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Upper Hot Spring Canyon Waterfall Hike

Upper Hot Spring Canyon Waterfall Hike

In This Guide
  • Video and Turn-by-Turn Directions to Hike Upper Hot Spring Canyon
  • The Safe Waterfalls and the Dangerous Waterfalls
  • Parking for the Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike
  • Insider Tips and Recommendations
Total Distance (?)2.8 miles (4.5 km)
Other Options 3.6 to Second Waterfall
Hike Time2-3 Hours (Total)
Difficulty (?)Moderate
Total Ascent (?)450 feet (137m)
Highest Elevation3,300 feet (1006m)
Fees & PermitsFree
Dogs AllowedLeashed
Alerts & Closures (?)Cleveland National Forest
Park Phone951-736-1811
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Tucked away in a remote corner of Cleveland National Forest, the waterfalls of Upper Hot Spring Canyon are truly wild and beautiful. Luckily it’s a relatively easy hike to the first 15-foot waterfall, then a bit harder to the second, taller 25-foot waterfall, which I cover in this guide. After that point, this hiking guide ends because Lower Hot Spring Canyon lacks a trail and is known as one of the most challenging canyoneering routes in SoCal. But this more leisurely hike in the upper canyon will give you a taste of the beauty without having to mount a major expedition.

This hike is best done in winter when there’s some water flowing and the fauna is green.

What Makes Hot Spring Canyon So Epic?

Upper Hot Spring Mountain Rugged Landscape
Hot Spring Canyon has a reputation for being rugged and spectacular. The canyon walls are steep, narrow, and rugged. The trail hugs the sides (on the right here), sometimes going through the creek itself.

Hot Spring Canyon is one of the most remote and unexplored canyons in the Santa Ana Mountains. This hike starts upstream at the headwaters, and as you hike down along Hot Spring Creek, the water flow will pick up as tributaries join the main creek. The stream can be dry in the summer, and the hike more of a rock hop. However, the creek can build to a swift torrent during the winter rains, making the slick granite treacherous. Moss-covered granite cliffs, interspersed with cacti, oak trees, poison oak, and aquatic grasses, line the trail as you venture onward.

There are two distinct sections of this hike. The first half to the 15-foot “first falls” is rugged but tame enough for most to reach. I’ve seen 9-10 year old Girl Scouts successfully hike to this waterfall. After that, the canyon walls steepen and the trail gets distinctly more challenging as you hike toward the 25-foot “second fall.” There is a trail on this stretch, but expect to cross the creek multiple times, and navigate narrow stretches along the cliffside. At the end, you’ll be able to view the “second fall” from the top.

Past this point, there’s no trail, just cliffs, waterfalls, poison oak, and some of the most rugged terrain in SoCal. Although some experienced hikers venture past here (or hike up from the bottom, starting by the Lazy W Ranch), it’s generally considered more of a canyoneering exercise. To give you an idea of how tough it is, one canyoneering guide recommends 10-14 hours to cover the 7 miles of the canyon. For those who can do it, the payoff is the largest (and probably least-seen) waterfall in the Santa Ana Mountains, the 160 foot Tanrverdi Falls.

I don’t recommend going past where this guide ends unless you know what you are doing and the conditions are favorable. I’ve explored into the canyon during the dry season, and there were sections that, in retrospect, I wouldn’t attempt again. As the canyoneering guide put it, “(the canyon) will most likely leave you with great memories and absolutely no desire to go back.” The extreme nature of this canyon makes falls, sprained ankles, and broken bones a distinct possibility. Evacuation from the narrow canyon will not be easy. Also note that in recent years an experienced climber has died after falling in the lower canyon. 

Ken Croker, one of the main forces behind the creation of the San Mateo Wilderness, wanted Hot Spring Canyon to be protected as well. He suggested that a trail be built to Tanrverdi Falls from the lower approach, starting by Lazy W Ranch.

Ca Tree Frog
Lower Hot Spring Canyon (the section we won’t go to in this hike) is also known as Salamander Canyon because of the abundance of California newts. There are also many California tree frogs, like the one pictured here, that you can often see in the route described in this guide.

Where is the Upper Hot Spring Canyon Waterfall Hike?

The hike starts from a small roadside parking area by the Falcon Group Campground, a short drive off of the main CA-74 route through the Santa Ana Mountains. Use this trailhead address:
Falcon Group Campground, Main Divide Truck Trail, Lake Elsinore, CA 92530

Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 1
There’s a small parking area just past the Falcon Group Camp entrance, on the side of the road. There are no facilities in the parking area, but there are toilets in nearby Falcon and Blue Jay campgrounds.

Gear For the Hike

Even on the easy parts of the hike, the trail can be overgrown, narrow, rocky, and wet. You’re going to want to wear long pants, have insect repellant, and bring trekking poles to clear away brush if that’s your thing. For me, I just do long pants and long sleeves, and apply repellant liberally. If it’s raining or winter, there can be times where you will have to get your feet wet to move forward. When it’s dry, it’s much easier to hop over the rocks and otherwise tricky sections.

Garmin Inreach Mini Beacon

Garmin inReach Mini
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.

Latest Prices: Amazon | REI 
My Review & Guide
How is this Different than a GPS?

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.

Women’s Latest Prices: REI | Amazon 
Men’s Latest Prices: REI | Amazon 

Black Diamond Ergo Poles 2

Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork Trekking Poles
I’ve gone back and forth on trekking poles, but I think for most people they are a good investment. They help you dig in on the uphills, provide stability on loose downhills, act as a brace when crossing streams, and can probably poke away aggressive wildlife in a pinch. The Trail Ergo Cork poles are a good balance of light weight, durability, affordability, and ease of use. If you want something ultralight and a little more pricey, I’ve had great luck with the Black Diamond Z Poles too.

Trail Ergo Poles: REI | Amazon 
Z-Poles: REI | Amazon 

Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated January 2022.

My January 2022 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.

Upper Hot Spring Canyon Trail Maps

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.

Gaiagps

How Are You Going to Navigate This Hike?
If you are a hardcore hiker and/or hike in extreme conditions, I recommend getting a dedicated GPS like a GPSMAP 66sr or 66i, or a wrist-based GPS with maps like the Garmin Fenix 6. If you only hike in fair weather and a touchscreen is fine, or just want a solid tool, I highly recommend downloading the smartphone app, Gaia GPS. It’s a piece of cake to use and very powerful, just make sure your phone is in airplane mode so the battery doesn’t drain. You can also check for wildfires, weather, snow, and choose from dozens of map types with a premium membership (HikingGuy readers get a big discount here). Note that I also carry a paper map with me in case the phone dies or gets smashed.

Elevation Profile

Upper Hot Spring Mountain Rugged Elevation
Although you’ll be following the creek downhill, the reality of the trail is that it’s a series of ups and downs. There’s some minor uphill on the way back but with the ruggedness of the trail, it doesn’t really register.

Finding Your Way

Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 3
Prepare to use all your limbs to navigate the trail. There are a few small scrambles, but nothing too crazy.

Okay, first of all, let’s talk about the trail. This isn’t an official trail, but it is a popular use trail, especially the portion to the first waterfall. In general, it’s easy to follow and wide enough to see. After that, it’s a smaller (but there) trail to the second fall.

3D Map

Upper Hot Spring Mountain Rugged 3d Map
The hike is an out and back from the parking area. You’ll follow Hot Spring Creek down the canyon, then return on the same path.

Upper Hot Spring Canyon Waterfall Hike Directions

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Video Directions

Turn by Turn Directions

Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 4
The hike starts at an unmarked trail entrance from the parking lot. Use the trail on the left, not the right.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 5
The start of the trail is a little hidden. Just head through the trees.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 6
And it will open up onto a small meadow.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 7
Make the first left. The beginning can be confusing, with several interconnecting use trails from the campsites. These next turns all come within a few minutes of each other.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 8
The trail is small and narrow, but it’s there.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 9
Keep left at the next junction.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 10
And then stay left, going straight. Shortly after this, another trail will join in from the left (from the campsite). Keep hiking straight.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 11
One you finish with all the small trails around the campsites, you’ll be on the bank of Hot Spring Creek. From here on out we’re following the creek.

I will show you some examples of what the trail does along the creek in the following images. But in general, you will follow the creek downstream. The trail will meander back and forth around the creek, sometimes climbing up, sometimes staying in the creek. Sometimes there are multiple options. Just keep following the trail downstream, and you’re heading in the right direction.

Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 12
You’ll have some stream crossings.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 13
And then you’ll be on the right bank of the creek.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 14
If the trail peters out in front of you, look up to the sides. Often it will climb the hill to avoid an obstacle.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 15
Some sections will have you higher up along the side of the canyon, with the stream down below.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 16
And at some points, like here, you’ll have the option of going down on either side. In general the main path follows the right bank.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 17
And some sections have this little rock scrambles. It’s nothing extreme, but rather small climbs 6-10 feet or so above the creek.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 18
At about 1.2 miles in you’ll arrive at the first falls, marked by a big flat area. Continue around the falls to the right.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 19
And you’ll get some great views of the 15-foot falls from the bottom.

If you’re just going for the first falls, you can turn around here and head back the way you came. Otherwise, you can continue to the second falls, but know the trail becomes much more challenging, especially if water is flowing.

Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 20
Continue downstream, crossing over a feeder stream.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 21
The trail is primitive, often being nothing more than a well-worn animal track.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 22
As you continue down, the walls of Upper Hot Spring Creek narrow.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 24
When you get to the big rock face, cross to the right and continue down the other side. This section is particularly slippery.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 25
Continue downstream, sometimes climbing up above the creek.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 26
And after about 1.6 miles, you’ll see the top of the second fall in front of you, along with a sheer 25 foot drop. When the water is flowing, it’s hard (and dangerous) to get to the top of the fall. When it’s dry, you can just hop down there. If you want to hike up to a viewpoint, or to continue into the Lower Hot Spring Canyon, the trail is on the right in this picture.

Hiking past the last photo is not recommended.

Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 27
Once you head up on that trail to the right, it’s a steep uphill.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 28
And then a very narrow and sketchy trail along a cliff. The drops here are high enough to potentially kill you.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon End
At the top of the narrow climb, you’ll reach a big piece of granite, seen here on the right. Anything past this is very hardcore and will bring you into Lower Hot Spring Canyon.

From here, head back the way you came.

Upper Hot Spring Canyon Hike 29
See you out there!

This guide last updated on December 30, 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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