The north-to-south Bluewater Traverse route takes you through the heart of southwestern Riverside County's San Mateo Canyon Wilderness by way of old roads and primitive trails. You can do it quickly as a long day hike, or in a more leisurely manner as an overnight backpack. Winter through early spring is a great time for this. Knee-high grasses ripple across the meadows, chaparral blooms release their potent fragrances, and water trickles down the shady ravines. Since the route is remote and subject to rapid changes, it is wise to contact the Cleveland National Forest office in Corona (951-736-1811). If you go overnight, a free wilderness permit is required. The Forest Service also publishes a fine topographic map of the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness.
You begin hiking at the San Juan (or "Candy Store") trailhead on Ortega Highway (Highway 74), 10 miles west of Lake Elsinore. You'll finish at the top of the Fisherman's Camp Trail, which is 2.7 miles north of the Tenaja Trailhead on Wildomar Road. The Tenaja Trail itself is about 12 miles west of Interstate 15 by way of Clinton Keith and Tenaja roads. Be sure to post a National Forest Adventure Pass on any car parked at either trailhead.
From the Candy Store, follow the popular Bear Canyon Trail south to an intersection of trails called Four Corners, 3.2 miles into the hike. Take the Verdugo Trail southwest from there. For a mile or so the Verdugo Trail winds along steep, brushy slopes offering excellent views of the San Mateo Canyon drainage and the rounded Santa Margarita Mountains to the south. Passing over the shoulder of a ridge, the roadbed suddenly drops about 400 feet to cross an oak-shaded tributary of Bluewater Canyon (4.7 miles). Winding upward, then down again, you reach, around 5.5 miles, the edge of a pleasant woodland -- several hundred rolling acres shaded by live oaks and tall chaparral. At 5.8 miles, bear left and follow the Bluewater Trail east and south past Serrano Spring and Garcia Spring in the Oak Flats area. This area is likely your best bet for establishing a trail camp (note that wilderness areas often have no designated or developed campgrounds). The coastline is only 13 air-miles away from Oak Flats, and if you climb any nearby high point the wide, blue arc of the Pacific Ocean comes into view.
Beyond Oak Flats, the poor roadbed that has so far served as the Bluewater Trail veers left (southeast) and attains a nearly barren summit (7.5 miles). After about 250 yards, the roadbed turns southwest, while the Bluewater Trail (a footpath) continues southeast, descending gradually toward Bluewater Canyon, 1500 feet below. After a short, confusing stretch through a grassy area, the route pitches crookedly and very sharply down a brushy ridgeline. You reach the bottom of shady Bluewater Canyon at 9.0 miles. A short mile later, you reach the San Mateo Canyon Trail. Turn left here and work your way east along the bubbling creek in the canyon bottom. Just beyond the creek crossing at 10.5 miles, find and follow the switchback trail leading uphill to Fisherman's Camp, a former drive-in campsite now reverted to a wilderness campsite. From there, to complete the hike in the quickest manner, follow an old roadbed, "Fisherman's Camp Trail," 1.5 miles upward to the paved Wildomar Road.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.