Cleveland National Forest

• Hiking in Cleveland NF Photos and Video NFS Website • Trail Map


Trabuco District

    San Juan Canyon (Ortega Hwy.)    
Chiquito Basin (dayhike) Moderate 4 miles
Synopsis: This hike travels through chaparral and coastal sage scrub habitats as it descends to a hollow in the hills called Chiquito Basin. Hiking here in spring offers abundant wildflowers (if there's been enough rain. If you wish to avoid the steeper grade of Old San Juan trail just return the way you came.
Chiquito Falls (dayhike)   Moderate-Difficult 8.8 miles
Synopsis: This is an excellent, and sturdy, trek for a cool day with clear skies - especially following some rain. The views from Chiquito Trail along the east side of the hills are long and stunning, the drop into Lion Canyon is a pretty walk through chaparral, and Chiquito Falls, if running, is a great spot to stop for lunch and enjoy the halfway mark of your hike.
Chiquito Trail (dayhike) Moderate-Difficult 10 miles
Synopsis: This hike travels through chaparral and coastal sage scrub habitats in a long meandering descent (or ascent if you prefer). In spring, if there's been sufficient rain, you'll pass Chiquito Falls (in, surprise, Chiquito Canyon) and find abundant wildflowers. You move in and out of shaded woodlands throughout the hike, so it's a good choice on a warm day. As always in these mountains, keep and eye out for rattlesnakes and know what to do if you spot a mountain lion. 
El Cariso Nature Trail (P.O.I.) Easy 1.4 miles
Synopsis: A short but interesting jaunt along an interpretive trail (there are plaques that offer information about plants, mining etc.). Some good views to the south and east, and, as of the date of this guide, a firebreak area cut into the trailside, along with evidence of a prior burn. The trail is easy and good for kids. The Visitor Center is worth a look, and there is a Wildland Firefighters Memorial nearby.
Elsinore Peak (dayhike) Easy-Moderate 2.1 miles
Synopsis: This is a short hike looping south of a tower-covered summit through some nice chaparral habitat, then approaching the peak via a short but steep open climb. There are excellent views from the top (when not looking through communications towers) and the return via the access road is an easy descent. A good little trip for those in search of spring wildflowers.
Fire Station Hill (dayhike)      Difficult 1.7 miles
Synopsis: This hike climbs 1200' in just over three quarters of a mile. It is very steep in places, exposed to the sun (and a good breeze if you picked a nice day) and offers great views when you can lift your eyes from the rocky trail. Bring poles and be especially careful on the descent. There are places where the footing is very tricky, and having extra points of contact can save your butt.
Los Pinos Peak (dayhike)   Moderate-Difficult 5.6 miles
Synopsis: A hike to the fourth highest peak in Orange County. Los Pinos, unlike Trabuco Peak, boasts excellent views in almost all directions. On a clear day one can take in the sweep of the California coastline from Palos Verdes to the north down to Point Loma in San Diego County. The hike along Los Pinos Peak trail wanders through beautiful chaparral habitat which offers terrific wildflower displays in the spring. Those who may be deterred, or even just annoyed, by rock-strewn trails may want to think twice about choosing this trip. Trekking poles help negotiate the many debris-covered stretches.
Ortega Falls (P.O.I.)   Easy 0.3 miles
Synopsis: This is a quick little scramble (there are some rocky areas) over to a pretty boulder cliff which, after decent rains, can flow dramatically in a steep little fall. On a weekend be prepared for crowds (especially after storms have passed through) and make sure to display your Forest Adventure Pass.
San Juan Loop (dayhike) Easy 2.1 miles
Synopsis: A quick and easy loop through chaparral and riparian areas, often offering excellent wildflower diversity in season. About a third of the route is shaded and in years with abundant rain the creek and waterfalls are enjoyable. Weekends bring plenty of people so plan on company.
San Juan Trail (dayhike)   Moderate-Difficult 11 miles
Synopsis: If you'd like an all day introduction to the botanical diversity of the Santa Ana Mountains, along with terrific views of canyons and meadows and Orange County in the distance, this is the hike to take. It's a shuttle, so you'll need either two cars or a drop-off, and it's long - over eleven miles. But the hike descends (or ascends) over 2500 feet through changing habitats, offering those focused on the green and growing lots to look at. At the same time, the trail mostly follows ridges, allowing those focused on the distant and sweeping plenty to occupy their time. One caveat: this hike is best left for cooler days.
Upper Hot Springs Falls (dayhike)  Moderate 4.3 miles
Synopsis: The conditions make this hike harder than the length would indicate, but it is a very pretty trip through some fairly unspoiled coastal sage and chaparral. It follows a stream, meandering in and out freely and often. The trail can be difficult to follow at times, but staying close to the stream usually keeps the hiker on course. There is a good bit of overgrowth and quite a few downed or low branches to negotiate, but the rock formations at and near the falls are worth the trip. The steep sided canyon makes this a good hike during the warmth of summer.
Viejo Tie Loop (dayhike)         Moderate 6.9 miles
Synopsis: A pretty hike out of the Blue Jay campground area and along (mostly) the San Juan Trail. The Viejo Tie portion of the hike takes you through a lush canyon and up and around a ridge with nice views. Bikers use these trails so keep a wary eye and ear out.
   San Mateo Canyon Wilderness    
Bear Canyon / Bear Ridge (dayhike) Moderate  6.8 miles 
Synopsis: An ecologically varied hike that begins with a steady climb through interesting rocks and chaparral, moves through some oak woods then scrub and chaparral on the ridge before heading back down. Fun red rock/soil section on Bear Ridge that is reminiscent of Utah. Nice views of local and distant mountains on the ridge. Excellent wildflowers in Spring.
Morgan Trail (dayhike)  Easy-Moderate 5.1 miles 
Synopsis: An especially enjoyable hike in the San Mateo Wilderness area of the Cleveland NF. You do travel adjacent to some private property, but the unspoiled oak woodlands and chaparral make the area feel unpopulated and wild. A drink and a snack at the Candy Store (at the ending trailhead) is always nice.
Morgan Trail loop (dayhike) Moderate 4.3 miles
Synopsis: This hike is admittedly a sort of half-a-loaf endeavor. The full Morgan Trail is an end to end proposition and if you don't have a second car this is a way to see at least some of the trail. The first half of the trip takes in part of the Bear Canyon trail, then begins the loop back by following the Morgan Trail. The second half consists of some nice, remote dirt road walking, followed by a return to the trailhead through a private residence area and a short walk on Ortega Highway.
San Mateo Canyon (dayhike)  Moderate  7.3 miles 
Synopsis: If you're looking for a beautiful canyon hike, with several nice spots for a break, and are willing to do your climbing at the end of the outing, this is a really nice ramble through some typical southern California chaparral and riparian environments.   
Sitton Peak (dayhike)    Moderate-Difficult  9.3 miles 
Synopsis: This is a good length hike with a nice payoff. It ascends through the varied terrain (oak woodlands, riparian, bolder-strewn hillsides, wildflowers in Spring) of Bear Canyon before dropping down to the saddle at the base of the peak. The quite steep climb rewards you with excellent views of San Clemente and Santa Catalina on clear days. If your path takes you along Bear Ridge in the spring, you may see some amazing wildflower displays.   
Sitton Truck Trail (dayhike) Moderate-Difficult 12.3 miles
Synopsis: This is a long, but mostly downhill, hike. It ascends through the varied terrain (oak woodlands, riparian, bolder-strewn hillsides, wildflowers in Spring) of Bear Canyon before climbing, then descending for the rest of the trip through chaparral-covered hills. There are excellent views all along this trail, on clear days the southern California islands of San Clemente and Santa Catalina seem close enough to touch. Be alert, mountain lion tracks are often seen on the part of the trail across from the San Juan Fire Station.
 Tenaja Canyon Trail (dayhike) Moderate 6.9 miles
Synopsis: In contrast to many hikes in the Cleveland National Forest, this hike through a scenic canyon is actually quite lush, with water running often even during drier times. The initial descent is mostly gradual, and the destination - Fisherman's Camp - is a great spot for lunch or just a break.
 Tenaja Falls (dayhike)  Easy  1.7 miles 
Synopsis: An easy, very popular hike to a pretty waterfall (in wet seasons). The trail beyond the falls is quite enjoyable, far less traveled and not really as impacted as the short hike to the falls (the amount of graffiti is pretty distressing). Be prepared for plenty of company on the weekends, as well as swimming and picnicking at the pools at the top of the falls.
    Silverado Canyon area    
 Bedford Peak (dayhike)   Moderate-Difficult 7.1 miles
Synopsis: The views from Main Divide Rd. are always a treat (as long as they're not obscured by constant traffic from off-road vehicles). This is one of those hikes that makes you earn them, with significant elevation gain most of the way. The "peak" is more of a hill next to the road, but the effort getting there is rewarded with those great vistas.
 Modjeska Peak (dayhike) Difficult 12.8 miles
Synopsis:  This hike travels mostly on truck trails so expect dusty conditions, even when there is no vehicle traffic. You meander through pleasant chaparral along canyon sides and ridges. A side trail eventually allows departure from the road and into some more pristine habitat. The peak is small and uncluttered (unlike Santiago) with terrific views on clear days.
    Trabuco Canyon area    
 Harding Truck Trail / Laurel Spring (dayhike) Moderate-Difficult 10 miles
Synopsis: Take this hike on a cool day, as much of it travels exposed ridgeline. The upside is the views are terrific and the path is nicely graded and not too rocky, unlike many other truck trails in the Santa Anas. Harding Canyon, on the north side of the trail, is pretty and geologically interesting.
 Santiago Peak (dayhike) Difficult-Strenuous 14.6 miles
Synopsis: Santiago, and Modjeska Peak about a mile to the north, make up the recognizable Saddleback feature that lends its name to so many Orange County businesses and organizations. Santiago Pk. is the highest point in O.C. and is one of the more difficult hikes around, making it a prime trip for this area. Holy Jim trail is a classic and beautiful canyon/mountain path, but the Main Divide Rd. part of this trip can be dry, hot and dusty, so pick a cool day for this one.
 Trabuco Peak (dayhike)   Moderate-Difficult  9.7 miles
Synopsis: An enjoyable and challenging hike through riparian and sycamore habitat, then up a hillside to some very nice manzanita scrublands. The views along Main Divide are nice. The peak isn't a thrill, but the rest of the hike is satisfying enough to make up for it.
 West Horsethief / Trabuco Canyon (dayhike)   Moderate-Difficult 10 miles
Synopsis: This can be a stunningly beautiful hike if you catch a clear day. The canyons are lush and green, and from the ridge you can see from Catalina to Mt. San Jacinto. And if that clear day happens to coincide with a time when Main Divide Rd. is closed to off-road traffic, well, then you're golden. Be aware, though, that Santa Ana Mountains trails can be quite rocky.

All photos and video by Laura or Bob Camp unless otherwise indicated. Use without permission is not cool.