On Friday, January 29, 2010, Ashley and I finally got a chance to hike to Tenaja Falls. Tenaja Falls is a 150-foot-plus set of cascading waterfalls in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. It is one of the major highlights of the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness and is definitely worth the trip to see the falls for any Orange County Hiker. This is a good hike to do anytime Southern California has an above-average rainy season. We went to see this waterfall after the area got 8 plus inches of rain in one week, needless to say, there was plenty of water at Tenaja Falls a week after the rain storms moved through.
Directions to Trailhead: To reach the Tenaja Falls Trailhead in the Cleveland National Forest, go west on Clinton Keith Road from I-15. Turn north (right) to Tenaja Road, then right on Rancho California Road (FS 7501) for about 5 miles to the Tenaja Falls Trailhead. The road to the trailhead is lightly paved but does have some rough patches & potholes. Most cars should be fine reaching the trailhead on FS 7501, but a truck is a better option if you want to play it safe. It is a single-lane road to the trailhead, so drive slow and very carefully. The single-lane road meanders north to Tenaja Falls through some very scenic areas in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. The Falls are visible from the trailhead parking area. A Forest Adventure Pass is needed to park at the trailhead.
Description of Hike: The hike to Tenaja Falls is 1.4 miles roundtrip and has 300 feet of elevation gain. The trail is normally in great shape as it is maintained by the US Forest Service. The only spot that can get a little hard to follow is the river crossing, especially after a major storm. The crossing is not far from the trailhead parking area. When a storm goes through Southern California, the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness receives more water than the coastal region because of its elevation. Crossing the river could potentially be dangerous if you go through this area a day or two right after a major storm or series of major storms because a lot of water collects in this section of the San Mateo River.
Ashley and I did this hike 6 - 7 days after a series of major storms and we found that the river crossing was easy to do. However, while crossing we could visibly see how much water moves through the area right after a big storm because of the debris along the river banks (Picture to left). The bottom line is always be careful when crossing any river. There is a designated cement walkway for the crossing or there are rocks you can use to cross. We took off our hiking shoes to go through the water on the cement walkway. During the dry months, the river dries up and the falls will only have a small amount of water. The trail from the trailhead to Tenaja Falls is a steady uphill climb, but the trail when we hiked was in great shape. For those who are interested in a longer hike, it is another 5.4 miles one way on the Tenaja Falls Trail until it meets with the Morgan Trail.
Further Thoughts: This is a must-do hike for any Southern California Hiker. It is a great hiking trail near Orange County and Riverside County which is in some of the most remote areas of the Trabuco District of the Cleveland National Forest. One of the great things about this hike to Tenaja Falls is that your destination is in plain view for the vast majority of the hike. Also, because of the water in the river, always be on the lookout for wildlife in the area.
Once you arrive at the falls, it is a great place to have lunch, relax, and take in the scenery. If you want to bring swim trunks you can, but I don't know how many sections of the falls are conducive to "real" swimming. If you are more on the adventurous side you can always climb down to the lower levels of Tenaja Falls. Just be safe because the rocks are very slippery when wet. The only negative of the hike was the visible graffiti on some of the rocks near Tenaja Falls. It was a shame to see graffiti in such a beautiful place.
Despite the graffiti, it is always amazing to see Southern California after it has received plenty of rain. The wilderness is a totally different experience than in the dry summer months. With ample rain comes the sounds of rushing streams filled to the brim with water, frogs, and other wildlife. The entire chaparral community comes alive when it receives rain.
This is a great hike and on the weekends you are likely to see other hikers out on the trail to hike to Tenaja Falls. To see the falls in action, this hike should be done during the winter months or sometime after the area has received significant rainfall. The area had just received 8 inches of rain the week before we went to see Tenaja Falls. Click Here, to see several videos that we took of Tenaja Falls on this hike. Tenaja Falls is the highlight of the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness and is a great day hike in Southern California.
Further Education & Hiking Tools: For those looking for more reading on hikes or landmarks in the area, Amazon has several books that you can purchase (and yes, we do earn a small commission from any sale, but that is what funds this website so we appreciate any purchase using our links) Check out the following maps and books Cleveland National Forest Map, Cleveland National Forest (Images of America: California), or if you need a new insect repellant to use on your hikes that works well check out Sawyer Products SP564 Premium Insect Repellent with 20% Picaridin, Lotion or if you need bear spray to carry when hiking here you might want to check out SABRE Frontiersman 9.2 oz. Bear Spray, Maximum Strength 2.0% Major Capsaicinoids, Powerful 35 ft. Range Bear Deterrent or a new hiking head lamp LHKNL Headlamp Flashlight.
Rating: Elevation Gain: 300 ft. (Easy), Distance: 1.4 Miles Roundtrip (Easy).
Time to Complete Hike: 1 - 1.5 hours.
Time to Complete Hike: 1 - 1.5 hours.
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