A short family-friendly hike to Tenaja Falls


Tenaja Falls via the Tenaja Falls Trail

Date Hiked: April 4, 2009
Best Season: Spring Winter
Check Trail Conditions: Trabuco Ranger District (951) 736-1811
  • Distance: 1.4 miles round-trip
  • Elevation Gain: 300 feet
  • Route Type: Out-and-Back
  • Trail Type: Dirt
  • Difficulty: Moderate

This write-up has been moved and re-posted from my professional blog so that Jeff and I can keep all of our hiking posts together. It originally ran April 7, 2009, while Jeff and I were still dating. With all the rain this year, I expect that the creek and falls are even more full and beautiful this spring. I hope to do this hike again, this year, with Jeff and the kids.

This past Saturday afternoon, my mom, my 16 year old niece Vivian, and I took an unconventional chick trip for the day — a hike to Tenaja Falls in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness Area of the Cleveland National Forest. We selected this hike because it’s easy (1.4 miles round trip, with a 300 foot elevation gain), it’s near my folks’ house out in Canyon Lake, and we’d heard friends recommend it for years. None of the guys wanted to go (well, Jeff did, but he had another obligation). So we gals decided to go by ourselves. Vivian was so excited that she even managed to get her teenage self out of bed and dressed before 2:00 p.m. But…we almost didn’t get to make hike. We became lost on the absolutely breathtaking drive out there. The forest service’s driving directions for this particular hike are wrong (it never mentions Forest Service Road); check out the directions in Afoot & Afield Orange County instead.

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The view from the Cleveland Forest Road.

Because we naively assumed the forest service’s trail notes were also correct, we didn’t print out any other trail maps to take with us, and we got a bit lost finding where the trail crosses San Mateo Creek. We actually almost just turned around to go back home, until a kindly, rather eccentric and talkative hiker pointed us towards the stones we could hop across to reconnect with the trail.

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San Mateo Creek cuts across the trail, tricking down from the old concrete ford of an old road. We hopped across the stones to rejoin the trail.

On top of these mishaps, we faced a bit of a natural challenge as well. Poison oak. More than I’ve ever seen before. Tons of it encroaching in on the first leg of the trail, and again towards the top of the falls.

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There was poison oak everywhere on this hike.

Fortunately, we didn’t encounter any snakes…although some hikers warned us about a big rattlesnake on the trail 4 miles upstream from the falls. The closest thing to a snake we saw was a lizard sunning itself on the trail.

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Looking out at the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness Area.

We did have a wonderful afternoon, though, and an equally wonderful hike. The scenery and rugged falls are quite beautiful. And we had some quality chick bonding time, 3 generations worth!

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Viv and I at the edge of the top of the falls. Don't look down!

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Vivian (the iPod-wearing teen) and mom at the Tenaja Falls trailhead.

When we first hit the trail, my niece Vivian exclaimed, “Oh! This is a REAL hike! I thought it was just going to be some lame nature walk.” So, the Tenaja Falls Trail gets a big thumbs up from a picky 16 year old as well.

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