If there’s a place on Earth that’s perfectly suited for your first backing trip, it’s the California High Sierra. The Sierra Nevada receives nearly 300 days of sunshine. Wonderfully pleasant temps in the summer as well as into fall. And on top of it all, compared to other mountain ranges you need to worry less about the wildlife.
What Is Backpacking?
The main difference between backpacking and camping is in how you get to the spot where you’re spending the night(s). To camp, you can drive right up to your location (more on that later). But when you backpack, you carry all the gear you need to set up your campsite on your back.
What To Look For In A Beginner Backpacking Trip
We all want to summit the highest peaks and reach for the biggest goals when we start a sport. Even if you are the fittest individual and/or know the great outdoors, the skill set required for backpacking is a combination of both. Start small. Look for low-mileage, moderate elevation gain, and avoid tricky trails filled with things like boulder fields. It isn’t easy, but the rewards are priceless.
Just a heads up that many of these trails called out have restrictions on where you can camp, require a permit for camping, and even the use of camping stoves. Please respect the system so we can protect the wilderness beauty and mitigate wildfire risk.
Yosemite Permit Rules
Speaking of permits, to do any backpacking hike in Yosemite you’ll need a permit and the amount issued is based on trailhead quotas. Sixty percent of permit reservations are available by lottery at recreation.gov beginning on the Sunday up to 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the date you want to start hiking. The rest are available at wilderness centers on a walk-up/first-come basis one day before the trip start date.
One of the best parts about backpacking is that you’re bringing all the gear you’ll need to camp in the wilderness. With that being said, be aware of the rules of WHERE you can camp. Many of the crystal clear lakes don’t allow you to pitch a tent within 600 feet of the waters to ensure they stay clean. In addition, most national forest lands are under year-round fire restrictions. This means wood and charcoal fires are only permitted within metal fire rings in open, developed campgrounds.
Distance: 5 Miles
Elevation Gain: 600 Feet
When deciding to pick a beginner backpacking trip in California, you should keep in mind the primary goal which is to have fun. Near the top of the list for the most scenic AND accessible would be Lake Winnemucca. Located on a small section of the iconic Pacific Crest Trail, this relatively flat trail is a great way to introduce everyone including kids to the experience of backpacking. You’ll find groves of Hemlock, tall granite peaks, and even wildflower blooms in the summer. There’s even an opportunity to go peak bagging and climb to the summit of Round Top which is within eyesight of the campground. The most challenging part to this hike might be obtaining a camping permit.
Distance: 12 Miles
Elevation Gain: 1,200 Feet
As the deep snowpack melts away in the High Sierra, Tuolumne Meadows is home to some of the best beginner backpacking trips in California. One of our personal favorites is to Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. Although you could do this as a day hike, it’s better as a backpacking adventure. Starting at Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center, you’ll follow the Tuolumne River which features a host of waterfalls such as Tuolumne Falls and the White Cascade Falls which are located AT the camp. To learn more about what you need to do ahead of time, go to wilderness camping in Yosemite.
The iconic hike up to Half Dome is a monster climb. Nearly 5,000 vertical feet of elevation gain, depending on which trail you take, it can be anywhere from 14.5 miles to 16.5 miles round-trip. We wouldn’t recommend this one being your first beginner backpacking trips in California but one to aspire towards.
Distance: 5 Miles
Elevation Gain: 1,200 Feet
Although Desolation Wilderness gets all the fame nationally and rightly so, to the north you’ll find the Granite Chief Wilderness, one of the many oases for mountain adventures in the area. Established in 1984, within its boundaries you’ll find glaciated valleys, granite formations, and even tall skyscraper peaks. A good way to take this all in is via the Five Lakes trail. As the name suggests, you’ll stroll past five alpine lakes and the route will provide a tranquil yet dramatic view of the High Sierra.
Barney and Duck Lakes
Distance: 10-12 Miles
Elevation Gain: 1,170 Feet Up To 3,300 Feet (Depending on if you go to Duck Lake)
Another great summer destination to consider for one of your beginner backpacking trips in California is Mammoth Lakes. From here, you have a host of options to choose from like Barney & Duck Lakes via Duck Pass Trail. The route plays peek-a-boo with Mammoth Mountain in between the tall lodge pines as well as a chain of lakes. As you ascend, the forest will give way to the towering Mammoth Crest with Barney Lake sitting at the base.
Bull Run And Heiser Lakes
Distance: 8-9 Miles
Elevation Gain: 1,479 Feet
If you’re looking for a more secluded adventure, this might be one of the best beginner backpacking trips in California. Located on Ebbetts Pass Scenic Byway, one of our favorite scenic drives in the High Sierra, it’s not too far from the town of Markleeville. Start off at the Stanislaus Meadow trailhead and follow the Bull Run trail. Its route winds itself through a thick stand of old-growth conifers giving way to alpine country granite and finishing at Bull Run Lake. Both this lake and Heiser offer anglers the opportunity to catch trout during the summer months.
Loch Leven Lakes
Distance: 8 Miles
Elevation Gain: 1,600 Feet
When you hear the word “Loch”, the first thing that comes to mind is Scotland since it means Lake in Gaelic. The truth is that this set of lakes are in fact just outside of the historic town of Truckee. Starting at the Big Bend trailhead, the journey winds its way up and out of the South Yuba River Canyon. It continues to switchback up the countryside through meadows, fir forests, and rocky outcrops. Throughout the hike, you’ll catch glimpses of the North American River Canyon as well as cross the same railroad tracks that were built by hand in the 1860’s to cross the continent. Reaching the glacially formed valley that contains the Loch Leven Lakes chain, you’ll find a host of camping opportunities. Depending on which lake you want to go to (Lower, Middle, High), the round-trip distance could be 5-8 miles.
Tip: Be sure to wear proper hiking boots and bring poles since there are long sections of uneven granite boulders to navigate. If you don’t own either of these stop by one of the many outdoor sports shops in Truckee for the best selection of backcountry gear and supplies.
Distance: 7.2 Miles
Elevation Gain: 1,660 Feet
To the south, you’ll find Sonora Pass and a classic overnight backpacking destination – Relief Reservoir. Starting under the tall pine canopy of the Kennedy Meadows trailhead, it quickly opens up to a lush green meadow. The Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River winds its way lazily through it. In the distance, tall peaks can be seen. As you continue upward, you’re greeted to a massive display of falls and a steep granite valley. Near the summit, it gets steeper until it opens up to the massive Relief Reservoir. A cool breeze blows over you as you take in the jaw-dropping scenery. Even in summer, the tall peaks of the Sierra crust still have patches of white amongst the granite.
Long Lake via Bishop Pass
Distance: ~ 5 Miles
Elevation Gain: 1000 Feet
If there’s a place that has backpacking in its blood, it’s Bishop and its big backyard. Most backpacking trails in Bishop start high – at 8,000 – 10,000 feet above sea level so take it slow. For those craving iconic views of the High Sierra, Long Lake should be near the top of the list. This short but challenging hike features everything from glades of aspen, tall granite peaks, and of course a shimmering lake to camp by. Once here, you can spend a few nights and pick from a multitude of trails or just soak up the atmosphere.
Distance: 12 Miles
Elevation Gain: 1,879 Feet
No list of the best beginner backpacking trips in California would be complete without listing one in the Desolation Wilderness. And the hike that showcases this wilderness in all its glory is Lake Aloha via the Echo Lakes trailhead. Sweeping panoramic views of the Sierra. A multitude of alpine lakes. And plenty of glorious granite. As a day-hike, Lake Aloha is a challenge due to its length, but it’s perfect for backpacking. We recommend starting from Echo Lakes trailhead so you can avoid the summer crowds enjoying Emerald Bay.
The nice thing about backpacking is you can make it as easy or hard as you want just by picking the pace and the route. These beginner backpacking trips in California High Sierra are the perfect way to get into the activity. You’ll create lasting memories and get the opportunity to experience a night under the stars miles from civilization. You won’t regret giving backpacking a shot.
Author: Alex Silgalis
Alex founded Local Freshies® in 2014 to be the #1 website providing the “local scoop” on where to eat, drink & play in mountain towns throughout North America. When he’s not writing and executing marketing strategies for small businesses & agencies, he’s in search of the deepest snow in the winter and tackiest dirt in the summer.