LET’S GO HIKING Metate Trail

Aug 12, 2023 | Outdoor Adventures, Trending

Bowls hollowed out in the granite bedrock by Serrano Native Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries were used to grind acorns into flour. They’re slightly larger than a hand with fingers fully extended. (Photos by T. Wilcox)

By TIM WILCOX – Special to the Alpine Mountaineer


Where: Lake Arrowhead

Length: 2 miles (round trip)

Elevation gain: 50 feet (return leg)

Challenge: easy


Near the northwestern end of Highway 173, on the far outskirts of Lake Arrowhead, is a little-known hiking destination that’s of particular historical and ethnographic significance. If it weren’t for a prominent Forest Service sign in the parking area, it would be easy to miss the Metate Trail.

So how does one get there? For the sake of clarity and convenience, let’s establish Lake Arrowhead Village as the starting point. Drive around the lake, heading east, then north toward Mountains Community Hospital, where single-lane traffic through a major Caltrans wall project is controlled by light changes every four minutes or so. Beyond the intersection of Highway 173 and North Bay Road, you’ll be motoring northwest on an exceptionally winding course. Just past the turnoff to Deer Lodge Park, eight miles from the village, look for the parking area on the left.

Walk across Highway 173 into the Forest Service Rock Camp and bear right until the pavement gives way to a dirt road. Follow it until you reach a barely legible sign that reads, “INTERPRETIVE AREA.” Two wooden posts mark the actual trailhead.

On the Trail

Initially as you walk east, the trail is completely free of any impediments. Primarily beaten earth and sand, it passes through widely spaced evergreens and oaks plus robust stands of chaparral. Because of the sparse forest and drier terrain, it’s a transitional zone from alpine forest to high desert.

Slightly less than half a mile from the trailhead, you’ll come to a fork in the pathway. Go right here and head downhill through boulders and a stand of exceptionally tall manzanitas, which grow very slowly.

Passing through a sparse forest of evergreens and oaks, the trail’s initial stretch of beaten earth and sand is wide and mostly level.

Passing through a sparse forest of evergreens and oaks, the trail’s initial stretch of beaten earth and sand is wide and mostly level.

Soon you’ll encounter a stone monument on the left with a weathered bronze plaque. It reads: “INDIAN ROCK CAMP. In memory of the desert Indians who came here every fall for many years to grind their acorns in the many metates among the rocks.” This monument was dedicated by the Women’s Club of Lake Arrowhead on March 15, 1938.

A little bit farther on you’ll reach another fork in the trail. Go left, proceeding downhill. A few more steps, and you’ll come to actual examples of the metates (pronounced meh-TAH-tays in Spanish)—bowls hollowed out in the granite bedrock by members of the Serrano tribe in the 18th and 19th centuries for grinding acorns into flour.

According to the U.S. Forest Service: “The Serrano came to this area. . .because of the plentiful acorn crop and the mild weather. Bedrock mortars were formed by the grinding action of mono and pestle stones. It was much easier to use these large bedrock slabs rather than carry a mortar stone with them, but they also did that in areas where such stones did not exist.”

These are rare and precious ethnographic artifacts. They need to be treated with the utmost care and respect.

Past an expansive meadowland, you’ll encounter a small group of boulders, then a creek and pond. Step carefully across the boulders, then up the slope back onto the trail. At yet another fork, bear to the left past several Jeffrey pines and more manzanitas.

Soon you’ll come to a fallen oak with bare branches reaching for the pathway. Although the trail continues uphill at this point, you’ve experienced its most prominent features. So, at slightly less than the one-mile mark, turn around.

Now, on the return leg, you can wander a bit and explore some of the optional, less-traveled forks instead of revisiting your incoming route. It’s a maze, for sure, but that adds interest and challenge to your hike.

Here’s an example: Go back to the pond and creek, then launch a different return route by taking the pathway steps beyond to the right. This offshoot meanders gently downhill past quite a few downed trees, which could be the remnants of a severe wind-and-ice event many years in the past.

You’ll pass a rocky ravine on the right before entering an ascending section of the path. Unless you want to take a lengthy detour, though, ignore even more offshoots to the right. Finally, you arrive at the trail’s first fork, just above the metates. A right turn here leads back to the wooden posts and, not far beyond, the parking area.

Depending on your pace and how far afield you wander on the ancillary paths, you’ve been hiking for anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes. Typically, though, this is a one-hour adventure.

NOTES: Thanks to the Metate Trail’s remote setting, you’ll enjoy an especially peaceful and relaxing hike. Highway 173 is lightly traveled here, and jet over-flights are rare. The metate mortars are the highlight. Be aware, too, that this is mountain-lion country, so avoid hiking at dusk and definitely after dark.


1 Comment

  1. Ray Herrera

    Hello I am from A Fairbanks Alaska and I really enjoyed this article and found some truths to be told about the Serrano Indian tribe. A monument dedicated to those who ground the Acorns in the past in the stone metates by the Women’s Club of Lake Arrowhead in 1938 so many years in the past. It was very insightful and well done by the creator of this article. Thank you and would love to see more like it.


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