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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 geocaching.com, 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!
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.
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.
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!
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