Tenaja Falls

Murrieta, California

A relatively easy and beautiful hike deep in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness in the Cleveland National Forest, the trailhead to Tenaja Falls is off the beaten path. There are 3 cumbersome approaches to the Falls.

  • One involves hiking in from the Morgan Trail and the Bear Canyon Loop. Depending on where you put in, this entails either a 3+ mile hike one way or a 6+ mile workout one way. Not today.
  • Another involves driving in 15 miles off the Ortega Highway on the South Main Divide. We decide to take this route when we leave.
  • The 3rd approach is off Clinton Keith Road, about 5 miles south of the Santa Ana Ecological Reserve.

We choose Door 3, I mean the 3rd choice. From Clinton Keith Road we turn west on Tenaja Road past large homes with sprawling fenced-in yards and horses. But soon the the 2 lanes of paved highway narrow into a 1 lane long and winding road of crumbling blacktop and potholes. We encourage our little Scion IQ to keep on going.

About 5 miles later we turn right again and carefully chug along for 5 more miles.

Confident now that our car is going to survive the road conditions, I sit back and look for wildflowers.

We park the car and approach the trailhead.

A hundred yards later, we sign in.

And continue…

(I remember driving past Fisherman’s Camp. Jeff and I were so encouraged and grateful to see other cars parked in a lot off the long, rugged, and winding road. Until then we felt all alone in a misty wilderness.)

Then suddenly our easy-peasy trail becomes a bit tricky. There’s a creek to cross!

Jeff steps, wobbles, and jumps. I step, wobble, and crawl from rock to rock.

So grateful for not slipping and arriving on the other side with dry shoes and socks, I take delight in the flowers and budding plants applauding my accomplishment.

Soon the trail bends to the left and we catch glimpses of the Falls.

(It turns out that these glimpses are the best opportunities to photograph the Tenaja Falls, unless you want to scale the rocks. No, thank you. But our lack of adventure did not deter the handful of younger others seeking a slippery adrenaline rush. Oh, the irony… The rock nymphs crave thrills and I crave safety and pictures. But I don’t want any injuries preventing me from living my wandering gypsy lifestyle! Call me gutless… but I am still crazy 😜.)

A sharp turn to the right and we cross the source of the 150 foot cascading Falls, a trickling brook.

(Shh… There’s someone sleeping in that hammock!)

And then, to avoid the slushy muddy trail, we put our adventure hats on as we carefully make our way over these rocks to the top of the Falls.

The best photo I can capture here is of the long and winding road through which our little car led us, at last, to the trailhead.

This zoom-in from my iPad also captures the last leg of the trail to the source of the Falls. Look to the right in this photo.

I decide to take the designated trail back and I am glad I did. I discover that my grandson, Oliver was here! Not really, but there are goldfish crackers scattered on the ground. (Now, Ollie loves crackers of all sizes, shapes, and nutritional benefits… And when his father is in charge for the weekend while his mother is away… Well, you can connect the dots… Actually I had just talked to my son and Ollie was devouring a lot of goldfish crackers. Please don’t tell Ollie’s mom!)

Soon after the goldfish spill, I encounter the slushy and muddy part of the trail and swiftly pass through with less than a dozen steps. (The person in the hammock has still not stirred!)

More wildflowers greet me.

(Can you spot the butterfly above?)

And then, unnoticed before…

How on earth a car could have ever driven in here is beyond me!

Oh no… the creek crossing again approaches!

I can’t do this again! I look for a shallow passage to wade through. Nothing looks promising in either hiking boots or bare feet. So, Jeff hops, skips, and jumps (not really) and I step, crawl, and slush through the creek. With soggy socks and shoes, I reach the other side and take one last picture.

Back in the car, we head back in the opposite direction toward the Ortega Highway.

The closer we approach the Ortega Highway,

Lake Elsinore comes into view…

Seeing a rainbow is wonderful, but finding a waterfall after a drought is extraordinary!

2 thoughts on “Tenaja Falls

    • Thanks for commenting! The hardest part is getting to the trailhead. No, I take that back. Crossing the creek was the most difficult part for me. It is just amazing how many interesting places around Lake Elsinore there are to visit!


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