After the series of rainstorms we experienced this past winter season, Riverside County’s San Mateo Canyon is brimming with a cold, sparkling stream. The surrounding hillsides (all a part of the Cleveland National Forest) have taken on a shade of bright green not often seen in Southern California. The following looping route, five miles around with 550 feet of elevation gain and loss, is perfect for hikers (but not mountain bikers, since it travels through the federally designated San Mateo Canyon Wilderness).
To get to the starting point, exit Interstate 15 at Clinton Keith Road in Murrieta. Proceed five miles south on Clinton Keith Road (passing into the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve) and curve sharply right where the road becomes Tenaja Road. After 1.7 more miles, make a right turn to remain on Tenaja Road. Continue west on Tenaja Road for another 4.2 miles, then go right on the one-lane, paved Cleveland Forest Road. Proceed another mile to the Tenaja Trailhead, signed on the left. Continue another 2.7 miles north on the narrow pavement of Wildomar Road (formerly Old Tenaja Road) to reach the small parking turnout for Fisherman’s Camp Trail on the left. Don’t forget to obtain a National Forest Adventure Pass in advance and have it posted on your parked car.
On foot, you start hiking down an old dirt road, now reverted to a hiking trail named Fisherman’s Camp Trail. After 1.5 miles and more than 500 feet of elevation loss, you arrive at Fisherman’s Camp, a former (decades ago) drive-in campground. The camp lies in a beautiful live-oak grove at the mouth of Tenaja Canyon, a deep rift in the landscape whose linear character is associated with the Tenaja Fault. Yesteryear, fishers came to San Mateo Canyon to take advantage of wintertime steelhead runs. Today, Fisherman’s Camp serves as an informal trail camp for backpackers. (To stay overnight, you’d need a wilderness permit from the Forest Service.)
Tenaja Canyon’s tiny brook trickles by Fisherman’s Camp on its way to the bottom of San Mateo Canyon, which lies just 300 yards north. Just find and follow the narrow trail going north alongside the brook toward boulder-strewn, vegetation-choked San Mateo Canyon. There you will cross the creek and swing north to follow the canyon upstream along the canyon’s west side. You curve around the mouth of a prominent side canyon and then go across a grassy bench. Ahead lie three more creek crossings and a couple of passages through live oaks and chaparral. Several shallow pools, set amid colorful metamorphic slabs in the canyon bottom, may tempt you into trying a cooling dip. Spring wildflowers include bush lupine, snapdragon penstemon, monkey-flowers of various hues, Indian paintbrush, owl’s clover, and wild morning glory. Yuccas are sending up their candle-like flower stalks along the hillsides this month, too. Should we note that rattlesnakes might be seen here as well?
After the fourth creek crossing, the trail sticks to the right bank until, 1.9 miles from Fisherman’s Camp, you arrive at the Tenaja Falls trailhead along Wildomar Road. Close the loop by walking 1.5 miles on Wildomar Road back to your car. There’s little traffic on this remote roadway, so enjoy the final stretch.
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.
Fisherman’s Camp Loop
Explore a free-flowing stream in Riverside County’s San Mateo Canyon Wilderness.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 82 miles
Hiking length: 5 miles