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Tenaja Falls: Jewel of the Santa Anas

April 01, 2001|JOHN McKINNEY | For more of John McKinney's hiking tips and trails, visit www.the

When the Southland is blessed with enough rain, Tenaja Falls spills over granite ramparts with great vigor. With five tiers and a drop of about 150 feet, it's large, particularly compared with other waterfalls in the Santa Ana Mountains.

Tenaja's size is all the more a delightful surprise considering the locale: a dry section of Cleveland National Forest near the boundary of Orange and Riverside counties. Some hikers say Tenaja Falls is the most intriguing highlight of the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness, which is part of the national forest and a jewel in the Santa Anas.

The good news: The Tenaja Falls trail is a wide dirt road, easy enough for the whole family. The bad news: The drive to the trail head is circuitous.

For photographers, there's one more bit of bad news: No single viewpoint captures all of Tenaja Falls' five cascades at once. Hikers can see, at most, two tiers at a time, but it's well worth the effort.

Directions to the trail head: Take California Highway 74 or Interstate 15 to Lake Elsinore. Drive about 12 miles southeast on I-15 to Wildomar and exit on Clinton Keith Road. Proceed five miles southwest, then 1.8 miles west on Tenaja Road to a signed junction. Fork right on Tenaja Road and continue west for four miles. Turn right on paved Rancho California Road; drive a mile to Tenaja Station and a junction with dirt Tenaja Road. Go 4.5 miles more north to a hairpin turn and a parking area.

The hike: Walk to the fence that bars motorized entry to the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. Cross the creek on the concrete apron vehicle ford. If the creek is high, you'll have to wade across, though skilled rock-hoppers can sometimes cross without getting their boots wet. Another option is to walk along the creek until you find a narrower place to cross.

The road ascends north over brush-clad slopes and before long serves up vistas of Tenaja Falls.

Keep walking toward the falls. The trail leads right to Tenaja's top tier. Exploration of the lower cascades is tricky and for experienced rock climbers only; those granite boulders are slippery.

If you're determined to reach the lower falls, it's safer to retrace your steps back down the trail, then bushwhack to the creek.

For a longer hike, adventure awaits in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. I recommend a five-mile loop that begins 1.5 miles south of the Tenaja Falls trail head on Wildomar Road (also called Tenaja Road). From this spot, walking 1.5 miles west brings you to Fisherman's Camp. The path angles north toward a junction with San Mateo Canyon Trail on the west side of a creek.

To make a loop, hike right (northeast) up San Mateo Canyon Trail. You'll cross the creek a couple of times, traveling along brushy banks. After two miles you'll meet Tenaja Falls Trail. Walk 1.5 miles south on the dirt road back to the trail head.


Tenaja Falls Trail

WHERE: Cleveland National Forest

DISTANCE: 1.5 miles round trip with 300 foot elevation gain.

TERRAIN: Canyon with cascades falling over polished granite.

HIGHLIGHTS: Impressive waterfalls by Southland standards.


PRECAUTIONS: Slippery rocks, difficult exploration of lower cascades.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Cleveland National Forest, Trabuco Ranger District; tel. (909) 736-1811.

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