Cleveland National Forest Hiking
Cleveland National Forest hiking often takes a backseat to the more popular hikes to the north, but there are plenty of great hikes in CNF. And because the elevation is lower, you can enjoy hiking all year, usually without the crowds. Don’t forget to leave your parks pass on your dashboard when you do these hikes.
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Cleveland National Forest Tips
- In the summer, it can get really hot. The best time to hike Cleveland National Forest is when the temps are cooler.
- Bugs can be intense, especially when it’s hot out. When I hike here, I always bring repellant and a head net.
- There are basically three types of trails that you’ll find.
- Wide dirt road that are listed as trails. Some of these can be open to 4×4 traffic. A good example is the Indian Truck Trail.
- Single track that’s usually rocky, sandy, and on the steeper side. The Chiquito Trail is a good example.
- Smaller trails that are not often used and commonly overgrown, like on the Modjeska Peak hike.
- You need a parking pass at trailheads in the park. I use the National Parks pass which lets me park in any national land including National Parks.
Most Popular Hikes
- Saddleback Mountain
- Black Star Canyon
- San Juan Loop Trail
Family Friendly Hikes
- Holy Jim Falls
- San Juan Loop Trail
- Palomar Mountain
This “best of” loop on the Big Laguna Trail offers a little bit of everything, and is one of my favorites. You’ll get scenic a mountain meadow and lake, a peaceful oak and pine forest, glimpses of the highest peaks in San Diego County, a climb to a mountain summit, a stretch on the PCT, and incredible views into the desert and high mountains beyond. Even though the hike is only about 12 miles through the Laguna Recreation Area, you’ll feel like you covered more ground because of the tremendous variety.
Pine Valley, CA - 12 miles, Moderate
Cedar Creek Falls Trail is one of San Diego’s most popular hikes. The trail offers epic views of the San Diego River Gorge before you arrive at Cedar Creek Falls, almost the perfect waterfall, plunging 80 feet down into a bowl-shaped pool of clear water. It’s such a popular hike that you need a permit to do it. The extra work is worth it though, the experience is magical, but you need to avoid the crowds if you can. In this guide I’ll tell you everything you need to know to make the best of this hike.
Ramona, CA - 6 miles, Moderate
Considered “the hardest hike in San Diego” by some (more on that later), the El Cajon Mountain Trail makes you work for it, even though the summit is only at 3,648 feet. El Cajon Mountain, which towers over eastern San Diego, dominates the skyline you drive down I-8. Its sheer granite cliff face is also colloquially known as El Capitan or El Cap, after the iconic granite rock face in Yosemite National Park. We won’t be going up the sheer cliff on this hike but instead taking a rolling trail through El Capitan County Preserve, known for its steep climbs on the way out AND back. Aside from a great workout, the payoff is spectacular views from Palm Springs to Mexico and the bragging rights to say you conquered El Cajon Mountain.
Lakeside, CA - 12 miles, Hard
Nestled deep in the remote San Mateo Canyon Wilderness, the Tenaja Falls Trail takes you to majestic Tenaja Falls, a cascading waterfall that plunges 150 into the scenic canyon. In this guide I’ll show you two ways to get to the falls. You can either do the short 1.5 mile (total) “roadside attraction” route, or you can take the 7.5 mile scenic and relatively easy route through Fisherman’s Camp and along San Mateo Creek. Which ever way you go, you’re in for a treat, because the scenery is incredible and the vibe is off the beaten path.
Murrieta, CA - 7.5 miles, Moderate
The Beeks Place hike takes you to the ruins of an old cabin compound built at a scenic spot high in the Santa Ana Mountains. From Beeks Place, you can see from San Gorgonio to Mt Baldy to Catalina. The hike is challenging, taking you 2000 feet up fire roads through the mountains, and along the way, you get epic views, hidden pastures, and even a Native American settlement. While Beeks Place might not be a big-name peak bagging experience, it is a nice long mountain hike that you can do all year.
Silverado, CA - 16 miles, Hard
Nestled deep in Cleveland National Forest, the Chiquito Trail takes you away from the crowds visiting the popular San Juan Falls to a waterfall hidden in a secluded canyon up in hills, Chiquito Falls. To get there you have to hike up a moderate climb, but as with most climbs, you’re rewarded with great views. The hike to Chiquito Falls is great for the hiker who’s done the popular trails and now wants something a little different without the bigger crowds (like nearby Sitton Peak).
Lake Elsinore, CA - 9.6 miles, Hard
The San Juan Loop Trail by Lake Elsinore is a fun hike that offers an easy glimpse into the Cleveland National Forest’s rugged beauty. You’ll hike to Ortega Falls, a 35-foot waterfall in a steep ravine, and then you’ll meander through lush canyons rich with wildflowers in the spring. The trail also follows San Juan Creek, which usually has water in the spring and early summer, and eventually drains out to the ocean. Overall the San Juan Loop Trail is a great family or beginners hike that packs a lot of scenery into a short distance.
Lake Elsinore, CA - 2.1 miles, Easy
The Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail is a gentle hike that offers a lot of scenery packed into a short distance. One of the only National Recreational Trails in San Diego, the hike takes you through mountain pines and cedars, offers panoramic viewpoints, and ends at the iconic Palomar Observatory, the largest in the world from 1948 to 1976. The Observatory Trail is easy to follow, not too steep, and great for families.
Palomar Mountain, CA - 5 miles, Moderate
Don’t let the start of the Coal Canyon Trail, which is next to the 91 freeway, fool you. After a short stretch next to the freeway on the Santa Ana River Trail, you’ll hop into a wildlife corridor and up into the northwest Santa Ana Mountains. Along the way, you’ll have views of Angeles National Forest, San Gorgonio, and at the top, Orange Counties’ “Mini-Moab.” It’s a bit of an under-hiked gem, so get out and enjoy it.
Corona, CA - 10 miles, Moderate
The 13.5 mile Oak Grove Trail to High Point hike starts in historic Warner Springs and gently makes it’s way up to one of the only active fire towers in San Diego County, which also happens to be the tallest fire tower in California. On the way you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of San Diego County and the high mountains of Southern California. The hike is not too technical and includes fire roads, but it is still a decent challenge with a fair amount of climbing.
Warner Springs, CA - 13.5 miles, Hard
The Indian Truck Trail offers an alternate way to hike Santiago Peak (Saddleback Mountain). It’s not a rustic single-track trail like the Santiago Peak hike from Lower Holy Jim Trail, but instead includes some wider Forest Service dirt roads (Indian Truck Trail is also known as forest road 5S01). You might see a few 4x4s or mountain bikes, but otherwise it’s very mellow. It’s a beautiful hike, so don’t let this stop you.
Corona, CA - 21 miles, Hard
Hiking the Black Star Canyon trail is a local favorite for a reason. The trail follows Black Star Creek to Black Star Canyon Falls, and there’s a haunted history to ponder as you hike through this beautiful part of Black Star Canyon Wilderness Park. Hiking on the Black Star Canyon Trail can be a challenge, especially when it’s wet. This guide has everything you need to navigate the hike safely and get to the falls.
Silverado, CA - 7.1 miles, Moderate
The Bedford Peak hike in Orange County is a tough one with big payoffs. Bedford Peak trail climbs about 2000 feet in 3 miles, and your reward is great views of Mt Baldy, Saddleback Mountain, and Catalina. It’s a fun, under-rated hike that I recommend.
Silverado, CA - 7.2 miles, Hard
This is a a fun hike to San Juan Hot Springs, which is located in Caspers Wilderness Park, a lightly-visited, 8,000 acre, protected wilderness preserve in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains. The San Juan Hot Springs were first opened in the late 1800s as a full blown resort, complete with cabins, soaking tubs, and pools. Over the years they’ve closed and opened again, with the latest version being closed down in 1992. Today you can hike to San Juan Hot Springs, but whether you can go in them is up for debate (see the article for more). This hike to the hot springs can be done as an 10.5 mile out-and-back trip, or you can do a longer 14 mile loop that circles through the ridges in Caspers Wilderness Park, offering incredible views.
San Juan Capistrano, CA - 10.5 miles, Moderate
The Sitton Peak hike offers great 360 views of the Santa Ana Mountains, San Diego County, Orange County, and Catalina on a clear day. Sitton Peak (3,273ft) is one of the high peaks in the southern part of Cleveland National Forest, and this hike is much easier than the hike to Saddleback Mountain, with views that are comparable. The trail has some flat sections to catch your breath, making it a great hike for beginners.
Trabuco Canyon, CA - 9.2 miles, Moderate
The Holy Jim Falls Trail hike is an easy hike to a small waterfall tucked into the heart of the Santa Ana Mountains. The hike follows Holy Jim Creek, which is one of the pristine mountain tributaries of Trabuco Creek, and eventually flows out to the ocean at Dana Point. Today the Holy Jim Falls Trail is family friendly, relatively easy, and well marked hike.
Corona, CA - 2.8 miles, Easy
The Modjeska Peak hike is challenging – long, steep, and sometimes primitive. The hike climbs to the second highest point in Orange County, Modjeska Peak. Modjeska Peak, at 5,499 feet, is the lower peak in Saddleback Mountain. The highest peak (and other peak in Saddleback Mountain) is Santiago Peak. The actual summit is undeveloped and much nicer than nearby Santiago Peak. This is a challenging hike. Don’t try this hike without a good level of fitness.
Trabuco Canyon, CA - 15 miles, Hard
Hiking Saddleback Mountain takes you to the highest point in Orange County, Santiago Peak. It’s also the highest point in the Santa Ana mountains at 5,689 feet. This hike takes the scenic Holy Jim Trail, which is also the shortest route to the summit. This is a long and challenging hike. Don’t try this hike without a good level of fitness.
Corona, CA - 15.6 miles, Hard