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San Clemente Journal

Overlooked... Hiking San Clemente from End-to-End

Jun 10, 2021 01:59PM ● By Jessica Kleinert

The view from San Clemente Summit looking toward our coast.

by Jessica Kleinert

The Idea
I thought my husband was joking the first time he mentioned it.
“All the hiking trails in San Clemente connect together. We should do the whole thing. It’s only about 15 miles.”


We were three months into the Covid-19 global pandemic at that point, and our weekdays - normally spent in office buildings - found both my husband and I working from our San Clemente home as our jobs moved to a remote work situation (much to our dog’s delight). For a fun, physically distanced activity and to escape the barrage of corona virus news coverage, our hiking hobby kicked into overdrive. Every weekend we could be found traversing a new ridgeline trail or a different coastal path to break up the monotony of quarantine, all the while growing our appreciation for the beautiful part of the world in which we were lucky enough to be spending lockdown.

Using the trail map found on the town website, I realized that (just this once) my husband was correct; San Clemente has five major trail networks that span the length of the City. Residing on the north end of town, determining our starting point was an easy decision: the inland trails at the end of the northernmost I-5 exit, Camino De Los Mares. The end point for our epic hike was never really up for debate; the California State Park trails terminate at Trestles Wetland Natural Preserve so the world-famous surf spot would be our final destination. We would utilize all five trail networks for our route (see path on accompanying map) and estimated that the journey would take five to six hours based on our average pace. We planned enough food and water to satiate us during this physically challenging pursuit. Taking sunrise and weather into account, we planned an early start to beat the heat and would stage a car at the terminus just before we started. With that...we were ready!

Early Start
On May 24, 2020 our alarm awoke us before dawn. With our backpacks readied the night before, we laced up our hiking boots, dropped off a car near the Trestles parking lot, grabbed breakfast burritos from Rose’s Cafe near our starting point, parked at the end of Camino de Los Mares and by 6am we were on our way.

The first few minutes of our journey were technically part of the San Juan Capistrano trail network but we soon made it to the west entrance of the Forster Ridgeline Trail. This natural surface trail follows the crest of the hills of the Forster Ranch development and has some steep sections. We hardly minded as our legs were well-rested, so we got to enjoy the sunrise along with the trail bunnies darting between stunning yellow wildflowers. Before long, we reached our first milestone: crossing the bridge over La Pata.

Highest Point
Soon after we were on Talega Trail, the first of only two trails that we would hike in their entirety during the day. At 2.8 miles, this Trail hugs the back edge of town behind the Talega development. We enjoyed a few whiffs of bacon being prepared for breakfast during the points that were closest to the residential areas. Otherwise, the highlight of this trail is San Clemente Summit, the highest point in town at an elevation of 1,008’ which we reached right before 7:30am. We took advantage of the scenic point’s bench to enjoy a snack before continuing on.

Dig Deep
Next up was Cristianitos Regional Trail, the other trail that we would hike from beginning to end. The watershed served as our landmark for this section and luckily we were traveling north to south which means it was mostly downhill. Parts of this trail include switchbacks and the southern section abuts a conservancy which provides a long stretch of untouched California wilderness with views down into secluded canyons. We eventually crossed Pico and picked up the final, and longest, trail of our journey: the San Onofre State Beach Trail. We reached the California State Parks land area around 8:45am and with Camp Pendleton to the east and golf courses to the west, we felt close to civilization briefly but that changed before long. A lot of the trail is secluded and while there were mountain bikers keeping us company, we didn’t encounter many other hikers. Shade was also scarce along this stretch of the trail and the sun was beating down at this point. There was also a steep uphill section that we didn’t know about from previous outings which caught us by surprise. Finally, around mile 11, a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean reinvigorated us and we stopped to eat before tackling the last section of our journey. 

With the ocean in our sights, we knew that the majority of the remaining distance would be downhill to get us to the beach. This knowledge certainly helped us power through miles 12-15, which included one more daunting uphill climb. The good news is once you reach the top of that sandbag-laden hill, you can practically smell the sea air and 30 minutes later we were at Trestles.

(hashtag Quarantine/Triumph)
We must have looked strange to the surf crowd on the long path to the ocean but luckily no one said anything. As we approached the soft sand, we ditched our gear and hobbled to the water. The euphoric feeling of the cold Pacific Ocean washing over our bare feet after hiking 30,000+ steps is indescribable but the smiles on our faces in the selfie that we snapped to commemorate the moment says it all. However, we still had one last bit to hike: back to our staged car along El Camino Real. Once there, our journey was officially over. Clocking in at 15.7 miles with 2,860’ of elevation gain over five hours and 16 minutes, we had done it!

We had purposely chosen to do this hike on the Sunday during a long holiday weekend so that we’d have a day to recover. After a shower, stretch and much needed horizontal-time, we celebrated with a restorative and delicious Italian takeout dinner from Sonny’s accompanied by some wine. It was the perfect ending to our adventurous San Clemente day.

With the pandemic continuing into 2021 and lockdown regulations in place, we hiked all of San Clemente again on February 7. This time we started at the trailhead at the end of Las Ramblas in San Juan Capistrano which brought our mileage total to 17.3 and took us an extra 24 minutes to complete. And it meant that we could indulge on anything (and everything) we wanted as a part of our Super Bowl Sunday festivities as a reward. 

Often overlooked in favor of the world renowned beaches and golf, the San Clemente ridgeline trails provide a unique perspective on our spectacular coastal city. This hike is now an annual tradition that will outlast the pandemic and we hope that others will take on the challenge. It’s great physical activity, a rewarding mental test, and provides a new appreciation for our “Spanish Village by the Sea.”