry, sorrel, and a variety of ferns. Parts of the trail can get muddy, but the forest duff keeps it in good shape throughout the fall. The trail should be avoided in high wind, as flying branches called “widow makers” can cause serious injury. Wooden bridges cover all creek crossings. The towering redwoods offer some protection during light rain. There are no fees for day use, and all trails are clearly signed. Here is a map of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park to get you started.

Dipsea, Steep Ravine to Matt Davis Loop

Start at the beach, hike along coastal bluffs to redwood forests, stroll past two waterfalls, and climb a ladder along this lush trail.

Length: 6.8 miles round trip
Elevation gain:  1600 feet
Trailhead: Stinson Beach, Marin County

Mt. Tamalpais State Park offers a plethora of hikes in the Bay Area. It is less touristy than neighboring Muir Woods. From epic views of the San Francisco Bay to lush waterfalls, this gem of Marin County is not to be missed. Fall rains add to the beauty of this loop. The Dipsea-Steep Ravine-Matt Davis route is quite popular in the summer. Fall is the perfect time to avoid the crowds. Be prepared for changing weather conditions, like fog.

The Dipsea trail begins at Stinson Beach near the junction of Highway 1 and the Panoramic Highway. (Please check current road conditions for Highway 1. At the time of publication, the 1 is closed between Muir Beach and Stinson Beach. The trail must be accessed from the north.) Follow the Dipsea Trail about one mile along coastal bluffs enjoying epic views of Stinson Beach, the Pacific Ocean, and Point Reyes. When the Dipsea Trail intersects with the Steep Ravine Trail, turn left.  Head into to the redwood forest and lush canyon of Web Creek. The trail steadily climbs past two waterfalls. At the second waterfall, climb a 10-foot ladder with 14 rungs to continue on the trail.  Use caution as the ladder can be slippery when damp. After another 1.5 miles, you will reach the Pantoll Ranger Station. Cross the Panoramic Highway to the Matt Davis Trail and begin your descent of approximately four miles back to the beach. There is an option to make this hike shorter by taking the Old Mine Trail for a three-mile loop (Dipsea-Old Mine-Steep Ravine-Dipsea).

The Dipsea-Steep Ravine-Matt Davis loop will take you through a mixed-species forest, a narrow canyon of Redwoods, and along coastal bluffs with amazing views. You can even catch a glimpse of San Francisco’s Sunset District to the south. Like any loop, it can be done in reverse; however, the Matt Davis trail is a more challenging, longer ascent than Dispea to Steep Ravine. This map for Mt. Tamalpais State Park can help you plan your route.

Horsetail Falls

Climb over granite slabs along the cataracts of Pyramid Creek to view the impressive Horsetail Falls.

Length: 3-5.6 miles round trip
Elevation gain:  1200 feet
Trailhead:  Twin Bridges, El Dorado County

The Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe consists of 63,960 acres. This sub-alpine and alpine forest were formed by glaciers during the last ice age. Granite peaks, cascading waterfalls, and easy access makes this wilderness area one of the most popular ones in the United States. A free permit is required for day use and is available at most trailheads.

The trail to Horsetail Falls is not well established, but Caltopo can help you map your route. A large parking lot along Highway 50 near the town of Twin Bridges serves as a trailhead (fee required). Arrive early for parking if you plan to hike on the weekend. Beginning in the Eldorado National Forest, follow various cairns and signs posted on trees along the banks of Pyramid Creek for about .08 mile until you reach the Desolation Wilderness. Fill out a day-use permit before continuing on. Trust your intuition as you ascend, choosing routes along the granite slabs. At approximately 1.5 miles, you will reach the base of Horsetail Falls. If you wish to reach the top, continue bouldering up for another mile.

Horsetail Falls is spectacular! Following cairns on granite slabs and climbing over boulders gives one a sense of freedom. This short, steep hike offers amazing views and wilderness experience typically only available on longer, overnight backpacking trips. The US Forest Service ranks this hike as moderate. Before you go, check the weather forecast for any low elevation snow. The trailhead is at 6,000 feet.

Lassen Peak

Ascend to the top of California’s only volcano to erupt in the 20th century, offering breathtaking views of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges.

Length: 5 miles round trip
Elevation gain:  2000 feet
Trailhead:  Lassen Peak Trailhead, Lassen County

Lassen Volcanic National Park contains over 150 miles of trails. The epitome of these trails is the peak itself with its classic volcanic crater. Technically a lava pinnacle plug dome, Mt. Lassen is the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range. It last erupted in 1921. This national park is one of the few areas in the world featuring all four types of volcano: plug dome, shield, cinder cone, and strato.

The north entrance to the park is accessible off Highway 44 out of Redding, and the south entrance is accessible from Highway 36 out of Red Bluff (park entrance fees required). Both highways intersect with Interstate 5. The Lassen Peak trailhead is closer to the southern entrance; however, a fall drive along Lassen Volcanic National Parkway is breathtaking. Yellow aspen leaves, lush meadows, alpine lakes, and lava beds are a feast for the eyes of any nature lover.

The trail begins at an elevation of 8,500 feet. This hike is best done in early fall, as the park sees an average of three inches of snow in October. It’s possible to hike in light snow with sturdy boots and trekking poles. The trail bed consists of porous volcanic rock that handles precipitation well.

The Peak Trail is a short, two-and-half mile climb to the caldera which offers breathtaking vistas of lakes and distant mountain ranges. Along the switchbacks, you can smell sulfur reminding one of the volcano’s history. Once on the rim, glacier-covered Mt. Shasta, a plug dome that still has its peak, looms off to the north. This trail can cause mild altitude sickness. It’s important to drink twice as much water as you think you need, and rest along the way if you have any symptoms. Always be aware of changing weather conditions. It can be quite windy on top.

The Lassen Peak Trail is a relatively easy first mountain to climb, even for children. The park offers many less challenging trails to explore with geothermal features, like Bumpass Hell, and epic waterfalls, like Kings Creek Falls. Unlike other national parks in California, Lassen Volcanic is not crowded, there’s plenty of parking, and never a traffic jam. You can use this map of Lassen Volcanic National Park to help plan your day.

McCloud Falls

This short, easy trail through woodland and canyon takes you on a tour of three waterfalls.

Length: 4.2 miles round trip
Elevation gain:  95 feet
Trailhead:  McCloud River Loop Rd., Shasta County

Located in Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the McCloud River is world-renowned amongst fisherman for its wild trout. The three waterfalls along the river are considered amongst the best in Northern California. They have been delighting tourists since the 1800s. Fed by the subterranean waters of Mt. Shasta, these large waterfalls are stunning. The native Winnemem Wintu tribe called this area, “The falls where the salmon turn back.” The trail is easy with little vertical climb. It is partially paved and partially ADA-accessible. There are several picnic areas.

To reach the trailhead, take the 89 east from Interstate 5 near Mt. Shasta City. Travel 14.7 miles past the town of McCloud. Turn onto the McCloud River Loop Road (40N44) towards Fowlers Camp and Lower Falls. Turn right after 0.6 of a mile, following the signs to the Lower Falls. The parking lot is another half mile.

The hike begins at the Lower Falls. Follow the staircase down from the picnic area to view the Lower Falls. To continue, take the paved trail to reach Fowlers Campground. Follow the signs to the impressive Middle Falls. At 100 feet wide, this feathery waterfall is the most spectacular of the three. Continue past the Middle Falls to the canyon rim, then ascend to the Upper Falls. This tiered waterfall also features huecos, or hollow holes, in the bedrock. The trail is not a loop. Once you reach the overlook of the Upper Falls, retrace your steps back to the trailhead.

Each waterfall on the McCloud River has its own unique characteristics. These impressive falls gain volume with seasonal rains. The easy trail is accessible for all levels of fitness and age. This map of Mt. Shasta can be used to help you get around.

Remember to always check the weather before heading out, use sun protection, and wear layers as conditions in the mountains can change rapidly. Cooler temperatures, autumnal leaf colors, and diminishing tourists provide optimal conditions for exploring NorCal’s regional beauty in the fall.

Best NorCal Day Hikes for Fall

  1. James Irvine-Clintonia-Miner’s Ridge Loop: Humboldt County
  2. Dipsea-Steep Ravine-Matt Davis Loop: Marin County
  3. Horsetail Falls: El Dorado County
  4. Lassen Peak Trail: Lassen County
  5. McCloud Falls Trail: Shasta County