All About Timing

Looking out from the top of Tenaja Falls

21-February 2009: I was getting a bit tired of stopping at some unknown pullout, getting out of the car, inspecting the scene for Ortega Falls, getting back on Hwy 74 without getting in an accident (thanks to the high speed traffic), then repeat. After what seemed like at least a half-dozen attempts, I finally gave up and proceeded to head north back towards Lake Elsinore.

It looked like Ortega Falls would defeat us again just as it did about 7 years ago. As I was zooming past the Ortega Oaks Candy Store, Julie read a passage out of the California Waterfalls book. She said something to the effect that the pullout was 1.6 miles north of the Ortega Oaks Store between that and the village of El Cariso.

Well, I guess we weren't going to be defeated after all...

It was about 7:30am Saturday morning when Julie and I awoke. I knew this was going to be a hectic morning because we decided last night to go for another waterfall outing in the Orange County/Inland Empire area. However, it was just going to be Julie and I this time as it was too last minute for Mom.

On tap for today was Tenaja Falls and Ortega Falls. I figured we ought to capitalize on the fact that we had received the strongest winter storm this season a little less than five days ago, and this storm followed up another short but strong storm that preceded it two days earlier. A week prior to that, there some three consecutive days of reasonably heavy rain.

And, well, with Southern California Waterfalls, it's all about timing since these guys tend to have short lives given the rather dry climate exacerbated by drought conditions.

It wasn't until about 10am when we finally left home. It took a while to get ready since we did nothing much to prepare for this trip given the last minute nature of it all.

The skies were mostly cloudy, but having looked at the weather reports, I knew there wasn't any real precipitation threat from this system.

And true to the nature of how last minute things were, we were delayed a little longer because we had to fill up gas in Julie's car while returning the video "Changeling," which was actually a very good movie.

So it wasn't until 10:15am until we finally were on the 91 Fwy headed east to the I-15.

This drive was totally familiar to us because nearly a year and a half ago, we went to Lake Elsinore to hang out with friends and give wakeboarding a try. We had a friend who owned a motorboat. It's not normally something I'm into, but I figured what the heck. I had given kiteboarding a try earlier and thought wakeboarding might help me stay on the board. Needless to say, my wakeboarding attempt wasn't successful, but we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless.

Anyways, the traffic was pretty heavy along the 91 East. No real big surprise there since this stretch of freeway (especially near Yorba Linda) always seemed to be heavy with cars. This also gave us time to notice the extent of the fires that took place in November that shrouded much of the Valley near Sylmar and the Los Angeles basin as well as Santa Barbara (Montecito to be exact) in soot and dark smoke.

When we got to the I-15 South, we made a brief stop for In 'N Out Burger (which was already crowded by 11am) just to hold us over since we really hadn't had any substantial breakfast thus far.

After getting past the familiar haunt of Lake Elsinore, we turned off the Clinton Keith Road and then proceeded to follow the directions (which were actually somewhat straight forward) to the trailhead for Tenaja Falls.

After driving roughly 20 minutes on a narrow, potholed but paved Forest Service Road, we finally arrived at the trailhead for the falls a little after high noon.

There were already lots of cars parked here, which I figured since it's so close to the inland empire suburbs and barely two hours drive from home. Greeting us were lots of annoying flies buzzing around us. At least they didn't bite, but it was kind of interesting that you can have this experience not far from the city itself.

When one group came back from their excursion, Julie asked them if the falls was flowing.

One dude said to her, "yes" while giving her that "What? Don't you know, you idiot" tone. Yeah, not-so-nice folks kind of affirmed that we're still close to the city despite the black flies buzzing around.

No alcohol? Afterwards, Julie and I wasted no time getting our stuff ready and heading out on the trail. The sign at the trailhead had a picture of a martini with the prohibition symbol over it. I guess that's supposed to mean no alcohol is allowed here, but I wondered who'd bring a martini out here?

On the trail After a few minutes, we came to a fork. To the right, there was what looked to be a barricade. To the left, there was another trail that followed the creek downstream. The fact that the creek was flowing both visibly and audibly was a good sign that the waterfall should be flowing.

As we walked along the trail, it seemed to get narrower, which went against my research suggesting that the trail used to be an old truck route or 4wd road. Still, we trudged on since Julie was convinced that this was the trail and that barricade back at the fork meant to turn us in this direction.

Are we going the right way? About a half-hour later, we saw two pairs of hikers coming back the other way. After saying "hi" to them, they asked if we were going to the waterfall.

When we replied yes, they said, we were going the wrong way. They said they went all the way to some very long creek crossing and that this trail was headed to Fisherman's Camp. In fact, upon inspecting my GPS, it was clear we were walking in a southeast direction instead of a northwest direction, which kind of affirmed what he was saying.

So back the other way we went.

Going around that confusing barricade By about 12:50pm, we made it past that confusing barricade by the fork and then proceeded to find a way to get across the stream without getting our feet wet. There was actually a concrete ford, but the creek went over it at least shin deep so that would ruin our boots. We weren't in the mood to take the time to take off our boots and put on our Chacos or Keens to get across and then put our boots back on. It was a real hassle to say the least.

We avoided this concrete ford Anyways, the stream crossing was not easy because the rocks were a bit pointy and the footing wasn't terribly secure. This was one of those moments where I wished we had our hiking sticks, which we haven't been using for a while since we'd gotten used to hiking on much more tame trails for the last year or so.

Now we're on the real trail Once we got past the stream, the trail climbed in earnest. The path was definitely wider than the wrong-way trail we took earlier, but it was still hard to believe that vehicles used to take this path according to our pre-trip research. The trail had lots of rocks on them and it was easy to turn an ankle if you're not careful. The path was also exposed to the sun and it was already a pretty hot hike even though the high for today was in the mid 70s. I can't imagine coming here later in the year!

Tenaja Falls After around 1:15pm, we got to a point where we could see the impressive 150ft Tenaja Falls in the distance. The falls was definitely flowing, but it was so thin that it didn't look all that impressive. And given that we timed our visit after a storm, it seemed that this is probably as good as this falls gets in terms of flow. Anything more would require that deluge we had back in 2005.

We spent some time taking what photos we could thinking this is probably the only opportunity we'd have to see the falls in its entirety before proceeding.

In another 20 minutes, we ended up at the top of the falls.

The view from the top of the falls From here, there wasn't really a whole lot to see in terms of the waterfall because it cascaded down multiple tiers before disappearing below into the rugged canyon.

The scrambling here to reach the pools or to get a better look also was steep and nontrivial. The granite was very slippery when wet and I could totally envision people getting hurt sliding off a dropoff by underestimating the potentially dangerous terrain by the falls.

Golden retriever and some mates at the top of the falls A friendly golden retriever brought along by another group of hikers provided some entertainment as it was intelligently trying to find a way down closer to some of the lower waterfalls where one of its owners was walking.

The uppermost falls and pool I ended up going over the top of the falls then down a steep gully to reach the front of the uppermost tier of the falls. This was based on that golden retreiver owner's advice as he scrambled back up to where we were at.

From there, I took some more photos of the smaller cascade.

Pretty awesome view from the top of the falls But perhaps what was more rewarding was the look downstream towards the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. Watching the water disappear over the granite as the scenery gave way to the rugged shapes of the canyon beyond was actually quite scenic and memorable. It's hard to believe that such a place exists this close to the city.

We headed back to the car park some time around 1:45pm.

The crossing that turned us back to the precarious rock hopping to cross It went pretty uneventfully except for a spill that I took while trying to keep dry crossing back over the stream. That spill ended up cutting up my shin a bit and a bruised ego, but at least the camera and wallet stayed dry. Gee, I really wished we brought our hiking sticks for this!

By 2:15pm, we were back at the car park.

Since the afternoon was young, I figured we mind as well make a second attempt at visiting nearby Ortega Falls.

Around seven years ago, we went looking for this waterfall while heading up the Ortega Highway (Hwy 74) from San Juan Capistrano. We weren't successful finding the waterfall and figured we failed because the creek was probably dry.

Still, I worried that finding this waterfall was no small feat because it's not officially signposted and it even requires a scramble to get closer to it according to our research. Since we never found the falls the first time, we really had no real handle on where we needed to be and where we needed to pull over from the fast moving highway.

Anyways, it was around 3:30pm when we made the long circuitous drive back to the I-15 and then to the 74 near Lake Elsinore. From there, we continued along some familiar-looking roads (since they were probably the exact same roads we took for our Lake Elsinore outing about a year-and-a-half ago).

Then, we got past the lake and the Ortega Highway climbed up quickly as it wound its way back into the Cleveland National Forest.

Since we were zooming along at well over 50mph, we couldn't stop and enjoy the views of Lake Elsinore from up here. Plus, it was getting late in the day and we wanted to bag Ortega Falls before the day was up.

Since it's all about timing for these waterfalls in such dry locales, we didn't want to blow it and have this one haunt us yet again until the next opportunity. And with the climate change and drought in these parts, who knows when that'll be?

So once we got past the village of El Cariso, I tried to follow our research instructions carefully. Apparently, the pullout was supposed to be 3 miles south of this village.

A comical sign fronting perhaps a bar and restaurant with lots of Harleys parked in front said, "Life is great. Then sh*t happens."

I guess that's kind of the sentiment going on considering many people are getting hit hard by the credit bubble bursting.

Anyways, when I suspected we were some three miles south of El Cariso, we were hawkishly looking for pullouts that resembled anything remotely like what our directions had said.

Both of us had our doubts though because none of them looked the part.

And so the search was on, but we really didn't know what we needed to look for. We went as far south as the Cleveland National Forest boundary just beyond the mandatory daylight use section. And I was getting discouraged.

I was getting a bit tired of stopping at some unknown pullout, getting out of the car, inspecting the scene for Ortega Falls, getting back on Hwy 74 without getting in an accident (thanks to the high speed traffic), then repeat. After what seemed like at least a half-dozen attempts, I finally gave up and proceeded to head north back towards Lake Elsinore.

It looked like Ortega Falls would defeat us again just as it did about 7 years ago. As I was zooming past the Ortega Oaks Candy Store, Julie read a passage out of the California Waterfalls book. She said something to the effect that the pullout was 1.6 miles north of the Ortega Oaks Store between that and the village of El Cariso.

Well, I guess we weren't going to be defeated after all...

I couldn't understand why the author didn't put that critical detail in the directions and left it in the description blurb itself. No wonder why I missed it. Good thing Julie re-read it now that the words had more meaning as we were here.

The correct pullout, at last! And finally by 4:20pm, with the shadows getting longer, the skies getting darker, the clouds getting denser, we found the desired pullout!

Sure enough, the highway was flanked by two large pullouts with signs on each one that read, "Parked Vehicles Must Display A Forest Adventure Pass."

Surely this wasn't 3 miles south of El Cariso! But at least she was right about this being between the Ortega Oaks Candy Store and El Cariso.

Anyways, we saw the falls in the distance though it was obscured by lots of foliage. Actually, there seemed to be multiple tiers to this waterfall. And we weren't quite sure where to go.

So we immediately looked for use trails and found one to the left of the Adventure Pass sign. I overheard a pair of young girls saying there were two ways to get to the waterfall, and I swear I heard one of them say that we took the harder path. And sure enough, this path was a bit rough and descended rather steeply.

The bottommost cascade Eventually, it got down to the base of the waterfall at a small, but attractive cascade surrounded by graffiti. I tried to scramble upstream to get to the falls I swore was in our research, but the scramble got too rough. I knew there had to be another way.

Anyways, there wasn't a whole lot going down here.

We scrambled back up to the car park, and by now, it was pretty empty. The groups of people that were here had all left.

Anyways, I started to look to the right of the Adventure Pass sign and sure enough, I found another scrambling path.

Julie was doubtful, but anyways we trudged on.

A cascade not far downstream from the main falls Surprisingly, this path was a lot flatter and we ignored the false trails that went steeply to our left. Eventually, we got to the head of the canyon and right in front of the main waterfall.

Ortega Falls, at last! Now this was what we were after! Ortega Falls didn't defeat us after all!

I guess in the past, we deluded ourselves into thinking we had found the waterfall. But now I wondered whether we even parked at the correct trailhead. It was pretty clear that timing waterfalls not only meant pouncing on it at the end of a storm, but it also meant a little bit of hiking and direction-following maturity, which we lacked back then.

By 5:10pm, we were back at the car. Sweaty from our scramble with evening encroaching, we headed back to the Lake Elsinore area. We had some time for Julie to check out the Pottery Barn outlet down there before they'd close at 6...

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