Explore the woodsy Morgan Trail, off Ortega Highway in the Santa Ana Mountains.

As I rambled down the Morgan Trail one crisp early-autumn morning before dawn, the crackling of oak leaves underfoot played counterpoint to the drone of a hundred crickets singing in unison. Dozens of cold blue stars sparkled overhead, while the moon's beams, caught in a tangled aerial net of limbs and branches, painted the ground in shades of black, gray, and silvery white. These simple kinds of sensations, jelled together, added up to a powerful, almost mystical, experience.

The Morgan Trail traverses the Ortega Highway section of the Cleveland National Forest in Riverside and Orange Counties. It also crosses the northern edge of the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness, one of coastal Southern California's newer and larger national-forest wilderness areas. This description assumes you are going to hike the trail one way; that is, in the northeast-to-southwest, predominantly downhill direction, for a total distance of five miles. Remember that all parked cars on national-forest lands must have a National Forest Adventure Pass ($5 per day, $30 yearly) posted on them. These permits are widely available in the Ortega Highway area.

To reach the starting point, leave Ortega Highway (State Route 74) at a point 5 miles west of Lake Elsinore, or 0.3 mile east of El Cariso Station, and drive 2.7 miles up the paved Killen Trail to a signed trailhead parking area on the right (west) side. As you drive along this stretch, enjoy the spectacular vista of Lake Elsinore to the east, with its backdrop of bald hills and distant mountains. On weekends you may see hang gliders launching and soaring in this area.

On the Morgan Trail you quickly drop through manzanita and other chaparral vegetation and join the promenade of live oaks in Morrell Canyon. Willows and a few sycamores hug the canyon bottom, where water flows during the wet season. Going just this far (5 or 10 minutes in) is rewarding in itself if you have little time. At 1.0 mile the trail cuts left (south) across the creek and rises to higher and sunnier terrain. Soon you're back on chaparral-covered slopes, dotted with granitic boulders.

At around 2.3 miles, the trail veers west, skirting private lands in Potrero de la Cienega and Round Potrero. You soon cross a dirt road. At 3.5 miles you begin a crooked descent into some oak woods, where you join the Bear Canyon Trail (4.0 miles). Stay right and continue another mile downhill to the Bear Canyon trailhead adjacent to the Ortega Oaks Store. The store is across from a parking lot that serves as a major trailhead for this part of the national forest.

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