Corte Madera Mountain

Corte Madera Mountain

Corte Madera Mountain is a great hike if you’re looking for some quiet solitude. A somewhat long drive, rugged dirt road, and limited parking means not too many people venture out for this trek. But should you undertake this adventure, your effort will be rewarded with a peaceful trail that takes you through dense creekside oaks, hills covered in chaparral and speckled with colorful boulders, thick swathes of manzanita, a respectable showing of Coulter pines, and finally some expansive views of the southern portion of the Cleveland National Forest.

The cliff face of Corte Madera is prime nesting habitat for raptors like hawks, owls, falcons and golden eagles. It’s important to be aware of the possibility of nesting raptors in the area and not disturb any wildlife. Because of this, the Corte Madera area is subject to seasonal closures – you can check the Cleveland National Forest website for closure information, or call their office at 858-673-6180.

Our drive out to the Corte Madera trailhead was a bit bumpy. Corral Canyon Road started out nice enough, but soon began to alternate between washboard textured dirt and chewed up asphalt pocked with large potholes. Apparently no one thought it was necessary to accommodate a Honda Fit on a road leading to an Off Highway Vehicle area. But by taking it slow and steering around the largest of the potholes, we made it intact to the green metal gate which marked the start of our trail.
Trailhead for the Corte Madera Mountain trail

We started along the dirt fire road – uphill at first. I was immediately impressed with the idyllic peacefulness of the trail. We were enveloped by tall live oaks, whose fallen brown leaves crunched beneath our feet as we walked. The morning was still and quiet, except for the occasional rustle in the bushes as a bird hopped around. Within the first couple of hundred feet, I was ready to add this to my list of favorite San Diego hikes.
An oak lined fire road

For a brief stretch we emerged from the oak tree tunnel and found some magnificent specimen of red-barked manzanita towering above our heads.
Enormous red-barked manzanita

The shroud of oak trees reappeared and surrounded us once again. At just past .5 miles, we noticed a “PRIVATE PROPERTY” sign prominently displayed on one of the oak trees, and our first trail junction just beyond.
The first trail junction to the Espinosa Trail

An informative trash can guided us to the Espinosa trail on the left. To the right, the dirt road continued onto private property, and based on the number of no trespassing signs, the owner clearly did not want our company. If I lived here, I’d probably be hesitant to share it too.
Sign for the Espinosa trail

So left we went, along the narrow path of the Espinosa trail. Morena Creek, currently dry, ran alongside the trail to our left.
Headed up the Espinosa Trail along the creek

We passed in and out of more thick oaks for a little while longer before they finally gave way to lower growing scrub oak and mountain mahogany. We now had some fantastic views of the peaks surrounding the valley we were traversing. The hillsides were covered in a thick carpet of green, with spots of reddish brown where large boulders poked through the growth.
Heading uphill on the Espinosa trail

We began to climb upwards through the scrub brush, enjoying the cool morning. The trail grew increasingly steep as we went on, and before long we were sweating and breathing heavily, taking periodic breaks to admire the view behind us.
Looking back toward our starting point

Finally, we crested a rise and could see a metal fence running along a ridge ahead of us.
Approaching Los Pinos fire road

We quickly ascended this hill and just under 2 miles reached the next major intersection – Los Pinos fire road. A metal sign provided directions to several destinations, however it was a home made wooden sign which pointed to our target – Corte Madera Mountain. In the distance we could see the sheer granite face of our goal. We headed right along the fire road, but made note of the branches leading to Los Pinos Peak and the continuation of the Espinosa trail for future excursions. This was definitely an area we wanted to return to.
Signage for Corte Madera Mountain

The fire road wound along the hillside. Large, pinkish brown boulders and Coulter pines mixed with the low growing manzanita and occasional mojave yucca along the side of the trail. Blue jays screeched and flew through the bushes as we approached.

We quickly came to another intersection. The fire road continued on to the right, and somewhat straight ahead was a narrow single track trail marked only by an informational sign about raptors nesting in the area. We took the single track.
Unlabeled single track trail leading to Corte Madera Mountain

We quickly found ourselves amidst a lush carpet of manzanita, heading uphill. While the trail was narrow, it was easy to follow. In a couple spots the trail went over large bare rocks, but these sections were pretty easy to surmount.
Some rocky obstacles along the trail

Things soon leveled out a bit, and we had some beautiful views of the green blanketed hills surrounding us.

Around 2.4 miles we began the serious ascent. It started off innocuously enough, but we quickly found ourselves breathing hard and having to step up to climb over big rocks.

It was a bit slippery in spots due to loose dirt and gravel, but we just took our time, watched our step, and kept moving.
Steep section of trail

After about .1 mile we reached the end of the steep stretch. The dominant manzanita gave way to pine trees and oaks.
At the top we find Coulter pines

We caught a few glimpses through the trees of a cattle ranch in Corte Madera Valley below us, and even heard the distant lowing of a few cows.
View of Corte Madera Valley

We soon came to an enormous boulder jutting out of the ground, and the trail descended very steeply alongside it. We carefully stepped down the rocky slope and managed not to fall on our asses (because I’d totally tell you if I did fall).
A steep and rocky descent

After a couple more minutes of walking through the oaks and boulders, we began another ascent through a thick passage of manzanita and waist-high brush.Ascending through more manzanita

At approximately 3.3 miles, we encountered the final trail junction. At the “Y” shaped fork, we headed left towards the rocky outcropping of Corte Madera.Head left at the last Y junction

The trail passed over some beautiful, massive slabs of granite as we continued on.
Large slabs of granite

We soon crested a rise and saw the final stretch of trail laid out before us. It dipped down briefly and then climbed back up the rear of the peak.
The final stretch

From there it was just a short stroll through yet more manzanita and some granite slabs, and we found ourselves atop the giant boulders that make up Corte Madera Peak. Despite the clouds and haze, we still had some fantastic views of our surroundings.
View west from Corte Madera Mountain

Looking southeast towards our starting point, we saw Espinosa valley below, with Los Pinos peak on the right.
View southeast from Corte Madera Mountain

The wind was blowing pretty hard at the top, so we hunkered down among the boulders to eat our sandwiches, then headed back down.

View the full photo gallery

From I-8 east take the Buckman Springs Road exit. Turn right on Buckman Springs Road and continue for approximately 3 miles to Corral Canyon Road (note: this road shows up as Morena Stokes Valley Road in Google Maps – the street sign says Corral Canyon). Turn right onto Corral Canyon Road and continue for 4.8 miles until you reach a hairpin turn in the road. You’ll see the green gate on your right before the turn (pictured at the beginning of this post). Just around the bend on your left is the small dirt parking area, which can probably hold about 5 cars. map

A note on road conditions: Corral Canyon Road is partially a rough dirt road, and many of the sections that are paved have some large and exciting potholes. We successfully made the journey in a little Honda Fit, so if you drive slow and steer around the largest of the holes you should be ok. I suspect it might be a bit rougher after significant rain, so drive carefully.

Total Distance: 7.2 miles
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Total Ascent: 2543 feet
Dog friendly?: Dogs allowed
Bike friendly?: No
Facilities: None
Fees/Permits: Adventure Pass required

For more information visit:
USDA Forest Service: Cleveland National Forest – Espinosa Trail
View route on Google Maps

4 thoughts on “Corte Madera Mountain

  1. It looks like you had some great lighting that morning. A perfectly cool day of hiking. We didn’t get a view from the top the day I went, as it was in the clouds.

  2. It was a gorgeous morning for it, the clouds were very cooperative and photogenic for us 🙂

  3. Really beautiful trail, I’m from King County and i am too love hiking and photography. Look at hiking trails in my county