Re-Hiking the Coal Canyon Waterfall Trail After a Rainy Season


Coal Canyon Waterfall via the Off-Ramp to Nowhere

Date Hiked: April 2, 2011 and April 26, 2009
Best Season: Spring Winter
Check Trail Conditions: Coal Canyon Ecological Preserve (858) 467-4201
  • Distance: April 26, 2009
  • Elevation Gain: 680 feet
  • Route Type: Out-and-Back
  • Trail Type: Paved, dirt, creek, rocks
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Coal Canyon was an early favorite hike of mine.  I liked that it was an offramp from the freeway that went nowhere, lending a bit of mystique to it. I loved that it was a place that I drove by and see daily on the way to work off the side of the 91, right at the Orange County/Riverside County border, yet I’d never suspected there was a little box canyon waterfall up at the end of the canyon.  Since that hike, I look up that canyon every day on my commute to see if anyone else is hiking on the trail, and the answer is almost always no.

We had first hiked Coal Canyon in April during a dry year, and the “creek” was mostly dry, and the waterfall was not exactly overflowing with water, though it was still very cool, just because of the surrounding scenery and the unexpected nature of it.  Ever since, we had planned to come back during a wetter year, or earlier in the season, to see if the waterfall was more impressive.  It’s kinda tricky, because if you go right after a storm, it would be very difficult to make it past the last piece of the hike, which is exclusively in the stream bed itself.

This year, we had more rain, and we decided to get up there again.  Since our last hike, the Orange County Flood Control District has actually moved the entire Santa Ana River north 100 feet or so, which had the downside of ripping out some of the trees that made this one of the more river-ish looking stretches of the Santa Ana, but also relocated the Santa Ana River Trail to the north side of the river, which was an improvement from the old freeway-adjacent location.  Unfortunately, it looks like they may move it back again at some point, but I’m not too sure exactly what they’re doing right now.


Parking area along Green River Road is always pretty busy.


A lot of construction along the road right now on the way to the bike trail.


Bridge over the current alignment of the Santa Ana River at the entrance to the Green River Golf Course.


Entrance to the bike trail as you approach the golf course.

Much like the version we wrote up before, you park along Green River Road with all the bicycle folks, and then head west towards the bike trail.  The first mile and a quarter or so is along the paved Santa Ana River Bike Trail, and largely exposed (though not quite as exposed as the old trail was) as it travels between two chain link fences along the Green River Golf Course.  This is not exactly riveting hiking, and one could bring bikes if you wished to get to the actual trailhead of the trail.


The new stretch of bike trail along the golf course north of the river. Much nicer than the stretch along the freeway before.


New (temporary?) bridge over back over to the south side of the Santa Ana River.


The river is flowing under the bridge, but it isn't exactly "wild and scenic".

In the current trail alignment, you’ll cross the river over a bridge at right about the one mile mark.  You’ll then come to a kiosk and some picnic tables that let you know you’ve entered a portion of Chino Hills State Park (one of the few areas that dogs are allowed).  Very shortly thereafter, you can either continue straight on the bike trail all the way to Huntington Beach about 28 miles further up, or turn left under the “offramp to nowhere” and head on up Coal Canyon to the waterfall.


Chino State Park kiosk near the underpass at Coal Canyon.


The left turn under the 91 at Coal Canyon (pretty hard to miss).

The rest of the hike is essentially identical to the write-up we provided in our original post, though it was much greener, and we ran into water in the wash/creek much earlier than last time.  It is mostly an exposed hike up the canyon as well, so I would avoid it on the hottest days of the summer, and I’m really not sure how long the falls run once you get past spring, so May and June (in a wet year) might be as late as you want to push it, if you’re looking for a decent waterfall at the end.


Entrance to the park from the bike trail on the south side of the freeway.


At the first junction, stay on the unpaved road to the left, rather than crossing the creek on the paved trail on the right.


Hey, it's a flower! A lot more flowers this year than last time we came.


Sign indicating the end of the State Park and the beginning of the Coal Canyon Ecological Reserve. Improved trail ends shortly after this sign.


Single track trail after the sign gets narrower and eventually dumps into the creek.


More flowers!


And a closer view of the flowers. Poppies--state flower ftw!

Even though water was running through a lot more of the creek this time, there was still plenty of dry (or at worst, moist) ground to hike on as we ventured up towards the falls, and the clay soil mixture wasn’t nearly as squishy or sticky as we feared it might be.  It was still another choose-your-own adventure sort of hike, though, as there was not a legitimate trail much after you passed the sign for the Coal Canyon Ecological Reserve.


Heading up the creekbed now. Lots of rock hopping and stream crossing.


A little bit of mud along this trail as well! But it wasn't as big a problem as we feared it might be.

As an amusing anecdote to that, our son was complaining at one point about how irregular the path was and said that the people who made the trail hadn’t done a very good job.  I asked, “you mean God?”  And he said, “no, the people who made this trail!”  I said, “yeah, that would be God—we’re walking in a natural streambed, no human created this trail!”  Once that concept was clear, he thought that was very cool and stopped complaining about the unimproved nature of the trail.


More lush and wet creekbed.


Love this picture! Hunter and I dancing. Or maybe just simultaneously navigating our own paths up the creek...


Creekbed narrows considerably near the end.


Lots of poison oak near the end as well. Be aware of it, but we didn't have any trouble avoiding it, as long as we were paying attention.


Hunter hopping yet again. Fewer path options here in the narrow canyon.


Almost to the falls.

The last time we made this run, we didn’t have my GPS unit yet, so we didn’t get an entirely accurate measure of the mileage or elevation of the hike.  And we also didn’t know about geocaching.  This time, I’d downloaded the geocache information on four different cache locations from, and we even found all four, which is unusual for us!  Hunter and I also set the first geocache we’d ever set ourselves, right at the end of the trail in the box canyon next to the falls.  Amazingly, within 24 hours or so, two different people had found the geocache, and someone had taken the geo-tracker coin, which has now moved to several new locations already!


Cute little frog near the end! Inspired us to give our geotracker coin a froggy name with a froggy mission!


Our first geocache plant, ready to hide in the narrow box canyon.

We were pleased that the waterfall was indeed flowing more heavily than it was the last time we were there, but it still was very far from Niagara.  The unique teapot nature of the falls in the neat little box canyon/grotto still makes it well worth visiting, though, and you’re nearly guaranteed some solitude once you turn off the bike trail.


The waterfall at the end of the box canyon.


The falls during April of a wet year (2011)

Coal Canyon Hike 3379

The falls during April of a dry year (2009)











Like the first time, on the return trip we followed the creek/wash all the way down to the path near the freeway, though if you wished to get back on the “official” trail, there is a little cairn marking the way back up. But I always prefer a loop hike to an out-and-back hike, and the creek is easy and pleasant to follow, so I’d recommend that for you as well.


There was a cairn in the creekbed alerting us to the way back up to the main trail, but we ignored it both times we hiked this, preferring to hike all the way down the creekbed instead.


The creekbed near the bottom gets relatively wide and dry, and quite easy to walk.

The first time we hiked this, we only encountered two mountain bikers on the improved portion of the canyon trail.  This time we talked to two hikers (hey to Kirsten and Jeff!)  in the upper part of the hike, but still only a couple of mountain bike groups near the bottom.  So it still seems very much like a hidden treasure in OC.  And remarkably, it is quite easy to find, if you just know where to look!
View Coal Canyon Hike 2011 in a larger map

Coal Canyon Hike 2011

Elevation profile for Coal Canyon hike. Click through for more legible version.


  1. says

    I originally set out to do this hike but ended up going on the main Coal Canyon Trail up the hill since I figured there’d be no waterfall. Ended up on a great hike with a nice view of the area. Thanks for the (indirect) suggestion! :)

    • says

      We’ve been meaning to do the big loop around the canyon on that road, but haven’t gotten around to it yet–glad to hear you thought it was worth it!

      Curious to hear whether the waterfall has returned yet with the recent rains, as it was a terrible year for that. We have a geocache hidden there, so we get regular reports from people who visit that. It is a really cool spot when there is some water.

      Thanks for reporting back!

  2. Ryan says

    Haven’t really told many people but I think I should share this place. If you take the main dirt bike trail above the falls there is a wash out in which you can climb up a bunch of rocks. Once you get to the top look off into the distance and you can see some rock formations. Find you way to them via the broken up game trails, this can get thick so pants are recommended. I would like to keep them as natural as possible so please don’t use a machete.

    Amazing sandstone features, you would think you ended up in Utah. The washout is marked by a large boulder on the main trail.

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