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.
- Location: Southeastern Santa Ana Mountains near Murrieta and Lake Elsinore. From I-15, take the Clinton Keith Exit and head southwest for a total of 7.5 miles, past the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve. (It becomes Tenaja Road along the way). Take a hard right to stay on Tenaja Road (staying straight will take you to Via Volcano). Go 3.5 miles and take a right on Cleveland Forest Road. This is a narrow, winding road that isn’t regularly maintained, so be careful. After 5.2 miles, look for the Tenaja Falls trail head on your left (not to be confused with the Tenaja Trail Head, which comes earlier). A National Forest Service adventure pass ($5 for a day or $30 for the year) is required. Click here to purchase.
- Agency: Cleveland National Forest/Trabuco Ranger District
- Distance: 1.4 miles
- Elevation gain: 300 feet
- Difficulty Rating: G
- Suggested time: 1 hour
- Best season: December – June
- USGS topo map: Sitton Peak
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Orange County
- More information: here; trip report here
- Rating: 7
Located on the southeast flank of the Santa Ana Mountains, Tenaja Falls is an unusual-looking waterfall with five separate tiers. Although it can be hard to see from the trail, and only flows strongly after recent rains, the waterfall’s total height of 150 feet makes it one of So-Cal’s tallest. The area around the waterfall is beautiful, and if the drive seems a little long for such a short hike, you can easily add to your trip.
From the parking lot, head downhill, staying straight at the first junction (the trail to the left leads to Fisherman’s Camp, a nice two-mile trip that’s also worth taking if you have the time.) Soon, you cross a stream. This is the only tricky part of the trip. Make sure you cross the stream as soon as possible; the route might not necessarily be clear, but the water is usually fairly shallow and there are stepping stones to use. Remaining on the east (near) side of the creek becomes problematic.
On the opposite bank, you should be able to find the trail without much difficulty. You head uphill on a moderate grade, passing by groves of oaks, and soon come out into the open, where you get your first look at the waterfall. Soon you arrive at the top, where you can carefully make your way out onto the rocks and get a view of the upper tier. The vistas of the surrounding area are great from this point; except for the road, there are virtually no signs of civilization in your line of sight.
After checking out the waterfall, if you want to get more hiking in, you can continue along the Tenaja Falls Trail, which will meet the Morgan Trail in about 5 miles near the Candy Store, or you can retrace your steps back to the creek and take the trail to Fisherman’s Camp. The nearby Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve is always a fun place to visit, especially after spring rains have filled the Vernal Pools.