Tenaja Falls

Tenaja Falls
Tenaja Falls is located in the northern tier of the Cleveland National Forest between Orange County and Riverside County. The short trail features a seasonal waterfall estimated 150 feet in height.

Tenaja Falls Hiking Trail Guide

The Santa Ana Mountain section of the Cleveland National Forest is largely overshadowed by some of the more popular peaks in the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forest. The Cleveland National Forest holds about 460,000 acres of mountainous and coastal valley recreational opportunities. The majority of the managed land lies south in San Diego but the Santa Ana mountain range between Orange and Riverside County include several gems including Sitton Peak which is part of the Southern California Six Pack of Peaks Challenge. The Tenaja Falls trail is a short out and back hike in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. This wilderness is a portion of the Cleveland National Forest that encompasses 39,413 acres. The land essentially covers the large gorge known as San Mateo Canyon and is managed by the United States Forest Service. This particular area draws in enough rainfall and even an occasional dusting of snow to allow for several seasonal waterfalls in the area.  Rainfall collects into Tenaja Creek and flows into San Mateo Canyon forming an estimated 150 foot multi-tiered waterfall. The trail is of short duration and a noteworthy hike to check off the list of Southern California Waterfalls. At the top of the falls are a couple of natural pools that are a popular destination. In Spanish, Tenaja refers to a water basin or retention area. I’m guessing this name of the falls is given because of the natural tenajas or small pools at the top of the falls. 

On A Personal Note:

This is a fun short hike that’s suitable for families as well. The most difficult and time consuming thing about this trial is actually getting to the trialhead. There is a day use permit system where people are required to sign in at. The best view of the falls is actually from the canyon overlook about two thirds of the way up. Alcohol is prohibited at the trailhead and the falls. Overnight hikes require additional permits, check the trail directions for more information. One of the most troublesome parts about this trail is the amount of grafity near the top of the falls along the granite cliffs. For whatever reason people find it necesary to tag the rocks with spray paint and ruin the natural beautify of the area. When visiting the outdoors please respect wherever you visit and adhere to leaving no trace.  Have you hiked this trail recently? Please share any trail updates/pictures in the comments below.
Tenaja Falls Trail Quick Facts:
  • Elevation: 1,462 feet.
  • Elevation Gain: 287 feet.
  • Estimated Distance: 1.5 miles.
  • My Actual Distance: 1.8 miles.
  • Estimated Time: 1-2 hours.
  • My Time: 49 minutes moving; 1 hour 25 minutes total
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions:
Open in maps. The most  difficult thing about getting to the trailhead is the long windy road along the Tenaja Truck Road. There is a small dirt parking lot clearly marked. Parking can fill up quite quickly espcially on the weekends and early in the morning. When the falls get flowing parking is even more difficult to come by.  As the road leads out of the Murrieta area and into the San Mateo Canyon wilderness, the road becomes quite narrow. I thought many people drive a little too recklessly on this road. Many turns on this truck road are hard to see around, contain a canyon on one side, and are only wide enough for one vehicle in some areas. Use caution and don’t drive like an Indy 500 driver.  Although this area is within the Cleveland National Forest, there is no Adventure Pass or America The Beautiful Pass required. There is a log book at the beginning of the trial in which peple are required to sign in. Fill out the register and enjoy the trail.
Tenaja Falls Trail Pictures:
Who Tenaja Falls Trail Is For:
Novice Hikers: Despite the remote area of this hike, this is actually a great trail for novice hikers. This trail is by far easier than other popular waterfall destinations such as Three Sister’s Falls or Cedar Creek Falls. The elevation gain is mild and this is a great trail for families. The most difficult part of the trail is the water crossing.  Advanced Hikers: The windy road is more challenging than the trail itself. The view of the falls is great and it’s worth checking off the list of Southern California waterfalls hikes. The Tenaja Trail is a 5+ mile hike that will connect you to this trail and be more difficult.  Expert Hikers: This will be just another bagged Southern California waterfall hike but with ease of effort. If you’re looking for a more difficult way to get to the falls, there are trails that will connect you such as the Ortega Oaks or Tenaja Trail.
Best Time Of Year To Hike Tenaja Falls:
Tenaja Falls Trail Conditions:
The trail leading up to Tenaja Falls is in generally good condition. The trail is in the Cleveland National Forest and is maintained by the United States Forest Service. The trail starts out along the Cleveland National Forest Road right before the road turns into the Los Alamos Road. There is a small dirt parking lot that is clearly marked. At the trailhead is a register that’s required to be filled out by all hiking members. From here the trail ventures through an oak lined path into the junction of the San Mateo and Los Alamos Canyon and across the San Mateo Creek. I’ve personally never been afraid of getting my shoes wet but some people aren’t a fan of it. When the water levels are low there are stones to step across. However, to have a good waterfall will mean higher water levels and a high likelyhood of getting your feet wet. Be careful not to slip on the algae lined rocks. 

Leading Up To Tenaja Falls

In the creek there will be a trail that leads downstream to Fisherman’s Camp. Ignore this trail branch and continue along the trail that leads out of the canyon. The trail is mostly loose dirt with small granite rocks along the way. The evidence of heavy rains have left their mark by way of obvious trail erosion. About half a mile up is in what my opinion is the best viewing point of the falls. An opening in the trail looks across the canyon directly at tiered waterfall flowing into San Mateo Canyon. Continue climbing slowly along the canyon and eventually the trail again meets up with Tenaja Creek. There is another creek crossing here along a concrete basin that was placed just prior to the point of the falls. There are a couple of small pools at the top of the first couple of tiers which people have used for swimming in.  The top of the falls offer a good viewing point overlooking the top of Tenaja Falls. It is possible to scramble down the granite face of the canyon to the bottom of the falls. Use caution and do so at your own risk. I personally think the best view of the falls is from the half mile mark overlooking the canyon. I’d imagine it is possible to head up along Tenaja Creek to the base of the falls but it would probably be greeted with some bushwacking and poison oak.  Please be aware that rattlesnakes are common in this area, especially during the warmer months. The best chance of finding poison oak will be near the creek in shaded areas that get a lot of moisture.
  • Overall Difficulty: 20% 20%
  • Overall Views: 85% 85%

About The Author

The Simple Hiker

Husband. Father. ER nurse. Hiker. Nature lover.

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