Falls Canyon Falls (Orange County)
- Location: Trabuco Canyon, eastern Orange County. From I-5 in south Orange County, take El Toro Road northeast for 6 miles. At Cook’s Corner, take a hard right onto Live Oak and drive four miles. Shortly past O’Neill Park, right after Rose Canyon Road, take a left on Trabuco Creek Road, an unmarked dirt road. Note that 4-wheel drive vehicles with high clearances are recommended. At 3 miles you pass by an information board marking the entrance to the Cleveland National Forest; the roasd becomes noticeably rougher here. After half a mile, keep a sharp eye out for a narrow trail heading downhill on the left (north) side of the road. The road widens here, leaving enough room for a few cars to park. Trail head GPS coordinates are N 33 40.433/W 117 32.166. A National Forest Service adventure pass ($5 per day or $30 per year) is required. Click here to purchase.
- Agency: Cleveland National Forest, Trabuco Ranger District
- Distance: 1 mile
- Elevation gain: 300 feet
- Suggested time: 1 hour
- Difficulty rating: PG
- Best season: Year round (best following rain)
- USGS topo map: “Santiago Peak”
- Recommended gear: Long sleeved shirts and pants; Poison oak cream; insect repellent; hiking poles
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Orange County
- More information: Trip descriptions here and here; Everytrail report here; Yelp page here; Video of the waterfall here
- Rating: 6
Falls Canyon – not to be confused with the similarly named Falls Creek Falls in the Angeles National Forest – is a tributary of Trabuco Creek in a remote corner of the Santa Ana Mountains. While most people who endure the drive down Trabuco Creek Road have Holy Jim Falls as a destination, Falls Canyon Falls makes a nice side-trip. The hike loses points due to its requirement of virtually constant poison oak vigilance, but following recent rains, the waterfall is an impressive sight. With a little navigation, scrambling and bush-whacking required, Falls Canyon Falls is a good training hike for the considerably more difficult Black Star Canyon Falls. If you’ve considered doing Black Star but are worried about the challenges it presents, try this one first.
From the parking area, head sharply downhill into the woods. The terrain can be slippery if it’s rained recently so be careful; hiking poles may be helpful. At the bottom, navigate through poison oak and bear left, heading down toward Trabuco Creek. You head downstream briefly before emerging on the opposite side. If you don’t mind getting wet or if water levels are low, you can continue downstream; otherwise your best bet is to climb onto a narrow but navigable rock ledge a few feet above the water. Keep an eye out for poison oak as you make your way across.
After the rock ledge, a loosely defined trail heads uphill to the right. Work your way through yet another minefield of poison oak before dropping down to Falls Creek.
At this point you’ve only come 0.1 miles, although it will probably seem like more given the tricky terrain. Your job gets somewhat easier as you work your way in and out of Falls Creek. Continue keeping an eye out for poison oak, although the worst of it will be behind you by now.
At 0.3 miles, negotiate a bunch of fallen tree trunks. Soon afterward, you come to a 10-foot rock wall on the right side of the creek. There are plenty of handholds and you should be able to reach the top without much difficulty, although as always exercise caution.
A few dozen yards beyond this rock, you may get your first glimpse of the waterfall. After crossing the creek again you reach it (0.5 miles), where the water falls about 30 feet in a thin plume into a small pool. A few rocks make ideal spots to sit and enjoy the sights and sounds of Falls Canyon Falls before retracing your steps downstream and back to the car.
ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS FROM JOEL ROBINSON OF WWW.NATURALISTFORYOU.ORG:
Just past the 10-foot rock on the left, there are clusters of giant chain fern, the largest native species of fern in California, capable of growing taller than a person! Giant chain fern only occurs in shady, wet places, which restricts its distribution in Orange County. Because of the intact ecosystem, the superior water quality supports California newts, caddisflies, California treefrogs, giant water bugs, and other sensitive aquatic organisms. The water table is high enough to support an abundance of thirsty trees, such as bigleaf maple, white alder, and California bay laurel. Wild grape vines entangle many of the trees along with poison oak and blackberry. When the sun hits the waterfall, you can watch hummingbirds and butterflies catch drinks from the cascade.
Text and photography copyright 2014 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. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.