The 6 Most Grueling Hikes in Northern California

There are plenty of difficult hikes in NorCal, but these are the most rigorous you will find. After all, what's life without a challenge?

Sometimes the snowy slopes of Mt. Shasta can look more like Everest. Photo by Todd Diemer 

The vast wilderness of Northern California is a dream for any outdoor adventurer. Packed full of diverse wilderness areas, NorCal had many different areas to go explore for any Weekend Warrior. Some people to choose to take a nice relaxing hike, while others choose to go on intense and rigorous journeys through the massive and rugged wilderness areas.

For the latter, this list is for you. There are plenty of difficult hikes in NorCal, but these are the most rigorous you will find. After all, what’s life without a challenge?

Here are the 6 most grueling hikes Northern California has to offer:

Grizzly Falls

If you follow the credo that “nothing worth doing is easy,” than the hike to Grizzly Falls and Grizzly Lake is right up your alley. The Grizzly Creek Trail is a 14-mile trek through the Trinity Alps Wilderness with a beautiful lake and 600-foot waterfall payoff.

The hike is a grueling 12-hour trip going up 5,400 feet of elevation. You will almost surely need to stay the night once you reach the lake, as it’s nearly impossible to do the roundtrip in one day.

Grizzly Creek Trail boasts all the features of an A+ alpine trail with stunning scenery, vertical climbing, towering granite summits all around, a one-of-a-kind glacier, a massive lake, an enormous waterfall and an open, green meadow. It displays the largely anonymous beauty of the Trinity Alps and the incredible diversity present in Northern California’s vast mountain landscapes.

Read about getting to Grizzly Lake and Grizzly Falls

Brokeoff Mountain

The lesser-known mountain in Lassen Volcanic National Park is also own of the parks most intense hikes. Several hundred thousand years ago, ancient stratovolcano Mt. Tehama blew forming Brokeoff Mountain. Erosion from melting glaciers and volcanic activity has left Brokeoff with a steep north face that appears to have “broken off” from another formation, hence its name.

Sitting only about four miles from Lassen Peak, 9,235-foot Brokeoff Mountain provides hikers with a slightly more challenging haul. The strenuous 6.8 mile hike is very steep and finishes with a rocky climb up the face to the summit.

The hike is difficult but the views at the top are second-to-none. At points, you’ll have an overhead view of Lake Almanor and at the summit, you’ll get stunning views of Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak.

Read about the summiting Brokeoff Mountain

See how trying to summit Brokeoff in the winter can break your spirit

Mount Shasta

The mighty Mount Shasta is the most coveted peak in all of Northern California. This grueling adventure up to the 14,000 foot peak made Outside Magazine’s “6 Iconic Hikes” list and has been highlighted by outdoor thought leaders like Colombia’s Directors of Toughness.

The difficulty of summiting this mountain is highly documented. From the lack of oxygen near the top to the dreaded stretch appropriately named Misery Hill, many people who attempt to summit Shasta turn back around before the top. There is also a high amount of injuries reported on this mountain every year. This is not a hike to take lightly.

Into Thin Air – Mountaineering on Mt. Shasta

Half Dome

Rising nearly 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley and 8,800 feet above sea level, Half Dome is a Yosemite National Park icon and a great challenge to many hikers. Despite an 1865 report declaring that it was “perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has been, and never will be, trodden by human foot,” George Anderson reached the summit in 1875, in the process laying the predecessor to today’s cable route.

The 14- to 16-mile round-trip hike to Half Dome is not for you if you’re out of shape or unprepared. You will be gaining elevation (for a total of 4,800 feet) most of your way to the top of Half Dome. Most hikers take 10 to 12 hours to hike to Half Dome and back; some take longer. If you plan on hiking during the day, it’s smart to leave around sunrise (or earlier) and then have a non-negotiable turn-around time.

The most famous–or infamous–part of the hike is the ascent up the cables. The two metal cables allow hikers to climb the last 400 feet to the summit without rock climbing equipment. Since 1919, relatively few people have fallen and died on the cables. However, injuries are not uncommon for those acting irresponsibly.

Read about the The Thrilling Hike to the Top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

Desolation Wilderness

The Desolation Wilderness is a 64,000-acre playground crisscrossed by hiking trails, running water and a generous number of alpine lakes of all sizes. There are many hikes to choose from in this vast wilderness area, including 17 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, but all of the trails come with their share of vigorous hiking. Much of the difficulty of the hike stems from being at nearly 10,000 feet elevation, leaving oxygen something to be desired.

Needless to say, the rigor of hiking up and downhill at high elevation with as much as 50-pounds strapped to your back tends to filter the types of people you are likely to encounter in the Desolation. It is not the sort of place for people with serious health concerns or who are carrying a lot of extra weight. Most of the people you meet are younger and in reasonably good shape.

Read about an epic backpacking trip into the Desolation Wilderness

Lost Coast Trail

The misplaced shoreline of the Lost Coast Trail accommodates nearly 100 miles of unadulterated beaches. It’s the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the continental United States. The 55-mile hike is flat but consists of loose rock and sand throughout the entire trip, making it difficult for even the most experienced hiker.

Hikers begin their journey at Mattole Road to the north, and trek all the way south to Shelter Cove, which remains one of the few signs of civilization in the area. On the 72-hour trudge, explorers get to see epic ocean views, sprawling forests, open prairies and unique wildlife. The adventure down the seaboard is a meditative and peaceful endeavor as you may not see another human being the entire way.

See What It Takes To Hike Humboldt County’s Lost Coast Trail

Active NorCal

Telling the Stories of Northern California


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