One of the most dramatic natural phenomena in the area, Tenaja Falls is a five-tiered waterfall that has a drop of over 150 feet, leading to a spectacular result for those who make the trip here. You can choose to either hike to the falls or there is horseback riding options available for something a little less strenuous. If you happen to be here in the winter months then the falls are fuller than at other times of year and visitors liken the sound of the water hitting the rocks to a special kind of music.

Tenaja Falls is a 1.5 mile moderately trafficked out and back trail located near Murrieta, California that features a waterfall and is good for all skill levels. The trail is primarily used for hiking, nature trips, and bird watching and is accessible year-round. Dogs are also able to use this trail but must be kept on leash.

Tenaja Falls in the Santa Ana Mountains

Tenaja Falls Murrieta

Tenaja Falls pours over a sandstone staircase in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness of the Santa Ana Mountains. Even though the waterfall’s setting is picturesque and remote, the hike to the waterfall is a short and easy, following Tenaja Falls Trail for 1.5 miles round trip with 275 feet of elevation change. Totaling 150 feet in height with multiple tiers, this Southern California waterfall might not compare with the beauties in Yosemite National Park, but visit during the early, rainy months of the year and Tenaja Falls is an undeniable thrill.

Tenaja Falls Trail head is located on Tenaja Truck Trail, which delves into a remote part of the Santa Ana Mountains in Riverside County called San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. Spot a kiosk at the trail head with a map of Tenaja Falls Trail and more information about the surrounding wilderness, part of the Trabuco Ranger District of Cleveland National Forest.

Begin up Tenaja Falls Trail (5W04), passing a self-registration station. Day hikers are asked to register for survey purposes but do not need to carry permits. Wilderness permits are only needed for overnight trips. The hike’s first and only trail junction is 125 yards from the trail head. San Mateo Canyon Trail parts to the left toward Fisherman’s Camp, which is 2 miles away. Proceed straight on Tenaja Falls Trail, following the sign that reads, “Tenaja Falls – 0.7 miles.”

Walk another 50 yards up the trail and hit San Mateo Creek. A slab of concrete can be used to walk across the creek. If water levels are high (which will be good news for the waterfall), look around for a place to rock hop across – being sure to avoid any poison ivy. The slab in the trail is a concrete ford, hinting at the trail’s previous function as an old road. Read more here

To reach the Tenaja Falls trail head in the Cleveland National Forest, go west on Clinton Keith Road from I-15. Turn north (right) to Tenaja Road, then right on Rancho California Road (FS 7501) for about 5 miles to the Tenaja Falls Trail head. The road to the trailhead is lightly paved but does have some rough patches & potholes. Most cars should be fine reaching the trailhead on FS 7501, but a truck is a better option if you want to play it safe. It is a single-lane road to the trailhead, so drive slow and very carefully. The single-lane road meanders north to Tenaja Falls through some very scenic areas in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. The Falls are visible from the trailhead parking area. A Forest Adventure Pass is needed to park at the trailhead.

Features: A rare chunk of wilderness surrounded by the southern California mega-cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, and the “Inland Empire” of Riverside County, the more than 37,000-acre San Mateo Canyon Wilderness is located in the Santa Ana Mountains and Cleveland National Forest. Its primary feature is the rugged canyon of San Mateo Creek, which flows from the crest of the Santa Ana Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The creek is the southern-most stream supporting the endangered southern steel head in California. It’s oak and sycamore woodlands, coastal chaparral, and meadows support a diversity of wildlife. The wilderness receives relatively few visitors, except for the Tenaja Falls Trail in the spring.

A short hike half-mile walk on the Tenaja Falls Trail will take you from the trail head to scenic Tenaja Falls. The falls can be roaring during the winter and spring, or just trickling in the summer and fall. Visitors who may wish to explore more of this little-visited wilderness can proceed upstream or downstream from the falls on the Tenaja and San Mateo Canyon Trails (respectively) through groves of live oaks and sycamores and rich swaths of coastal chaparral. Avoid poison oak. The best time to visit is in the winter or spring. As the trail crosses San Mateo Creek to reach the falls, visitors should avoid crossing the creek during high flows.

trail head directions: From I-15 in the community of Wildomar, take the Clinton Keith Road exit and proceed southwest five miles on Clinton Keith Road and then veer right on Tenaja Road. About 4-5 miles further, turn right on Forest Road 7S04 (which may be called Rancho California or Wildomar Road at this point, but there should be a sign for the Cleveland Forest). Proceed another 5 miles past the Tenaja and Fisherman’s Camps trail heads to the Tenaja Falls trail head on the left. Read the full article here

After checking out the waterfall, if you want to get more hiking in, you can continue along the Tenaja Falls Trail, which will meet the Morgan Trail in about 5 miles near the Candy Store, or you can retrace your steps back to the creek and take the trail to Fisherman’s Camp. The nearby Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve is always a fun place to visit, especially after spring rains have filled the Vernal Pools.

Tenaja Falls: 150 Foot Tiered Waterfall in Cleveland National Forest

On my quest to document the waterfalls of Southern California I came across this gem that is pretty far hidden from the normal trails and roads that hikers take and getting to the trailhead is half the battle as it includes 5 miles down a one-lane road that is not really maintained. If you make it through you will be greeted with a majestic 150-foot waterfall that cascades over three different tiers before reaching a small pool at the base. Sure it is not Yosemite but for Southern California, it is a pretty nice waterfall.


  • Display adventure pass
  • 5 miles down a poorly maintained one-lane road, would recommend a car with decent clearance but most cars should be able to make it
  • Only 2 miles round trip with 400 feet of elevation

How to get there

If you are heading down the 15 South from Orange County then you will want to get off on Clinton Keith Road and turn right. After you pass the visitor center for the Santa Rosa Plateau then you will shortly see Tenaja Road which you will turn right on. After 9 miles you will see a turn for Cleveland National Forrest Road. This is the start of your 5 miles on the one-lane road. Right, when you get on it you will see a Tenaja trail head, this is not the start unless you want the hike to be over 7 miles each way.

Continue on the one-lane road but be careful as there is a lot of blind curves that you need to go around. After about 4 miles you will see the trailhead for Fishcamp. From here you only have a mile left on the road before you see a dirt lot on your left and the start of the trail head. Click for more here

Once you reach the trail head, a pleasant half-hour hike will take you to Tenaja Falls – a dramatic sight when water is flowing. Spring is the best season to view the falls when water rushes over the rocks and an abundance of wildflowers and birds are present. The trail winds another 2.1 miles up the canyon ending the Morgan Trail. Call ranger station for status. Carry plenty of water and a no alcohol ordinance is in effect at this trail head and the falls. CAUTION: Poison oak is abundant year-round in the falls area.