Cleveland National Forest

From Dirtopia, The Off-Road Encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Ranger District Areas
Cleveland National Forest
Photo: The winding trail up to Santiago Peak.
Off-Road Information
Other Names: Santiago Peak
Terrain: Mountains
Off-Road Use: Trails only
Difficulty: Easy
County: Orange County, California, Riverside County, California, San Diego County, California
Nearest Cities: Orange, CA
Map Links: Google Map Yahoo Map
Satellite Map: Google Satellite
Special Map:
GPS Coords:
Google Earth: File:Cleveland Nation Forest Districts.kmz
Area Size: 460,000 acres
Last Visited: {{{lastvisited}}}
Open/Closed/Date: {{{openclose}}}
Season(s): {{{seasons}}}

The Cleveland National Forest is an exciting, amazing expanse offering you a tremendous scope of activities and experiences. With a terrain that changes from fresh green to dry arid, with weather conditions that dance between the two extremes and the exciting and numerous sights and sounds of forest inhabitants, this has to rank as a ‘been there- done that’ experience. The forest area consists mostly of chaparral, with a few riparian areas.

The Cleveland National Forest is a forest of contrasts. In this one location you can experience two dissimilar weather conditions. Walk into the snow-filled heart of the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area or move down below into the Forest to find the land simmering in heat waves.

It is the southern-most National Forest in California. It is divided into Descanso, Palomar and Trabuco regional districts and is located in the counties of San Diego, Riverside, and Orange. The Cleveland National Forest is 460,000 acres in size and extends from within 5 miles of the Mexico border and moves northward 130 miles to Orange County.

Off-road Trails in Cleveland National Forest[edit]


Cleveland National Forest Off-Road Map
It is these extreme weather conditions that support a wide variety of terrains and recreational opportunities. Visitors to the Cleveland National Forest have various options. Off-Highway Vehicle trails, hiking through the mountains on foot, exploring the forest on horseback, camping by night or simply driving through the Sunrise Scenic Highway -- the opportunities are varied. There’s something in it for everyone.


There are twenty-six developed campgrounds. One of the more famous campsites is above Lake Elsinore, in the nearby Santa Ana Mountains. Called the Wildomar campground it offers direct access to the OHV Area.

The Corral Canyon OHV Area and Bobcat Meadows campground located southwards near the Pine Valley town give access to twenty-plus miles of off-road trails designed for various off-road vehicles and a range of skill-levels. The District Ranger's Office is the best place to get your maps and find out the regulations governing the area.

These campsites are dry and rugged areas situated in the midst of different rock formations, boulders and greasewood. You will find an occasional Live Oak tree around the place. This topography has a beauty of its own.

The Corral Canyon OHV Area offers many scenic views of the surrounding areas including Lake Elsinore. There are several turnouts along the way. These are excellent launch points for hang-gliders. On a clear wintry day you may be privileged to experience a picture perfect scene of graceful hang-gliders soaring over the glistening placid Lake Elsinore.

Just below the Palomar Observatory, are Fry Creek and Observatory campgrounds. Fry Creek is a picturesque campground covered with pines trees. If you want to indulge in some star gazing then the trees may obstruct your view. Move towards the Observatory grounds instead. There are several leveled areas where you can pitch your own telescope for a good view of the night sky. In the valley below, the Chamise Loop of Oak Grove campground, also offers a good view of the night sky.

For those sunny summers, Burnt Rancheria's elevation of 6000 feet makes it a very popular campground.

The Laguna campground is the place to be in winter. Snow is not unknown in the Laguna Mountains and Laguna campground is a very popular place for "snow play." Be careful to note that chains could be required in cold, inclement weather.

For the all year round hikers, the Meadow Loop is open year-round.

Hiking Trails[edit]

Hiking is a favorite hobby across different age groups. The Ortega Corridor (Hwy. 74 through Santa Ana Mountains) offers a great network of hiking trails that challenge and delight the hiker. Spring is the best season to undertake this activity as the trail is carpeted with a mind-blowing variety of colourful flowers.

Beginners and those wanting to stroll about can try the El Carios Nature Trail which is quite easy and you don’t need a guide to get round the place.

The Chiquito Trail, at 9.2 miles, is easily accessed from Hwy. 74 at the Candy Store.

The San Juan Trail, the longest trail in the Corridor at 11.6 miles, offers a hiker the most complete forest experience.


The Cleveland National Forest is home to the world famous Palomar Observatory which is located on top of Palomar Mountain. Here you can view the open skies through a 200-inch telescope. The Observatory is open to the public during the day but is closed at night so the astronomers may observe the starry night sky.

Horse Trails[edit]

For those more interested in discovering the Cleveland National Forest on horseback the Boulder Oaks campground is the place to visit. You can find one loop of pull through aprons and corrals designed specifically for campers with horses. Dripping Springs campground, located along Arroyo Seco creek and adjacent to the Agua Tibia Wilderness, also has a loop designated "Equestrian." The Laguna Mountain Recreation Area has Secret Canyon and Noble Canyon trails where horses share with mountain bikers.


The Sunrise Scenic Highway runs through the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area. There are many vantage points along this route which offer spectacular views. From here you can see the desert and Salton Sea to the east and San Diego, Point Loma, and the Pacific Ocean to the west.

For the early risers camping at Burnt Rancheria campground, you can catch the spectacular sunrise from the Desert View Picnic area which is a short hike away.

If you choose to worship amidst nature, to the south of this campground is ‘Our Lady in the Pines’ Church where Mass is given on Sunday mornings during the summer season.

If you want to eat to your heart’s content, hop over to the privately owned lodge and restaurant which is a little towards the north.

Adventure Passes[edit]

A National Forest Adventure Pass is required for parking in designated recreation areas in the Cleveland National Forest as well as other National Forests in Southern California. You can obtain this from local merchants, visitor centers, or online.

Map showing the designated fee areas in the Cleveland National Forest.

Ranger Districts[edit]

  • Trabuco Ranger District (generally the northern area)
    • Consists of most of the Santa Ana Mountains and is bisected by the Ortega Highway, which runs from San Juan Capistrano to Lake Elsinore.
  • Palomar Ranger District (near the city of Escondido)
    • Includes the "Highway to the Stars" from State Highway 76 to the top of Palomar Mountain.
  • Descanso Ranger District (east of the city of El Cajon)

Conditions and Closures[edit]

It is always wise to check with the Cleveland National Forest to make sure that your trail is open.

Cleveland National Forest Contact Information

External Links[edit]

Cleveland National Forest Photo Gallery[edit]