As the gloom of a late afternoon descends upon the deep-cut, linear furrow of Tenaja Canyon, dozens of orange-bellied newts waddle determinedly uphill and across the trail, oblivious to my footfalls. The cute faces and beady eyes of these little amphibians reflect a mindless desire I cannot fathom: Sex in a bower of leaf litter and ferns? A bellyful of succulent insects, ripe for the taking?
Since the completion several years ago of the Tenaja Trail in the Santa Ana Mountains, the newts of Tenaja Canyon should have been getting used to cross-traffic by hikers and equestrians. The trail, plus a parking lot built to serve it, plus the recent paving of a formerly horrendously rutted truck trail around the rim of the canyon has made the area more popular than ever -- especially for residents of nearby booming communities like Temecula, Murrieta, and Lake Elsinore.
To reach Tenaja Canyon from San Diego, drive north on Interstate 15 through Temecula to the Clinton Keith Road exit. Proceed 5 miles south on Clinton Keith Road and 1.7 miles west on Tenaja Road to a marked intersection, where you must turn right to stay on Tenaja Road. Continue west on Tenaja Road for another 4.2 miles, then go right on the narrow, paved Rancho California Road. Continue another mile to the trailhead parking area, just north of Cleveland National Forest's Tenaja Station.
An old-fashioned hand pump dispenses cold, sweet water at the trailhead. Sign in at the self-registration box, and head downhill on the trail going west. A few minutes' descent takes you to the shady bowels of V-shaped Tenaja Canyon, where huge coast live oaks and pale-barked sycamores frame a limpid, rock-dimpled stream. Mostly the trail ahead meanders alongside the stream, but for the canyon's middle stretch it carves its way across the chaparral-blanketed south wall, 200 to 400 feet above the canyon bottom.
After 3.7 miles of general descent, you reach oak-shaded Fishermans Camp, a former drive-in campground once accessible by miles of bad road -- reachable now only by foot. Today, the site serves as a fine wilderness campsite for backpackers (a National Forest wilderness permit is required for an overnight stay here). At Fishermans Camp, three other trails diverge. Fishermans Camp Trail (the old road serving the former campground) travels east and sharply uphill to the newly paved Old Tenaja Road. One branch of the San Mateo Canyon Trail goes upstream along the canyon's currently bubbling stream. The west branch of the same trail zigzags down toward the lower canyon and accompanies the stream many miles to the east boundary of Camp Pendleton.
Tenaja Canyon lies within the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness, which is a part of the Trabuco Ranger District of Cleveland National Forest. For more information, call 909-736-1811.