Hike San Mateo Peak (Cleveland National Forest)
|In This Guide|
|Total Distance (?)||4.6 miles (7.4 km)|
|Other Options||15 Miles With Morgan Trail|
|Hike Time||2 Hours (Total)|
|Total Ascent (?)||1,100 feet (335m)|
|Highest Elevation||3,594 feet (1095m)|
|Fees & Permits||Free|
|Alerts & Closures (?)||Cleveland National Forest|
San Mateo Peak, a beautiful and fun hike with a fantastic summit and sweeping views, is not officially there. The trail is not on the Forest Service maps, and you won’t find “San Mateo Peak” anywhere on an official topographic map. But the trail and peak are there all right, and in this guide, I’ll show you how to hike to the top and enjoy this fun peak in Cleveland National Forest.
Where is San Mateo Peak?
We’re going to start at the Morgan Trail parking area off of South Main Divide Road for this hike. Note that South Main Divide Road is paved and not a dirt road like North Main Divide Road. Use this trailhead address:
Morgan Trailhead, South Main Divide, Decker Canyon Rd, Lake Elsinore, CA 92530
You do not need a permit to park here, and there are no facilities.
Gear For the Hike
This is a backcountry hike, but its short distance means that you can get away with fitness clothes here. I wear light hiking gear. In the summer it can get brutally hot, so bring at least 1L of water. There are a few sections of steep slopes where trekking poles will help.
Garmin inReach Mini
If you’re not familiar with the Garmin InReach technology, it allows you to send and receive text messages where you don’t have cell phone signals. You can also get weather reports and trigger an SOS to emergency responders. Even if you don’t have an emergency, sending a quick message telling a loved one that you’re okay or are running late is well worth the cost.
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My Review & Guide
How is this Different than a GPS?
Altra Lone Peak 5
For most people, the Altra Lone Peak is a solid choice that will leave your feet feeling great at the end of any hike. The feel is cushy and light, and if it had a car equivalent, this would be a Cadillac or Mercedes Sedan. The grip is great and they’re reasonably durable for this type of trail runner, which I think is better in most conditions than a hiking boot, and here’s why. The downside of this shoe is that it won’t last as long as something like the Moab 2 (see alternate footwear choices at the bottom of my gear page). I’ve been using mine for many miles and my feet always feel great. Watch my video explaining why they are a great shoe here.
Women’s Latest Prices: REI | Amazon
Men’s Latest Prices: REI | Amazon
Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork Trekking Poles
I’ve gone back and forth on trekking poles, but I think for most people they are a good investment. They help you dig in on the uphills, provide stability on loose downhills, act as a brace when crossing streams, and can probably poke away aggressive wildlife in a pinch. The Trail Ergo Cork poles are a good balance of light weight, durability, affordability, and ease of use. If you want something ultralight and a little more pricey, I’ve had great luck with the Black Diamond Z Poles too.
Trail Ergo Poles: REI | Amazon
Z-Poles: REI | Amazon
Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated January 2022.
No company pays me to promote or push a product, all the gear you see here is gear I use and recommend. If you click an a link and buy gear, I get a small commission that helps keep the website ad and promotion free. There is no cost to you.
San Mateo Peak Trail Maps
Overall the trail is easy to follow, but can get a little overgrown. The beginning is rolling and then you have about 900 feet of climbing. There are steep sections, but overall it’s nothing like a big mountain hike.
Explore Map on CalTopoView a Printable PDF Hike MapDownload the Hike GPX File
If you try to download the GPX file and your browser adds a “.txt” or “.xml” extension to it, simply rename it as a “.gpx” file.
How Are You Going to Navigate This Hike?
If you are a hardcore hiker and/or hike in extreme conditions, I recommend getting a dedicated GPS like a GPSMAP 66sr or 66i, or a wrist-based GPS with maps like the Garmin Fenix 6. If you only hike in fair weather and a touchscreen is fine, or just want a solid tool, I highly recommend downloading the smartphone app, Gaia GPS. It’s a piece of cake to use and very powerful, just make sure your phone is in airplane mode so the battery doesn’t drain. You can also check for wildfires, weather, snow, and choose from dozens of map types with a premium membership (HikingGuy readers get a big discount here). Note that I also carry a paper map with me in case the phone dies or gets smashed.
Alternate 15-Mile Hike
If you want a longer hike, you can easily combine this stretch of trail with the full length of the Morgan Trail for a distance of about 15 miles. Start at the Candy Store, hike up the Morgan Trail, and then pick these directions up at the wilderness sign-in box (see the directions below). You’re going to want to also read my guide to the Morgan Trail and follow the directions there (don’t use this trailhead).
Why all the mystery around this trail and peak? Will I see any nudists spilling out of the camp on this trail? So many questions…
- Before 1984, San Mateo Peak was just another bump in the Elsinore Mountains, albeit one higher than Elsinore Peak (now covered in antennas and a short walk up a dirt road).
- In the 1960s a guy named Ken Croker entered the scene. He found the old trails in the Santa Anas built by the CCC in the 1930s, and with the help of the Sierra Club, restored them.
- He’s also the force behind creating the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness, known as “the wildest part of the Santa Anas.” The Forest Service opposed the creation of the area, because it meant more work in managing the land. If you’re not familiar with what’s special about a Wilderness Area, I recommend watching this quick video.
I had to use my vacation time from work to testify. The Forest Service officially fought it tooth and nail. They did not want to see another wilderness area established by Congress because it causes them special headaches, from a management standpoint. But a lot of the lower-level Forest Service people said, ‘Go get ‘em. That’s a fantastic area. That ought to be a wilderness.’Ken Croker to the LA Times
- There is no official “San Mateo Peak,” although it is the highest point in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. And although you will see an elevation posted here on some versions of the USGS topographic map, there is no survey benchmark at the summit.
- Today the Sierra Club maintains this trail along with all the others in the area. You can help them by volunteering.
San Mateo Peak Hike Directions
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Turn by Turn Directions
Although this trail skirts in and out of the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness, I do recommend signing the trail register here, which helps the Forest Service understand trail traffic and (hopefully?) get more funding for trails.
This guide last updated on December 30, 2021. Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.
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