Tenaja Canyon is one of the tributaries of San Mateo Creek, which drains the watershed of the San Mateo wilderness at the confluence of Orange, Riverside, and San Diego Canyon. This pristine landscape of hills and rich canyons is a surprising wilderness in the midst of the most heavily developed parts of the United States.
Elevation Gained: 1800
Note: You will need an Adventure Pass to hike here, as this wilderness is on Cleveland National Forest land.
Did you know that inbetween San Clemente and Temecula, there’s a bonafide Federal Wilderness? And did you know that this wilderness contains one of the last unchanneled and largely unaffected watersheds, complete with an endangered population of steelhead trout, in California? I bet you didn’t. I hike all over the damn place, and I didn’t have any idea of what was here. I climbed Sitton Peak, the area’s high point, in January, and I saw most of it from there, but I just assumed that I was looking at Camp Pendleton.
Nope. Not Camp Pendleton. The area east of San Clemente is one of the best preserved wilderness areas in Southern California. It’s a wild and remote area, which is probably why I never noticed it. Roads don’t drive through it because it’s a wilderness. It’s not accessible from the 5, unless you hike in a long way from the 74. And it’s a confusing maze trying to work your way up past Santa Rosa Plateau – I got lost for half and hour, coming within 200 yards of the trailhead twice before turning around and getting re-lost.
More than 20 million people live within 100 miles of this spot. You’d never know it, as the only things within sight are trees, shrubs, and, on this day lots of rain and newts crawling around the trail. It would be entirely possible to come here and truly “get away from it all,” especially as there are backcountry camping sites at Fisherman’s Camp, which was the turnaround for me on this hike. This is one of the miracles of Southern California that I think gets undersold all the time; for all the traffic, noise, pollution, and crowding, there are countless vibrant parks, forests, streams, canyons, woodlands, and chaparral waiting to wash the civilization off of you.
The newts were a lot of fun. It was actually kind of nerve-wracking because the newts are the same color as wet earth and leaves, making it necessary to watch my step lest I step on one of them. These cute lizard-like amphibians crawled along on the trail, appearing seemingly out of nowhere due to their camouflage. At my approach, they’d slowly waddle off into the undergrowth. I’ve seen a few newts here or there on previous rainy day hikes. I’ve never seen this many, and I must have seen about 10 of them.
I’ll come back here to backpack in the spring to warm up and test gear for the summer. This place made a nice impression on me. There are a lot of places similar to this, with chaparral, oak woodland, and canyons, but none of them are so remote and pristine. Again, you can lose a sense of civilization in a place like this, which is a big part of why I do this weird, wonderful hobby.