San Mateo Peak
- Location: Santa Ana Mountains in eastern Orange County. From I-5 in San Jaun Capistrano, take highway 74 northeast for 23 miles. Just past the ranger station, turn right (south) on South Main Divide Road. Drive 2.8 miles and park at a dirt turnout on the right side of the road. From Lake Elsinore, drive 5.1 miles southwest on Highway 74 and turn left on South Main Divide Road (ranger station=too far). Go 2.8 miles and park in the dirt lot on the right side of the 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: 4.4 miles
- Elevation gain: 950 feet
- Suggested time: 2.5 hours
- Difficulty rating: PG
- Best season: October – May
- USGS topo map: “Sitton Peak”
- Recommended gear: sun hat; insect repellent; hiking poles
- More information: Trip description here; Peakbagger page here
- Rating: 7
San Mateo Peak (elevation 3,591) is the unofficial name of the highest point in the Santa Ana Mountains south of the Ortega Highway. Despite the panoramic views from the top and peak’s proximity to the heavily traveled Ortega Highway, the mountain remains somewhat off the radar of So Cal hikers, not being mentioned in any major guides. The trail appears to receive light but regular traffic from hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. A few spots are rough but overall it is in good shape and easy to follow.
Begin on the Morgan Trail, following it for 0.2 miles through pleasant rolling terrain. Just before the register box, take a hairpin left turn and follow an unsigned trail. A few tree branches block the way but they are easy to bypass. A sign reading “Rancho Cap. 2, Loop 5” can be seen on the left. The trail follows the upper reaches of Morrell Canyon, passing through more attractive woodlands, crossing the stream bed a few times. At 0.4 miles, turn right at a T-junction and follow it deeper into the woods.
At 0.7 miles, take a hairpin right turn on a trail marked with a dinosaur(!) The trail soon leaves the woods, climbing sharply to a bench where you can see the ridge of San Mateo Peak to the left. You pass another dinosaur on a post as the trail continues to follow the exposed ridge, providing views of San Jacinto Peak and Lake Elsinore to to the east.
At about 1.5 miles, you dip sharply, dropping about 50 feet. After crossing the saddle, you begin your final push to the summit, climbing 400 feet in 0.6 miles. At the summit, a wooden marker generously lists the peak’s elevation at 4,000 feet and a register can be found in a coffee cup, signed by about a dozen or so people monthly.
The wide summit is strewn with boulders that are easy to climb; from this vantage point, you can enjoy a wonderful 360-degree panorama. If visibility is good, you can see (clockwise from the south) the ocean, Catalina Island, the northern Santa Ana Mountains, Baldy, San Gorgoino, San Jacinto, the Santa Rosas, Palomars and Cuyamacas. After enjoying the view, retrace your steps, exercising appropriate caution on the loose, steep sections of the trail.
Text and photography copyright 2015 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.
I throughly enjoyed this hike. We went in the morning of a hot day, brought plenty of water, but beware there is very little shade and all of the washes are dried up currently. I love that there was a can at the peak to log in. After reaching the peak on the way back there is a very large rock on the left that provides excellent shade and the rock helped us keep cool for our break while eating a little lunch. We watched a few hang gliders in the wind as we hiked down as well. It was a nice hike on August if you don’t mind the sun and heat. I am looking forward to going back when the weather cools.
Great! It’s an under-appreciated gem for sure and I’m glad that you were able to enjoy it even during the summer. (I did it in January, I believe.) Thanks for reading. 🙂