10 Must-Try Trails of 2016

10 Must-Try Trails of 2016

hiking photo


It is a well-known fact that hiking has many great health benefits, from stress reduction to weight loss, lowered anxiety and decreased hypertension. But recent cognitive neuroscience studies have also demonstrated rejuvenating effects on the brain in those spending as little as 90 minutes in a nature setting. These results provide evidence that even hikes of a short duration can decrease a pattern of negative and inward direct thinking often associated with the onset, in some cases, of mental illnesses like depression.


If you’re looking to lower stress, find a new fun activity, or challenge yourself to a new personal health goal, you will find a start right here. Listed below are the top 10 trails to try on the Cleveland National Forest. Locations and skill levels vary, whether you want to travel far or stay close, or you’re looking for a challenge or an easy start, these trails have something for everyone.


This year, dare yourself to get outdoors more, stay inside less, and explore all that the forest has to offer.


Pacific Crest Trail


Trail #1: Pacific Crest Trail

Location: Beginning at the Mexico border, passing through the Descanso and Palomar Ranger Districts

Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult

Recently known best for its feature in the movie “Wild” with Reese Witherspoon, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a national scenic pathway through some of the most outstanding terrain in the United States. The PCT begins in southern California and travels a total distance of 2,650 miles through California, Oregon, and Washington until reaching the Canadian border. But hikers don’t need to travel thousands of miles to see its beauty. While it crosses the Cleveland National Forest, it spans 110 miles, traverses dense forests, clear lakes, and running streams, while passing multiple cities and plentiful scenic vistas. Hikers have the choice of entering and exiting at varying locations, each point providing a different difficulty level and mileage. Follow the link above for more information and see which trail might work best for your physical abilities.



Sunset Trail


Trail #2: The Sunset Trail

Location: Descanso District; Laguna Mountain off Sunrise Hwy (SR-1)

Difficulty: Easy

Located in the Laguna Mountain area at 6,000 elevation, this family friendly trail is listed as “easy” with little incline and offers an abundance of rewarding perks like longer trail connections, scenic vistas, dense forests, and vast meadows. The Sunset Trail can be completed as a 3.25 mile loop or connected to the Big Laguna Trail for a 9.2 mile loop. After a wet season, and often during the spring, ponds and lakes are full of water which produces an influx of wildlife, providing great bird watching opportunities. Touted as a district favorite, the Sunset Trail is great for beginners, or those looking for a truly unique outdoor recreation activity.



San Juan Trail


Trail #3: The San Juan Trail and the San Juan Loop Trail

Location: Trabuco District; Orange and Riverside Counties

Difficulty: Easy to Strenuous

Very popular with mountain bikers, the San Juan Trail is an 11.6 miles one-way, single-track trail that is both beautiful and challenging. While not recommended for beginners, those adventurous enough to endure the climb will find the views from the top very rewarding. Meanwhile, individuals looking for a more family-oriented and kid-friendly experience can skip the long ride and take the 2.1 mile San Juan Loop trail, which offers an interactive game play known as “Agents of Nature” where children learn as they play by being directly in the environment. Both trails are located off the Ortega Hwy (Hwy 74) on Long Canyon Road, centrally located close to both Orange and Riverside County.



Big Laguna Trail at night


Trail #4: The Big Laguna Trail

Location: Descanso District; Penny Pines/Noble Canyon Trailhead off Sunrise Hwy (SR-1) on Mt. Laguna

Difficulty: Easy

Listed as “easy,” this rare San Diego gem is conveniently located 13 miles north of I-8 on Sunrise Highway, taking hikers on a 10-mile loop (4-miles of which are a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail) through oak and pine woodlands, vast meadows, and during certain seasons, a clear blue lake. For the distance-pursuing hiker, additional trails can lengthen the journey as much as 25 miles by utilizing the Pacific Crest Trail connection. Local campgrounds offer amenities for those looking for an exciting overnight experience, and no adventure pass is required to hike the trail or to park outside designated campgrounds. This trail is open to horses, mountain bikes, and hiking, serving as a scenic trail for all modes of exploration.



Secret Canyon Trail


Trail #5: Secret Canyon Trail

Location: Descanso Ranger District at the Horsethief Trailhead

Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous

Located in the Pine Creek Wilderness, this lengthy 14 mile (one way) trail is great for experienced hikers and horseback, with elements of wildflowers, green grasses, free-range livestock, and gorgeous manzanita trees. The northern end of Secret Canyon follows a historic stone shrine and when heading south meets with the Espinosa trail, where (during wet seasons) it also features a large swimming hole, great "dispersed camping" options, and free flowing streams. This unique trail offers much for the outdoor enthusiast, but since it offers little shade, and can be rather difficult, it is suggested for travel during the late fall, winter and spring months. While the beauty of the trail can be clearly noted without completing the full 14-miles, it is rated as moderate to strenuous due to its length and steep uphill climb, thus is recommended for slightly more experienced hikers.



Observatory Trail


Trail #6: The Observatory Trail

Location: Palomar District; South Grade Road on Palomar Mountain

Difficulty: Easy

One of only four National Recreational trails in San Diego County, the Observatory Trail is touted as a “perfect summer option” with 4.4 miles of shaded, well-groomed road, this hike offers much in the way of exercise, scenery and nature views. Located on Palomar Mountain 10 miles north of the 76, this oak-lined trail provides a good aerobic climb, sturdy hiking conditions, and access to a world-famous observatory, all while boasting an easy to find trailhead and campground with spectacular views of the Mendenhall Valley. Great for families, beginners, or those looking to take in the scenic outdoors and camping options are available. For the true outdoor experience, the Observatory Campground is just 2 miles from Palomar Observatory offering a unique learning experience and great views of the night sky, particularly during the summer months.



san mateo canyon wilderness


Trail #7: Morgan Trail (Wilderness trail)

Location: Trabuco District; on South Main Divide Road

Difficulty: Moderate

This beautiful 4.2 mile (one way) out and back trail takes hikers through the manzanita and oak lined wilderness of Morrell Canyon, where willows and sycamore hug the canyon bottom and water flows freely during a wet season. Listed as moderate with an elevation change of 720 feet, hikers meander through oak groves before coming to an open meadow with an abundance of grass and wildflowers. At the mid-way point, travelers are rewarded with terrific views over Lake Elsinore out to Mt. San Jacinto, Mt. San Gorgonio and Mt. Baldy. Located in the heart of the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness, this trail provides the serene and secluded experience that hikers can only get from a natural, untouched forest setting.



Wild Horse Trail


Trail #8: Wild Horse Trail (a Wilderness Trail)

Location: Palomar District; Dripping Springs Campground

Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult

This 10.1 mile trail located near Temecula off the I-15, beckons hikers deep into the Agua Tibia Wilderness through beautiful oak and sycamore-shaded canyons with lush chaparral which can be ablaze with color from late winter to early spring. The beginning of the trail is reached by hiking up Dripping Springs for .25 miles. The Wildhorse Trail then climbs through a pair of switchbacks and begins ascending along the south canyon wall of Arroyo Seco Creek, which is all but dry except for after a rainy season. Connecting trails provide varying distances for the adventurous hiker looking for greater length (via Palomar-Maggee and Cutca/Palomar Divide Road), and with 1750 elevation change, the most challenging incline comes within the first half mile. At its peak, hikers get scenic views of Vail Lake, Lake Skinner, and the Temecula Valley with rows of vineyards. This trail is best completed during the cooler months, particularly spring, when the rain fills creeks and streams with flowing water. It is recommended for moderately experienced hikers, mountain biking and equestrian.



Cedar Creek Pond


Trail #9: Cedar Creek Falls

Location: Palomar District; Ramona CA.

Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous

Possibly the most traveled trail on the Cleveland, Cedar Creek Falls features a spectacular waterfall plunging 80 feet into a large pool of water. This 6.6 mile out and back trail leads hikers through the beautiful backcountry hills of eastern San Diego with black oak, cedar, and cottonwood trees providing a great habitat for bird watching. Now is a great time to complete the trail, particularly for those who are new to hiking, or are hiking the trail for the first time, as low temperatures make the hike back out (all uphill with steep incline) somewhat easier. Off-seasons are also a great time to hit the trail without the crowds, as this destination spot occasionally gets congested, making wildlife or bird watching very difficult.



Trabuco/Santiago Creek


Trail #10: West Horsethief Loop Trail

Location: Trabuco District; 1/2 mile past Holy Jim Falls Trailhead at the end of the road

Difficulty: Moderate

This beautiful yet challenging hike is one of the rare local gems that boast maples, bays, sycamores, oaks, and a handful of trickling creeks deep within the folds of the Santa Ana Mountains. Hikers looking for a challenge will find this suitable on many levels, with the elevation change at 2200 and the loop being a healthy 10.2 miles, those adventurous enough to complete its entirety are rewarded with gorgeous back country scenery unlike anything in the area. Fall through late spring enhance the natural beauty of this trail as leaves turn a golden autumn in September and rain seasons provide blooming wildflowers and overflowing streams by mid-March. Though there is an abundance of shade in sections of the trail, the summer months can boast triple digit temperatures and the elevation does little for heat relief. This hike is recommended for moderately experienced hikers and mountain biking.