San Mateo Canyon Wilderness

San Mateo Canyon Wilderness is a substantial federally protected region of cool, shady canyons and sun-blasted hills that look as if they are coated with green velvet – at least from afar. The region offers some remote backcountry camping, in addition to more accessible day hikes.

Distance: 23.2 Miles (over two days)
Elevation: 4,750 (total)
Time: 11:30 (total)
Difficulty: Strenuous
Critters: hawks, rabbits, squirrels, unseen critters in the middle of the night

Get there like this.

Note: You will need an Adventure Pass to park here. You will also need to obtain a backcountry permit in advance if you wish to camp here.

Details:

Tucked into the “void” between southern Orange County, Temecula/Murrieta, and north San Diego County is a sprawling wilderness that offers a comprehensive Southern California hiking experience. Here, you will find one of the last unspoiled watersheds, miles of oak-shaded canyons and ravines, woodlands, grasslands, the omnipresent chaparral communities, summits, views, and miles of challenging trails. As this land is governed by the National Forest Service, backpacking options are abundant and easily enjoyed.

This was my friend Taylor’s introduction to backpacking. He had done plenty of car camping, but he had not yet experienced the rigors, challenges, solitude, and tranquility of backcountry camping. The differences between the two experiences are profound. One can car camp and not have to walk farther than the nearest restroom. Ice cold beer, cooked meals, air mattresses, and every luxury REI can offer are par for the course. With backpacking, you have only what you can carry on your back, which in my case has become astoundingly minimal (base weight is now down to less than 10 lbs. 18 lbs total with 2.5 liters of water and 3 lbs of food).

“Hey Taylor, let’s see if we can find a nice place to sit.”

These restrictions, in which every ounce is felt, make backpacking more about endurance than comfort. Comfort is not frequently achieved, although the exertion can create some of the deepest relaxation you can imagine. Some people might wonder why on Earth a person would do this, and I would probably have a hard time persuading them. Basically, the most beautiful places are often the least accessible, and if you really want to enjoy nature in the most reasonably pure state, you have to hoof it.

And hoof it we did. Up hills, down hills, across canyons, up hills, down hills, then way the hell up the hills, and back down again. Outside of the Bear Canyon Trail and Tenaja Falls, there is hardly a soul to be found in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. Instead, one finds miles of rugged trails through a collage of woodlands, canyons, chaparral, and grasslands. Generally, the hiking is pretty level and easy, although the climb into and out of San Mateo Canyon are absolutely exhausting.

Our original objective was to pack in to Fisherman’s Camp, where I had stashed two gallons of water in anticipation of dry conditions. After completing the knee-murdering Bluewater Trail, we found ourselves deposited more or less in front of a shady, secluded pool with clear, clean water. With Fishermans still a mile away, we decided to opt for this more comely unnamed camp. There’s a gravel sand beach leading down to the pool, and Taylor and I both dosed off after the 11 mile descent to our destination. This was an ideal camp/reward for a first-time backpacker, and I was grateful to find such an outstanding camp. Fishermans is nice, but it’s nothing like this.

After strolling over to Fishermans Camp to retrieve the water, we lounged at our campsite enjoying bare burrito (in a bag) and pesto pasta (in a bag) while the moonrise followed fast on the heels of the sunset. At points, the moon became so bright that it was like daylight. I tried out an array of new items, including a Lifestraw (you can drink straight from the stream, and the filter will clean it as you drink), purification tablets (tastes like pool water), a bivy sack (think of the lovechild between a tent and a body bag), and a spectacularly luxurious goose down quilt. I was surprisingly comfortable in the bivy sack, which I feared would be too exposed-feeling. I was not wild about the taste of chlorine in my drinking water, but it’s a small price to pay for being able carry a filtration system that weighs a fraction of an ounce.

After a surprisingly restful night of sleep (hint: wrap a bandana over your eyes), we were up before the sun to tackle an excruciating 1,300′ ascent over 1.5 miles. We made it up to the top of the ridgeline just in time to watch the sun rise over the east rim of the canyon. San Mateo Canyon is shockingly deep for something so close to the edge of civilization, and it is astonishing to think that a canyon 2,000′ deep is sitting just on the other side of Camp Pendleton. The sunrise illuminated the rolling hills in a soft, orange glow, making the chaparral look almost plush. An illusion, of course, as most chapparal species are brittle, hard, and frequently scratchy.

 

From the ridge, we fought our way uphill through an uncomfortably hot and dry day. It was almost 80 degrees by 8:00 am, which is unacceptable for a February. However, since backpacking is about endurance, we shut our mouths and trooped on, understanding that there would eventually be shade, rest, and possibly cold beverages and salty snacks. This is one of the wonders of backpacking. The discomfort will test you, and if you can remain neutral and calm through that, you’ll obtain a kind of peace and tranquility that is not easy to disrupt.

 

It’s also the best way to get in touch with the natural world. Each day and night has its own rhythms. Morning is completely different from night in terms of light and mood. Birds start singing with more gusto as the sun nears the horizon. Frogs sing in chorus through the night, only to stop completely for mysterious reasons. The moon becomes a midnight sun, while the rising sun sets the sky aglow in deep oranges, indigos, purples, and inky blues. You don’t see this when you spend nearly the entirety of your life inside, which is one of the huge prices we pay for living a modern life. Yes, we’re more comfortable, but we are almost completely out of touch with the natural world. People exert all kinds of effort, endure all kinds of contortions, and spend all kinds of money to find peace of mind. Meanwhile, the wind is rustling in the oak trees and birds are singing in the chaparral, even as you read this.
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