Tenaja Falls Trail Guide
|In This Guide|
|Total Distance (?)||7.5 miles (12.1 km)|
|Other Options||1.5 Short Route to Falls|
|Hike Time||3 Hours (Total)|
|Total Ascent (?)||1,000 feet (305m)|
|Highest Elevation||1,590 feet (485m)|
|Fees & Permits||Parking Fee|
|Alerts & Closures (?)||Cleveland National Forest|
Nestled deep in the remote San Mateo Canyon Wilderness, the Tenaja Falls Trail takes you to majestic Tenaja Falls, a cascading waterfall that plunges 150 into the scenic canyon. In this guide I’ll show you two ways to get to the falls. You can either do the short 1.5 mile (total) “roadside attraction” route, or you can take the 7.5 mile scenic and relatively easy route through Fisherman’s Camp and along San Mateo Creek. Which ever way you go, you’re in for a treat, because the scenery is incredible and the vibe is off the beaten path.
Tenaja is pronounced TEN-A-HA and is the word for a rock basin that holds water.
Short hike or Scenic Hike?
Tenaja Falls is in a remote spot, so if you can make the time to do the longer hike, I’d recommend taking the scenic route. You’ll find solitude, unspoiled beauty, and a mellow trail.
|Short Hike||Scenic Hike|
|1.5 miles||7.5 miles|
|1 hour||3 hours|
|Waterfall||Waterfall + Scenic Canyon|
|Uphill||Downhill + Flat + Uphill to Falls|
|All Fitness Levels||For Those Who Can Walk 3 Hours|
How to Get to Tenaja Falls
The trip to Tenaja Falls is half of the fun. From the last turnoff onto Tenaya Truck Trail, you’ll be on a single-lane (paved) road that winds through the hills and has some major potholes, so you have to go slow.
You no longer need a parking pass for either trailhead.
Parking for Short Hike
If you want to do the short hike, use this trailhead address:
Tenaja Falls Trailhead, Forest Rte 7S02, Murrieta, CA 92562
Parking for Scenic Hike
If you want to do the longer, scenic hike, use this trailhead:
Fisherman’s Camp Trail (5W11), Forest Rte 7S02, Murrieta, CA 92562
Gear for the Hike
- If you’re doing the short hike, you can get away with casual or fitness clothes.
- For the longer hike, proper hiking gear will serve you best.
- On both routes, you have stream crossings. In all cases, you can hop across rocks to cross, but if it’s been raining or particularly wet beforehand, your feet might get wet.
Altra Lone Peak 5
For most people, the Altra Lone Peak is a solid choice that will leave your feet feeling great at the end of any hike. The feel is cushy and light, and if it had a car equivalent, this would be a Cadillac or Mercedes Sedan. The grip is great and they’re reasonably durable for this type of trail runner, which I think is better in most conditions than a hiking boot, and here’s why. The downside of this shoe is that it won’t last as long as something like the Moab 2 (see alternate footwear choices at the bottom of my gear page). I’ve been using mine for many miles and my feet always feel great. Watch my video explaining why they are a great shoe here.
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Stay Safe Out of Cell Phone Range
If you’re not familiar with the Garmin InReach technology, it allows you to send and receive text messages where you don’t have cell phone signals. You can also get weather reports and trigger an SOS to emergency responders. Even if you don’t have an emergency, sending a quick message telling a loved one that you’re okay or are running late is well worth the cost. The Garmin InReach Mini (REI | Amazon | My Review) fits in your palm and weighs next to nothing.
Gaia GPS Mapping App
Smartphones are not backcountry instruments, but almost everyone has one today. And they all have GPS onboard. So I recommend getting a good GPS hiking app like Gaia GPS that supports offline maps. Just make sure to put your phone in airplane mode so the battery doesn’t drain. GaiaGPS not only has smartphone and tablet apps, but also an online planning tool. You can drag the GPX hike tracks from my (or any) guides into the online map and they will sync to your phone. You can also check for wildfires, weather, snow, and choose from dozens of map types with a premium membership (HikingGuy readers get up to 40% off here). Note that I also carry a paper map with me in case the phone dies or gets smashed.
Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated July 2021.
No company pays me to promote or push a product, all the gear you see here is gear I use and recommend. If you click an a link and buy gear, I get a small commission that helps keep the website ad and promotion free. There is no cost to you.
Tenaja Falls Trail Maps
The trails are generally well-marked and easy to follow, with the only tricky parts being the stream crossings. I’ll show you what the hike looks like in the directions below, but just know that the stream crossings can look different when the water is running.
Both hikes are an out-and-back routing. Hike to the falls, and then head back the way you came. If you do the scenic route it’s an easy 1.5 mile walk on the road back to the Fisherman’s Camp Trailhead, giving you a total distance of 7.5 miles. If you go back on the trail that you came up, it comes out to about 8.5 miles total.
Explore Map on CalTopoView a Printable PDF Hike MapDownload the Hike GPX File
If you try to download the GPX file and your browser adds a “.txt” or “.xml” extension to it, simply rename it as a “.gpx” file.
How are you going to navigate this hike?
To start, you should always have a paper map and compass. And it helps to print this guide out or save it on your phone. I highly recommend a GPS as well. I use the Garmin Fenix 6 Smart GPS watch ( REI | Amazon | My Review) with maps (or the more affordable Garmin Instinct). The GPS smartwatch is nice because it’s rugged, works if your phone dies, and also has a billion other features like sleep tracking, workout recording, etc.
- San Mateo Creek, which you hike along, runs 22 miles from the Santa Ana Mountains and out to the ocean through Camp Pendleton. It’s one of the only waterways in Southern California that has not been channelized (aka paved over with concrete).
- The San Mateo Canyon Wilderness came into existence through the California Wilderness Act of 1984, and protects this land from development. This wilderness area is 38,484 acres, which, for comparison, is about 40% the size of the San Gorgonio Wilderness Area. It spans Orange, Riverside, and San Diego Counties and is generally known as “the wildest part of the Santa Anas.”
- Today the area is protected, but in the past it was ravaged by gold miners and ranchers. You can still see some private ranching plots that date back over a hundred years when you first enter Cleveland National Forest on Tenaya Truck Trail.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions
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Turn by Turn Directions
Skip down to the spot marked “Short Route Start” if you’re not taking the scenic route.
Short Route Start
From here, just continue back the way you came. If you took the scenic route, you can cut some time and distance off the way back by exiting to the short route parking lot and then just hiking along the road for about 1.5 miles.
And Wait, There’s Helicopters!
When I arrived at the falls on this day, I met Don, who follows my guides and said hello. He had just seen a rescue helicopter that flew right up to the top of the falls. The pictures are pretty cool and Don was okay with me sharing them, so here they are (and thanks Don!).
This guide last updated on March 27, 2021. Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.
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