Mountains covered with chaparral and coastal sage dominate the landscape of San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. Many deep drainages hide a lush growth of vegetation, with oak woodlands thick in the lower elevations. Annual rainfall averages 15 to 20 inches, most of it falling in winter and early spring; flash floods rip through narrow canyons in heavy downpours. Spring brings a wealth of wildflower blooms. Summers tend to be very hot and dry, though you will probably find small pools in San Mateo Canyon most of the year. Keep an eye open for wildlife: 139 bird species, 37 mammal species, 46 reptile and amphibian species, seven species of fish. Lizards, rattlesnakes, coyotes, skunks, and mice are commonly seen; the elusive mountain lion is rarely seen. The east-west San Mateo Canyon Trail follows the main canyon for 7.5 miles near the center of the Wilderness, and provides access to what is probably the best camping in the area: fields of grass, shady stands of oak and sycamore, the best chances for water. This trail is joined by at least six others, most of them easy to moderate, including the 5.4-mile Tenaja Falls Trail. Tenaja Falls, when spring brings a rush of water, is a dramatic sight. Poison oak grows richly around the falls even when the creek dries up. Campfires are not permitted. This Wilderness receives light human use and can provide a wild and worthy experience, especially in spring.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.