Hike Name: Bear Canyon Loop to Pigeon Spring
Name of area/general location: San Mateo Canyon Wilderness, Cleveland National Forest
Land Acknowledgement: This trail is located on the ancestral homelands and traditional territories of the Tongva, Kizh, and Acjachemen. To learn more about the original residents and stewards of the lands, visit native-land.ca
Trail rating: The trail is rated as moderate because it is 6.1 miles long and gains 1,112’ in elevation.
Trail mileage: 6.1 miles with options available to extend the journey
For more information: Cleveland National Forest, Trabuco Ranger District, (951) 736-1811 or https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/cleveland/recarea/?recid=47404
Description of area, sights, wildlife and any key markers on the trail:
The Cleveland National Forest (CNF) is the most “urban” National Forest in California in that a large percentage of it borders cities and other developed private lands and it gets millions of visitors a year. The most urban part of the CNF is the Trabuco Ranger District which is in the Santa Ana Mountains of Orange, Riverside, and San Diego counties. With a few exceptions, the Trabuco is almost entirely surrounded by development.
But the Trabuco Ranger District itself remains quite wild for the most part, especially the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. The San Mateo Canyon Wilderness was protected by Congress in 1984 and includes 39,413 acres of the Trabuco. It is one of the few remaining large expanses of intact chaparral and coastal sage scrub in the region. Chaparral is a community of shrubs that dominates the majority of the Santa Ana Mountains. Common chaparral species in the Santa Ana Mountains include manzanita, toyon, ceanothus, silk-tassel bush, chamise, mountain mahogany, and sugar bush, among many others. Coastal sage scrub is a shorter shrub habitat that is now considered endangered because of development in southwestern California.
Both of these shrub communities are a paradise for pollinating insects and a multitude of birds like the California thrasher and canyon wren. San Mateo Canyon and other smaller canyons in the Wilderness shelter abundant sycamore, oak, willow, cottonwood, and other trees. Tucked here and there are groves of big cone Douglas-fir. This is a species that only grows in southwestern California.
Annual rainfall averages 15 to 20 inches, most of it falling in winter and early spring; flash floods rip through narrow canyons in heavy downpours. For all of the trails in the Trabuco Ranger District, please check the weather forecast. The Santa Ana Mountains are very hot and dry in the summer. The region is best visited in spring, fall, and winter. Please bring plenty of water (at least 1 liter per person per day). Watch out for poison oak. The many signs warning of rattlesnakes in the CNF are almost more frightening than the actual snakes because encounters are uncommon and very rarely result in a bite. Still, please do watch for rattlesnakes.
Please note that the CNF requires an Adventure Pass (see https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/cleveland/passes-permits/recreation for more information).
Spring brings a wealth of wildflower blooms to the Santa Ana Mountains. Keep an eye open for wildlife: 139 bird species, 37 mammal species, 46 reptile and amphibian species, seven species of fish occur here. Lizards, rattlesnakes, coyotes, skunks, and mice are commonly seen; the elusive mountain lion is rarely seen.
The trail climbs moderately through chaparral draped slopes interspersed with spires of yucca north into the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. Take the right fork after one mile. From a ridgetop, the trail offers outstanding views of San Juan Canyon in the foreground and western Orange County and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Pigeon Spring is a beautiful oak woodland where many people choose to take a rest. A half-mile beyond Pigeon Spring is a turnaround point called Four Corners. Turn left to head back to the trailhead, or turn right to climb 3,280-foot Sitton Peak. On a clear day, views from Sitton can extend for 50 miles or more. Turning right at Four Corners and climbing Sitton will extend the hike to 9.5 miles round-trip.
How To Get There:The Bear Canyon Trail begins next to the Ortega Oaks Candy Store on the Ortega Highway (State Highway 74) in Lake Elsinore. Maybe you can reward yourself at the store after the hike?
Caution: Weather and road conditions can change in an instant. Always check with the managing agency before embarking on a trip. Always hike with a friend and carry a cell phone for emergencies. Bring plenty of drinking water, food, and clothing for changing weather conditions. Let someone know where you are going and when you intend to be back. Remember, California’s wild places are beautiful but they can also be dangerous to the unprepared and unwary. The California Wilderness Coalition assumes no liability if you intend to visit any of the wild places featured in our materials.