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.
In this Guide:
Short Hike (1.5 miles) to Tenaja Falls Video & Directions
Scenic Hike (7.5 miles) From Fisherman's Camp Video & Directions
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.
Waterfall + Scenic Canyon
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.
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.
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." Here's the interesting history of Wilderness Areas.
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
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!).