- Location: Santa Ana Mountains in eastern Orange County. From I-5 in San Jaun Capistrano, take highway 74 north for 22 miles and look for unisgned Long Canyon Road (the first significant street after the “S” curve north of the Candy Store). Go left and head 2.5 miles to the Blue Jay Campground, and turn left (you’ll pass by the other San Juan Trailhead, where the Viejo Tie hike starts). Drive to the end of the campground and park at the old San Juan trail head, by the information board. From Lake Elsinore, take highway 74 for 6.5 miles and take a right on Long Canyon Road. A National Forest Service Adventure Pass ($5 for a day or $30 for the year) are required. Click here to purchase.
- Agency: Cleveland National Forest/Trabuco Ranger District
- Distance: 2.8 miles
- Elevation gain: 700 feet
- Suggested time: 1.5 hours
- Difficulty rating: PG
- Best season: Year-round (hot during the summer)
- USGS topo map: “Alberhill”
- Recommended gear: sun hat; insect repellent; hiking poles
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Orange County
- More information: trip reports here; here; here
- Rating: 7
The hike to and from Chiquito Basin, a meadow on the slopes of the Santa Anas, is one of the few hikes in the area that can be done year-round. The distance and elevation gain are moderate, and much of the trail is shaded, and the altitude ranges between 2,700 and 3,400 feet above sea level. That being said, hikers should take appropriate cautions – especially on hot days. Some parts of the trail are exposed; some areas are washed out, so hiking poles will come in handy. Also note that this is a “reverse” hike, and most of the effort will be spent on the ascent back to the trail head. However, hikers who keep these precautions in mind will have a great time on this trail.
The hike to Chiquito Basin visits the same general area as the Viejo Tie Loop and offers similar scenery, but while the routes cross twice, the two hikes, as described on this site, never overlap. (Hikers, of course, can combine the two or mix and match as they see fit.) If you’re pressed for time, this trail, which is half the length of the Viejo Tie Loop, makes a good alternative.
The steep ascent on the return notwithstanding, the most difficult part of this hike just might be getting to it. The route here follows the old San Juan trail, not to be confused with the new San Juan Trail (which you’ll pass by on the way here, and can also be used to reach Chiquito Basin via a 4.7 mile round trip hike), or the San Juan Loop trail. But once you locate the trail, at the back of the Blue Jay campground, navigation is easy.
From the parking area, the trail ascends briefly (a spur to the left leads to a knoll where you can see San Gorgonio and San Jacinto), before making its descent. Stay to the right as you climb down the side of the mountains, with great views of Sugarloaf, Sitton, Elsinore, Los Pinos and other area peaks, plus the ocean on clear days.
At 0.6 miles, you make your first crossing of the new San Juan trail. Head straight, down a steep and sometimes loose slope, and soon you cross the San Juan trail again. The trail dips into a wooded area (in some places, it becomes eroded, so be careful), crosses a meadow, and enters the woods again. By this point, you are pretty much isolated from any sights and sounds of civilization. The huge oaks provide some nice shade on this last stretch of the hike. You cross a footbridge and come to another small meadow. Just beyond lies a larger meadow, Chiquito Basin. This is a great place to sit and relax, enjoying the scenery, which includes vistas of the taller peaks above.
Brave hikers who don’t mind having to watch out for poison oak might want to explore the western edge of the meadow, where they might find Chiquito Spring and some Indian morteros in the rocks. The hike can also be extended by continuing south on the San Juan Trail, which eventually leads to the ranger station off Ortega Highway near Caspers Wilderness Park.
On the way back, as an option, consider heading left at the first junction with the new San Juan trail. The slightly longer route is shaded and the grade is slighter, making it a nice alternative to the short, steep ascent ahead.
Text and photography copyright 2011 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. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.