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3. Kings Canyon National Park

Rae Lakes is one of the best backpacking destinations in the U.S.
Rae Lakes is a 40-mile trail that passes over an alpine pass at 12,000 feet in elevation. Photo by Jeff Pang licensed under CC BY 2.0

If you’re looking for epic backpacking in Northern California, Kings Canyon National Park comes highly recommended. As a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker, I’ve hiked the entire north-south distance of the park, and what I like most is that it offers Sierra-like views without the Yosemite crowds. Plus, it’s about as diverse and well-developed as the hiking in San Diego.

Here, you’ll find 80% wilderness area with a robust network of hiking trails. Check out the Evolution Basin, Golden Staircase of Mather Pass, or Forester Pass for some of the best hiking in Northern California.

Note that access to Kings Canyon National Park requires driving through some of the world’s largest groves of sequoia trees. Consider taking a side trip to marvel at their immense size.

Mist Falls

Mist Falls is a 9-mile out-and-back trail located on the South Fork of the Kings River. The hike can be done in a day but if you’re up for some backpacking, consider camping about a mile up the trail in Paradise Valley.

You’ll find three campgrounds in Paradise Valley: Lower, Middle, and Upper Camp. I’ve stayed at all three, but in autumn, it’s hard to beat camping among the golden aspens of the Lower Camp. It’s important to note that there’s no other camping between here and the trailhead.

If you’re doing the hike in a day, you’ll start at the Road’s End Trailhead and follow the Paradise Valley Trail (also known as the Woods Creek Trail) up to the base of Paradise Valley. From here, the trail then ascends granite cliffs, with sights of the distinctive jagged peak of the Sphinx. At the top, the cooling mist and shady beach below the falls make for a peaceful picnic spot.

Whether I visit in a high snow year or a low snow year; during fall or early summer, Mist Falls never ceases to impress. One word of caution: Watch out for rattlesnakes. I stumbled across one while hiking here in summer, which was a bit surprising given the high elevation.

Rae Lakes

The Rae Lakes Trail is arguably one of the best hiking trails in the country. For the most direct route to the lakes, follow the Bubb’s Creek Trail from the Road’s End Trailhead. Then, turn left onto the Pacific Crest Trail (also known as the John Muir Trail in this area) and climb over Glen Pass at 11,926 feet.

I frequent Rae Lakes because it’s the easiest way to get across the watershed divide and one of my favorite places to camp. The lake reflects the sky’s colorful hues at sunrise and sunset, making for a postcard-worthy setting. With metal bear boxes for food storage and a ranger station, it’s also a great spot for backpacking.

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