Finding a secret hike and hidden campsite in one outing? Get outta here! No seriously, get outta here. Head to the southern part of Orange County’s Cleveland National Forest, where you’ll find San Mateo Canyon, remote home to a vast gorge and an absolutely gorge-ous hiking trail. There’s also the undisturbed campsite, Fisherman’s Camp, which makes this outing a perfect pitch for beginner backpackers and seclusion seekers. Whether you make it a day hike or spend the night, begin on the 3.5-mile out-and-back Fisherman’s Camp Trail.
You’ll descend more than 500 feet into the canyon, with views of the surrounding hills and valleys as a backdrop, while healthy native chaparral dominated by overgrown coastal sagebrush, laurel sumac, and buckwheat fill the foreground. Near the 1.75-mile mark, ignore the spur trail that veers sharply right to the drought-affected Tenaja Falls. Instead, continue to the sandy base of Fisherman’s Camp, named for its stream that was once populated with steelhead trout. With about a handful of spots, Fisherman’s is a first-come, first-served site for backpackers, and is typically underused, so your chances are good for spending the night. Surrounded by dense oak and sycamores, the stunning greens really pop in this riparian woodland. This is truly tranquil territory. Day hikers can return the way they came; backpackers and overnighters can set up camp and soak in the blissful isolation!
TIP: At Fisherman’s Camp there is a two-trail junction for extending the hike. Take the right path for 2 miles deeper into the canyon, but be warned it’s quite overgrown due to lack of use.
To get to the Fisherman’s Camp trailhead parking area, exit Clinton Keith Rd. off the I-15. Head west, passing through Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve and making a right onto Tenaja Rd. Follow Tenaja for 6 miles to Cleveland National Forest Rd. and make a right. This road passes the Tenaja Canyon Trailhead and winds down (with beautiful canyon views) for about 1.5 miles to Fisherman’s Camp Trail and small dirt parking lot. There is a small sign-in box at the trailhead, for camping. No fee. National Forest Adventure Pass required and must be displayed. Dog-friendly!