Fisherman’s Camp via Tenaja Trail

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Oaks on the Tenaja Trail
Oaks on the Tenaja Trail
Oaks at Fisherman's Camp
Oaks at Fisherman’s Camp

Text and photography copyright 2010 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved.  Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability.  All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  The author does not take any responsibility for injuries sustained during hikes or walks on the routes described here.   Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Fisherman’s Camp via Tenaja Trail

  • Location: Santa Ana Mountains southeast of Lake Elsinore.   From I-15 in Murrieta, exit Clinton Keith Road, and drive 5 miles south (past the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve).  On the way, the street becomes Tenaja Road.  Another 1.7 miles later, go right to remain on Tenaja Road, and 4.2 miles later, take a right onto Cleveland Forest Road.  After a mile, the trailhead will be on the left.  A National Forest Service Adventure Pass ($5 for a day or $30 for the year) is required for parking. Click here to purchase.
  • Agency: Cleveland National Forest/Trabuco Division
  • Distance: 7 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,300 feet
  • Suggested time: 3.5 hours
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Distance, elevation gain, trail condition)
  • Best season:  October – May
  • USGS topo maps:  Wildomar; Sitton Peak
  • Recommended gear: insect repellent; hiking poles
  • More information:  here
  • Rating: 8

Fisherman’s Camp is a primitive trail camp deep in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness in the southeast corner of the Cleveland National Forest’s Trabuco District.  As the crow flies, it’s not all that far from San Diego, Riverside or Orange Counties–or even L.A.–but it is rarely visited, and provides hikers with a sense of solitude that is hard to find.  When I was there, the last name on the registration sheet at the trailhead had been signed two days earlier, and the only other people I saw the whole time were a couple having a picnic lunch in the parking lot when I got back.

If you’re going to do this hike, know that you’ll be in for a little bit of a challenge.  Even the trail name can be a little confusing: this is the Tenaja Trail, not to be confused with the Tenaja Falls Trail farther north.  Cleveland Forest Road, which is rarely maintained, is prone to flooding during the wet months, although in a total of four visits to this area I haven’t had any real problems.  The Tenaja Trail itself is overgrown in places, but by and large isn’t too hard to follow.

From the parking lot, head down into the canyon on the Tenaja Trail.  Across the meadow, you get nice views of Santiago Peak from a rarely seen angle.  About half a mile in, you enter the woods and take a right where a false trail leads straight.  For the next couple of miles, the trail heads in and out of thick pockets of live oaks, clinging to the side of the canyon.

At about two and a half miles in, the trail begins to switchback steeply down to the floor of the canyon, crossing it a couple of times, and a mile later, it arrives at Fisherman’s Camp.  Once a drive-in campground, Fisherman’s Camp is now only accessible by trail.  In addition to the Tenaja Trail, the Fisherman’s Camp trail heads to the east, hooking up with Wildomar Road (the extension of Cleveland Forest Road) and the San Mateo Trail heads north.  For those whose thirst for adventure hasn’t been quenched, the Tenaja Trail continues west and then north, eventually arriving at Four Corners, the five-way trail junction just south of the Candy Store off of Ortega Highway.


  1. I hiked this in May and it was sooooo overgrown and had more Poison Oak than I’ve ever seen on a trail (I bathed in Tecnu when I got home) I wanted to go further than Fisherman’s Camp but was confused by the map I had. It appeared that you should be able to keep going and make it to Tenaja Falls at about 10mi?? Any idea if that would have worked?
    I might add that there were a few groups of shady characters hanging out at the parking lot when we got back (late on a Sunday afternoon)

    1. Hi Stephanie, thanks for reading. I didn’t notice much poison oak, but the trail was definitely overgrown in places. From Fisherman’s Camp, you can take the San Mateo trail north for about 1 1/2 miles, and it connects with the Tenaja Falls Trail, and Tenaja Falls is about 1/2 mile farther. I’ve hiked the whole thing in sections over 3 different hikes. Hope you have better luck next time.

    2. I just hiked this yesterday. Looked like someone had just trimmed the trail. Most of the poision oak was out of the way, unless you get off the trail. I couldn’t believe there were still 4 or 5 small pools of water. This is after a drought year and 5 weeks of 100+ degrees teperature. I didn’t see anyone. From the Tenaja Falls trailhead, only 2 miles in, 2 miles back. I saw many frogs, bunnies, alligator lizards, boisterous scrub jays. There were some large tadpoles. And I was able to “swim” well, dunk under water.

  2. I hiked this on Tuesday, November 2, 2010; it is my first hike since subscribing to your blog – I absolutely loved it. What drew me to it were phrases like “primitive trail”, “rarely visited” and “sense of solitude” – this trail definitely provided that and more. I was slightly concerned starting the hike at noon with the high temp that day, but soon found it to be shaded most of the way, tucked into the canyon.. a few spots were refreshingly chilly actually! And arriving to Fisherman’s Camp after your trek is a perfect place to relax, eat, read, meditate for a bit – or do cartwheels across the grounds! Thanks for sharing such a great hike, can’t wait to try another… and another… Cheers!

    1. Hi Robyn, thanks for reading, glad you are enjoying my blog. Hopefully it’ll give you some more ideas about places to explore. Fishermans Camp is certainly an under-appreciated place and I’m glad you had good luck with the weather. Keep on hiking!


  3. I really miss hiking this area. I started hiking here when I was in high school in the early eighties. Fishermans camp has a special place on my memory because of the stange people I’ve met there and also the strange things I’ve observed. Nothing life threatening but definetly unforgetable out of this world stuff. I have entered this area from multiple trails including camp pendelton. There are still large trout possibly salmon in the large pools towards camp pendelton I’ve seen them. I have also stumbled upon old Indian artifact and villiges that are preserved like still in use. Illegal aliens do come through these trails in large numbers but don’t be alarmed they are harmless. You could spend 10 years hiking here and not see it all. I now live in new Mexico bit recently started planing a trip back to the amazing place because I want to show my two younger sons what the missed out on. My oldest son, nephew and brother all were part or my adventures exploring the land of the red newts and flying green orbes of fishermans camp and San Mateo canyon. Thanks for jarring my memories. Cliff

  4. Is there overnight camping allowed once you reach fisherman’s camp?? Just wondering if this would be a possibility for backpacking, Thanks

    1. Yes. You can camp at Fisherman’s Camp. No campfires or other fires of any kind. Backpacking stoves OK [alcohol, white-gas, gasoline, kerosene). Wood burning Backpack stoves and hobo stoves not allowed. Wilderness Permits technically required. Available from the El Cariso Visitor Center Ranger Station at Ortega Hwy & Main Divide Road. 951-678-3700 (in theory in person, but rangers often out of the office), or the Trabuco District Headquarters (by mail). I have camp there before, it is a very nice place. In summer, there are loop day hikers that travel the route. (Not many).

  5. I will be hiking this for the first time next week. As a self designated “tail-mistress”, I hope I will not lead my friends astray. None of us are really the independent outdoors type. I am not much of a hiker. I am just getting started. I’ll follow-up with my comments next week. I am looking forward to it. Any detailed tips are more than welcome.

    1. This is a somewhat tricky trail, with some difficult terrain, but if you go with a group you should be fine. Enjoy!

  6. Took 2 cars last weekend (4/10/11). Left one vehicle at Tenaja Falls Trailhead and drove back to the Tenaja Traihead to begin hiking to Tenaja Falls. Took us a little over (2) hours to go from Tenaja Traihead to the Tenaja Falls. Went swimming in the pools (cold but refreshing), had some lunch, and hung out for a bit. Then, we hiked back to the Tenaja Falls Traihead (about 15 minutes from the falls), picked up vehicle #1 and drove back to the Tenaja Traihead to get the 2nd vehicle. Nice scenery, plenty of water, great day. This is a great Riverside County hike.

    1. Sounds like fun – the stretch from Fisherman’s Camp to Tenaja Falls is nice. Thanks for reading.

  7. We routinely backpack from the South Tenaja Trail head to Fisherman’s Camp a couple of times each winter. It’s a great trip to introduce “newbies” to backpacking due to the short distance (3.5 miles). Water is usually plentiful during the late fall and winter months, and so are the ticks. Fisherman’s Camp is a magical place which offers water and shade. Most weekends you’ll find solitude with the exception of the occassional group of day hikers. Don’t forget to obtain your free permit if you plan on staying overnight. For up-to-date information, you can call the Trabuco Ranger District at (951)736-1811. The staff of the NFS are extremely nice and helpful. Happy Trails!

  8. HIked from Tenaja Trail today down to Fishermans then continued on to Tenaja Falls. Returned the same way. A nice jaunt. Approx. 12 miles. Started at 6 and back by noonish. Only saw 1 other person on the trail and this was close to the Tenaja Falls lot. So many sections that never see sunlight. Awesome colors. Not much water though along our route. Only real poison oak issue was along the falls area and approaching the falls trail junction. Ticks though abound. What a deep canyon area out there. Nice!

  9. I took my son on his first backpacking expedition, just a very short 3.5 mile tromp down to Fisherman’s camp from the Tenaja Trail Head. We unloaded packs, setup tent, had a meal and some conversation. We took two side trips down two of the three trails that lead out of Fisherman’s. To the southwest, we took the connector to the San Mateo trail (and this is also the way to the through bound Tenaja trail to four corners). We stopped just as the trail started to wind down to the San Mateo creek. We also took the north east side of camp’s Tenaja Falls trail out of Fisherman’s, just up to San Mateo Creek, across, and then up just a 100 yards as it starts to climb out of San Mateo canyon on the north side. Tenaja creek was dry in April this year (dry winter), so the nearest water was the San Mateo creek via the Tenaja Falls trail (which is a 5-10 minute walk each way, very short). The Tenaja trail seemed well maintained, but there is lot of poison oak on the trail edges, just starting to encroach onto the trail, but very passable. Just off trail, huge stands of poison oak all over the place.

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