Distance: 6 miles round trip on dirt road and use trail
Summit Elevation: 3189'
Elevation Gain: 1000'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 0.8
Round trip time: 2 hours 25 minutes
Recommended water: 56 oz.
Parking/Fees: Adventure Pass
Margarita Peak is on the Sierra Club lower peaks list in the Santa Ana Mountains. It overlooks Camp Pendleton marine base and for that reason must be approached from the east (Lake Elsinore/Murietta) side of the mountains. Getting to the remote trail head is somewhat confusing and a challenge equal or greater than the climb itself. The general instructions are to take the Clinton Keith exit from I-15, follow it until it becomes Tenaja Road, then make a left on Margarita Road and follow it on a dirt road until it makes a hairpin turn to the right. You can park there or drive further up the road if you have a high clearance vehicle. From Orange County, I took the I-5 to the 74 (Ortega), went over the mountains, turned right on Grand and followed it south until it dead ends at Clinton Keith. Then, I went right to Tenaja and continued on Tenaja until it turned into a dirt road.
I made a big mistake after it turned into a dirt road. I was looking for the Margarita Road sign, but there was none. The first intersection after Tenaja turns into a dirt road is Tenaja Truck Trail to the left, while Tenaja continues straight. I continued on Tenaja looking for Margarita Road, following every path to a dead end. There were no signs after it turned to a dirt road. I backtracked to Tenaja Truck Trail, and that turned out to be Margarita Road. When I got to the hairpin turn, I didn't see any trail ahead, so I continued up the dirt road as far as I felt my car could handle it, then parked. With the wasted time, the travel time to start the hike was almost 2 hours. If you want to do this hike, my suggestion is to thoroughly study Google maps and Google earth so the maze of dirt roads doesn't lead you astray like it did me.
This peak sees little traffic, but has one huge fan on the web, which provided some useful beta. The Angeles Sierra Club web pages are from 1999 and useless. From the trail head, follow the road until you hit a T, turn left past a gate, then at the next T intersection turn right and head up the overgrown fire road to the ridge. The fire road is filled with poodle-dog bush, so watch your step. At the top of the ridge, follow the use trail around to the west side of the mountain, then back up to the peak. The final peak trail is about 18" wide and crowded with manzanita. The 360 views from the peak are some of the best I've seen, with views of San Onofre beach, the ocean, Saddleback, San Gorgonio, San Jacinto, and parts of San Diego. There were bees and flies bugging me at the summit, so I only took time to sign the register and snap a few photos. The last visitor to sign before me was almost 3 weeks earlier on 4/13/2013. If you want some isolation, this is a great peak. I met no one coming or going.