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Text and photography copyright 2011 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. The author does not take any responsibility for injuries sustained during hikes or walks on the routes described here. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.
Black Star Canyon Falls
- Location: Cleveland National Forest, east of Orange and north of El Toro. From the 55 freeway in Orange, take the Chapman Ave. exit. Head east on Chapman Ave for a total of 10.8 miles (on the way it becomes Santiago Canyon Road). Turn left on Silverado, just past Irvine Lake, and take a quick left on to Black Star Canyon Road. Drive 1.1 miles to the gate and park in the turnout. From south O.C., take I-5 to Oso Parkway. Turn right, go 0.7 miles and turn left on Marguerite Parkway. Go 5.6 miles and turn right on El Toro Road. Go a total of 8 miles (El Toro becomes Santiago Canyon Road) and turn right on Silverado. Take a quick left on Black Star Canyon Road and park at the end. While most hikes in the area require a United States Forest Service Adventure Pass ($5 per day or $30 for the year), there is no indication at the trail head that a pass is required for Black Star Canyon, but if you have one, you might want to have it on display in your car just in case. The land is often in a state of flux between private, county and federal ownership; sources seem to have different information. To purchase a pass, click here.
- Agency: Cleveland National Forest, Trabuco Ranger District
- Distance: 6.6 miles
- Elevation gain: 800 feet
- Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Terrain/trail condition, navigation, distance)
- Suggested time: 5 hours
- Best season: November – May
- USGS topo map: “Black Star Canyon”
- Recommended gear: Poison oak cream
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Orange County
- More information: here; interesting article here; discussion forum here; video of the waterfall here. For information on identifying and treating poison oak, click here. To “like” Black Star Canyon Falls on Facebook, click here.
- Bragging rights swag: click here
- Rating: 8
In the film “Apollo 13”, one of the astronauts describes the mission training as “three hours of boredom followed by three minutes of sheer terror.” That’s not far off from the Black Star Canyon experience.
The waterfall in Black Star Canyon has something of a cult following among So Cal hikers. It’s unusual appearance is partly man made, in that the water cascades through a mine shaft as well as down the main chute. Black Star Canyon is also the subject of a lot of ghost stories, and hikers who make the trek will see the remains of a school bus, a tractor and a bicycle(!) along the way. There are many tales of paranormal activity after dark in the canyon, and confrontations with the local residents, and crimes by roving gangs and drifters who hang out by the road. The information sources that seemed the most credible agree that basic common sense will carry the day for you in Black Star Canyon: Don’t hike alone there after dark, and respect the residents and their property and they will respect you.
The hike itself should not be under-estimated. I was considering rating this trip as “R”, but if you know what to expect and prepare, it’s not that difficult. Here are eight simple rules for successfully hiking to the waterfall in Black Star Canyon.
1. When in doubt, it’s poison oak.
2. Try not to step on any rock that’s smaller than your car; it’s probably not stable.
3. Even stable rocks are slippery.
4. No, seriously, that’s poison oak.
5. What’s easy on the way up might not be easy on the way down, and vice versa.
6. Poison oak doesn’t grow at eye level, does it?
7. Yes it does.
8. As you enjoy the waterfall, remember that 97% of hiking accidents happen on the way down. (That, of course, is true of any hike, but I just thought I’d throw it in there.)
That said, many people make the trip and live to tell the tale; you just have to plan. I didn’t my first time, and I didn’t make it the falls and got some pretty bad poison oak for my trouble. In case I didn’t mention it, there’s a lot of poison oak in Black Star Canyon. But the second time I knew what to expect, and pulled it off.
From the parking area, pass the gate and head north on the paved road for half a mile. You swing to the right and head deeper into the canyon, passing by private properties on both sides of the road. Other than the barbed-wire and electric fences, and the occasional overhead power lines, there are few signs of civilization. The scenery is similar to that of Holy Jim Canyon, not far too the south; it’s hard to believe you’re in the O.C.
The road crosses Black Star Creek three times and soon afterward, at 2.5 miles, you reach a hairpin turn. Look for a trail heading downhill to the right, into the canyon. This is the business end of the hike.
Follow the trail down to the creek and head left, upstream. Remember what this location looks like so you can find it on the way back. Although it is now only 0.8 miles to the waterfall, this will probably take as long, if not longer, than the time you’ve hiked so far.
The early going is slow, but not too challenging; there are a few boulders here and there and you’re likely to get your feet wet, but overall it’s doable. After half a mile of climbing and scrambling, stay left as another canyon comes in from the right (east). This brings you to the last–and most challenging–stretch of the hike.
Soon after the junction, you arrive at your first major obstacle: a pile of huge boulders, with no easy way up. The best route is to start on the right side of the canyon and work your way diagonally to the left, climbing from one rock to another. The next challenge is the first of three smaller waterfalls that you’ll encounter en route to the main one. Just before you arrive at the waterfall, look for a path heading up above it on the right side of the canyon. It’s loose and steep, but you can grab onto tree roots and rocks to make your way up. This brings you to a rocky slope, with several smaller waterfalls running along it. The rocks can be slippery, but this stretch isn’t too tough.
You can climb up the second waterfall the left side; soon after you arrive at the third, and by this point you can get your first glimpse of the main waterfall. A steep but negotiable route takes you up the right side of this third small waterfall, and then you reach your destination.
The main cascade flows about fifty feet, and to the left, it also goes through the mine chute. Following recent rains, the waterfall is quite amazing. And as with Fish Canyon Falls in the Angeles National Forest, the bragging rights here are valuable too.