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Tenaja Falls Trail

Tenaja Falls Trail Guide

In This Guide
  • Short Hike (1.5 miles) to Tenaja Falls Video & Directions
  • Scenic Hike (7.5 miles) From Fisherman’s Camp Video & Directions
  • Parking for Tenaja Falls
  • Insider Tips & Recommendations
Total Distance (?)7.5 miles (12.1 km)
Other Options 1.5 Short Route to Falls
Hike Time3 Hours (Total)
Difficulty (?)Moderate
Total Ascent (?)1,000 feet (305m)
Highest Elevation1,590 feet (485m)
Fees & PermitsParking Fee
Dogs AllowedLeashed
Alerts & Closures (?)Cleveland National Forest
Park Phone951-736-1811

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 HikeScenic Hike
1.5 miles7.5 miles
1 hour3 hours
CrowdedPeaceful
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.

Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 5
The road is paved, but narrow. Go slow, especially around blind corners.

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

Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 1
The Tenaja Falls Trail parking lot is big, but it is a popular route, and fills up at popular times.
Tenaja Falls Trailhead
There’s a trail board letting you know that you’re in the right place.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 4
When you start the hike, make sure you sign in at the trail box, which is a minute down from the parking area. You don’t need a permit for a day hike; this lets the rangers know how many people are using the trail. Theoretically, the more people that come here, the more funding that the trail will get.

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

Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 6
The Fisherman’s Camp trailhead parking area is small. If it’s full, drive a minute past the trailhead to a bigger parking area, which I’ve marked on the map below.

Gear for the Hike

Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 3
Keep your eyes open for poison oak, which grows along moist areas like San Mateo Creek. The leaves can vary in shape and size, but generally if you see a shiny, oily surface on the leaves like these, it’s poison something or other.

Lone Peak 5

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.

Latest Price on Women’s ShoeREI | Amazon
Latest Price on Men’s ShoeREI | Amazon

Garmin Inreach Mini Beacon

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.

Gaiagps

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.

My July 2021 Top Gear Picks

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

Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 2
If you’re taking the scenic route, there can be sections that are overgrown and look something like this. This trail is popular enough that you won’t be hacking through anything major though.

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.

Click Here To View

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.

Fenix 6 Pro

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.

Elevation Profile

Tenaja Falls Trail Guide Elevation
From Fisherman’s Camp, you head downhill and then gradually up along San Mateo Canyon. If you’re doing the short hike, you’ll start around 3.5 miles on this graph and just head uphill to the falls.

3D Maps

Tenaja Falls Trail Guide 3d 1
On the scenic route, you’ll head down into the canyon from the trailhead. When you reach Fisherman’s Camp, you’ll make the turn and head up the canyon to the falls.
Tenaja Falls Trail Guide 3d 2
For the short route, after a minute heading down from the parking area, you’ll hike uphill along the canyon to Tenaja Falls.

Hike Brief

Tim Hovey Steelhead San Mateor Creek 2
San Mateo Creek, which you’ll hike along, is the southernmost creek where the endangered Southern California Coast steelhead trout can be found. Steelhead are born in these streams, go out to sea, and then return to spawn. Today development and invasive species have essentially destroyed the steelhead here. They are occasionally spotted in the creek, and there’s an active effort to restore the habitat. Here biologist Tim Hovey holds one of the last steelheads spotted in the creek. Photo Tim Hovey

Tenaja Falls Trail Directions

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Hike Video

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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.

Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 8
From the Fisherman’s Camp parking area, hike through the small lot to find the start of the trail.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 7
I love the trail board here. People have put their finger on the current position so many times that it’s worn a massive hole through the board.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 9
The start of the trail is marked with a boulder. This used to be a road that went down to Fisherman’s Camp, which was abandoned in 1984 when the area became a designated Wilderness Area.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 10
The road is long gone, and today it’s a singletrack trail. You’ll see a sign or two letting you know that you’re entering the Wilderness Area.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 11
Sign in at the trail register. Your input here helps trails get care and funding. There is no permit to take with you for a day hike. Just sign in. Overnight camping requires a permit that you should get beforehand.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 12
The views into San Mateo canyon are spectacular as you head downhill.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 13
As you hit the lower slopes you’ll see the trail unfold in front of you.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 14
At the junction, we’ll make a quick detour to check out Fisherman’s Camp, which is straight. When we finish there, we’ll come back and continue to the right.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 15
Fisherman’s Camp, just a minute or two past the last junction, is a very peaceful spot for camping. This used to be where fisherman would come to fish the big steelhead runs years ago Today it’s a great camping spot with easy access and a remote wilderness feel.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 16
There are some hidden tent sites and also another trail junction in the back of the camp.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 17
Head back to the last junction where we came downhill and then start hiking up the Tenaya Trail towards the falls.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 18
The trail is primitive but easy to follow.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 19
There are a few stream crossings. Most of the time they are benign, but if the water is flowing you might get wet. For this first crossing, head upstream for a minute and look for the trail on the other side.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 20
Cross the creek and continue up the trail.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 21
Once you leave the creek, the trail is well defined and climbs up the left bank.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 22
You’ll have great views up the canyon as the trail follows the creek upstream.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 23
Another creek crossing. Head through the first crossing area.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 24
And you’ll see the trail continue on the other side.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 25
Shortly after that the trail splits, and you can take the upper or lower branch. Let’s take the lower branch to the left so we can see the pools in San Mateo Creek. If the water is really high, take the upper track to save yourself some stream crossings.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 26
This stretch has some beautiful pools and swimming holes. Be cautious around the cliffs.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 27
At the next creek crossing, go upstream a bit and look for the trail on the left bank. Shortly after that you’ll cross back over the creek to the right bank.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 28
The upper path rejoins from the right. Continue straight.

Short Route Start

Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 29
Follow the arrow past the Falls sign.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 30
Now you have two options. If the water is low, cross over the stream on the left. If you can’t cross there, go upstream past the boulder.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 31
Once past the boulder, look for the rock crossing.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 32
After crossing, climb the small hill and join the trail, making the right. If you crossed earlier without the detour, you’ll be on this trail already. This trail used to be a road, but the road is long gone.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 33
Keep going straight up the trail, avoiding all the small side trails to the right.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 34
The trail starts going uphill.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 35
You’ll start seeing clearings off to your right. These are your best bet to see the falls head-on.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 36
Here’s what the falls look like. It’s hit or miss as to what the flow will be like when you are there, but right after a rain is usually a good bet.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 37
Continue hiking uphill. When you see the small trail to the right, continue straight to the top of the falls. If you want to explore the lower pools, there’s a small use trail down there from here. Use caution on that trail.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 38
At the top of the falls you’ll see a concrete ford at the stream. Make the immediate right before it starts to get to the top of the falls.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 39
Look down just after that right turn to spot the USGS marker, which dates from 1935.
Tenaja Falls Trail Directions 40
You can explore the top of the falls and a small pool.
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The views down into San Mateo Canyon are great. For views of the falls, continue around the other side, but be careful, there is no trail and some drops.

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.

Tenaja Alt Way Back
Taking the road back to the Fisherman’s Camp Trailhead is easy and pleasant enough.

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!).

Img 3334 Img 3336 Img 3337

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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