The Cleveland National Forest is the southernmost forest in California, nestled away near the coast beneath The San Bernardino National Forest and Angeles National Forest. While traversing this scenic mountain region, you will find shade beneath California native black oaks (Quercus kelloggii), surrounded by every color of the wildflower rainbow.
Would you recognize the delicate petals of the native peony (Paeonia californica), or the long sweeping stamens of a bluecurles flower (Trichostema parishii) if you saw one? More importantly, can you identify poison oak? Prepare before you go by visiting this easy-to-browse California Identification Gallery : great for birders and botanists too!
The forest features 460,000 acres of varied terrain, from valleys of yucca spotted shrubland to peaks of pine and holly. The elevation is mild; the forest begins at 387 feet above sea level and peaks at 6,263 feet. If you’re looking for scenic trails with only a moderate amount of climb, Cleveland National Forest may just be the wild Southern California getaway you’ve been looking for.
About the Forest
Located in San-Diego, Riverside, and Orange counties, The Cleveland National Forest contains a great deal of chaparral shrubland communities, but also harbors a few riparian zones where land meets river. These special riverbank ecosystems help shape the biodiversity of this curiously variable forest.
Most Californians recognize Cleveland for its unfortunate status as the site of not one, but both of the largest wildfires in the state’s history: the 2003 Cedar Fire, and the 1989 Santiago Canyon Fire. Today, the forest has strict fire restriction systems. The Forest Service administers controlled burns in winter and spring. This practice benefits the forest by reducing the chance of a serious wildfire, enriching the soil, and combatting invasive species.
This area generally has a warm, dry climate, but there are waterfalls in the rainy spring season. Many of these are not necessarily along the main trails though. Keep in mind, a ‘hidden feature’ in any park or forest should still have some kind of trail leading to it. Many of these trails will usually be overgrown with shrubbery and harder to spot than the main foot traffic paths. That’s what makes finding them such a thrill!
Hidden features provide a unique, quiet oasis free of litter, graffiti, and bootprints. In fact, there is no better way to get a close connection with nature. (Remember, going off trail in search of hidden features is dangerous, harmful to fragile nature reserves, and usually illegal. And of course, leave the area in pristine condition like you found it.) Not sure how to look for a hidden feature? The park staff or trail interpreters may be able to point you to their favorite sites.
History of The Cleveland National Forest
This national forest came into existence on July 1st, 1908. President Theodore Roosevelt combined two previously existing, smaller reserves into one unified land which he dubbed ‘Cleveland National Forest’. This was named after one of his predecessors, President Grover Cleveland. The new reserve measured an astounding 1,904,826 acres and served to protect Southern California’s natural resources and watersheds, which had been receiving severe neglect and overuse up until that point.
Before the arrival of western explorers and settlers, this land was home to Kumeyaay, Luiseños, Cahuilla, and Cupeño native tribes. You may recognize the Kumeyaay people by one of their other names: Tipai-Ipai, or Diegueño. These native people thrived on the bountiful lands of Southern California and Northern Mexico until the mid 1700s, when smallpox decimated their communities.
Some tribes which numbered 50,000 strong quickly dwindled to a population size of merely 1,000 after the introduction of smallpox. In fact, the Kumeyaay people very nearly lost their traditional music and native language completely. The 1960’s, however, saw a fantastic cultural rebound that continues to grow stronger as new generations become invested in learning the traditional songs of their people.
Unfortunately, the language has not seen as strong of a resurgence as the music has. It was estimated in 2020 that there are about one dozen speakers left in the United States, however there is still hope as these speakers are now organizing to teach the language to the next generation. Native American History Month has become an important time for San Diego residents to remember the natives who have been making history for thousands of years in this beautiful land we all cherish.
Ranger Districts in Cleveland National Forest
The forest features three separate ranger districts: Descanso, Trabuco, and Palomar.
Descanso, the southernmost district, stretches 20 miles from near the Mexican border up to the edge of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Mount Laguna is the crown jewel of this district, with terrain suitable for hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking. Plus, it receives up to two feet of snow each winter, so it’s no wonder this mountain is such a popular recreation site year-round.
The Pacific Crest Trail runs through part of this district, beginning in the southern region of Hauser Canyon, it steadily climbs north through Mount Laguna. The southern part of Descanso District is home to Corral Canyon, a famously great spot for OHV recreation.
For park passes, maps, and general information, contact Forest Supervisor Scott Tangenberg at 858-673-6180, or email the administration at mailroom_R5_Cleveland@fs.fed.us. For information regarding a specific district of the forest, use the following contact information:
- Descanso: 619-445-6235, Bob Heiar, District Ranger
3348 Alpine Boulevard
Alpine, CA 91901
- Trabuco: 951-736-181, Darrell Vance, District Ranger
1147 East Sixth Street
Corona, CA 92879
- Palomar: 760-788-0250, Amy L. Reid, District Ranger
1634 Black Canyon Rd.
Ramona, CA 92065
Recreation in Cleveland National Forest
Take a deep breath and get ready for: ground camping, OHV camping, horseback camping, RV camping, plus biking, hunting, fishing, hiking, and nature viewing. Whew, there’s a lot to do in these woods! Not only is the daytime packed with rides, runs, and wildlife, but the night is every bit as alive and jam packed with memorable experiences, not to mention the most peaceful shuteye you’ve ever experienced in fresh California air.
Also, did I forget to mention star camping?
The Cleveland National Forest hosts the Explore the Stars Program. This program is administered by an organization of knowledgeable astronomy enthusiasts who offer up interstellar insight once a month at the park observatory. No artificial light is permitted after 9:00pm in the surrounding area. This makes for the best star viewing possible against an all-natural sky of glittering lights. It’s a sight our ancestors enjoyed every night, and one that us city-slickers hardly ever see. We advise you to take advantage of this opportunity for yourself, especially if you have never gone star viewing before; you may just be star-struck and become an amateur astronomer yourself!
A ‘star party,’ as they are called, consists of an overnight stay on the observatory campgrounds (if you want to spend the night, but you don’t have to). For two nights, this educational experience for all ages is available from spring until fall. Teachers bring telescopes and point them in the directions of galaxies, clusters, nebulae, supernova remnants, stars, moons, and planets.
Wilderness Areas in Cleveland National Forest
A wilderness area is defined by the USDA as a land that is primarily governed by nature herself, “where man is a visitor who does not remain.” Cleveland is host to four well preserved and protected official wilderness areas. Here you can bask in the glow of nature’s beauty, untainted by human civilization. These areas are:
- Agua Tibia Wilderness – 17,961 acres, San Diego and Riverside
- Pine Creek Wilderness – 13,261 acres, San Diego
- Hauser Wilderness- 8,000 acres, Potrero
- San Mateo Canyon Wilderness – 37,000, Riverside
Out for photographs, or just want to take in as much California glow as possible? Let us tip you off to the following scenic sites with the best views of the hills and valleys:
- San Juan Loop Trail
- El Cariso Nature Trail
- Kica Mik Overlook Observation Site
- Henshaw Scenic Vista Observation Site
Grab some goodies from the candy store across the street before starting your journey to see San Juan falls! But be warned, this extreme trail is not for beginners. You can park off Highway 74 for the San Juan Trailhead. Just make sure you have the required recreation pass before visiting this trail. The El Cariso Nature Trail provides parking in front of the Visitor Center, but does not require a recreation pass.
Visit The Cleveland National Forest
Whether you’re a committed naturalist out to spot a bassarisk, a birder looking for buntings, or an astronomer in need of some stellar starry nights, Cleveland National Forest is the woods with the goods for just about everybody.
Have a great stay, enjoy some good play, and leave no trace!
-By Heaven Morrow