Distance: 20.9 miles round trip on trail
Summit Elevation: 2616'
Elevation Gain: 3900'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 3.12
Round trip time: 9 hours
Recommended water: 200 oz.
Parking/Fees: Adventure Pass
In Jerry Schad's book Afoot and Afield in Orange County, he described a one way hike from the San Juan trailhead on Ortega Highway to the Verdugo Trail to Fisherman's Camp as the Bluewater Traverse. He contemplated the possibility of climbing Peak 2616 near Oak Flats and possibly doing a giant loop back on the overgrown (at the time) North Tenaja trail. We planned to complete the giant loop, completely circling Bluewater Canyon in the San Mateo Wilderness. Few people have done as much to showcase and advance hiking in Orange County and San Diego County as Jerry Schad. For me, this was a tribute hike for Jerry Schad, who passed away in 2011 at the relatively young age of 61.
We started in the dark from the parking lot across from the Candy Store on Ortega Highway. The most dangerous part of the hike was at the very beginning when we had to cross the highway to get to the trail. There was an endless stream of commuters heading toward Orange County and there was no crosswalk or stoplight. After waiting more than 5 minutes, there was no break in the traffic. Finally, a car stopped and let us across the road. By the time we got to 4 corners, dawn had arrived and we put away our headlamps. We each cached a small amount of water for the return trip, then started down the Verdugo trail. The well maintained trail snaked around side canyons before the junction with Bluewater trail. We continued on the Verdugo trail so we could climb Peak 2616. Just before the peak, the signed Lucas Canyon trail came in from the direction of Ortega highway. I had not heard of this trail and it wasn't on anyone's map. Peak 2616 was a grassy hill, a 5 minute diversion, though it is fairly remote from any trailhead. Nothing marked the summit, but views were good in every direction, including the ocean and Catalina. We dropped off the peak and followed the wide trail to Oak Flats. Tall oaks and grassy fields seemed out of place inside the uniform blanket of chaparral that covered the surrounding area. From Oak Flats, we grabbed the Bluewater trail again for the sudden and steep 1500' descent into Bluewater Canyon. For just under a mile, the shaded trail traced the canyon, crossing the dry stream several times before hitting San Mateo Creek.
I was surprised to find the junction at San Mateo Canyon signed, with distances listed to nearby destinations. I expected this remote area to be less maintained. About 0.7 miles upstream, we arrived at the North Tenaja trail junction. Again, I was surprised not only by the signage, but the clearly maintained North Tenaja trail. Jerry Schad's report from 1995 described this trail as "too overgrown for most hikers." Dima had hauled some loppers all the way, only to find them unneeded. He seemed a little disappointed. We kicked around the idea of taking a side trip over to Fisherman's Camp, but the temperature had risen to an uncomfortable level, the tail end of a very hot Santa Ana wind event. The steep 1300' climb to the parallel ridge along Bluewater Canyon had no shade and was somewhat unpleasant. Sean might have chosen a different set of words to describe it. Once on the ridge, though, the rest of the gain was mild, spread over a long distance. From the North Tenaja trail, I got some great views into Bluewater Canyon. Several sections looked clear, unclogged by debris. This was encouraging for a future trip into the untamed canyon. The only unusual sight on the way back was a newer pair of women's running shoes abandoned in the center of the trail. This was about 3 miles away from 4 corners on a lightly traveled trail. We jokingly started looking around for the body. Sean decided to pack the shoes out, but the mystery remains unsolved. Back at 4 corners, we collected our cached water and took the longer Bear Canyon Ridge trail out. Crossing Ortega back to our cars was troublesome again, with traffic flowing the other direction. It's an extra hazard during commuting hours.