About Black Star Canyon Falls
Black Star Canyon Falls (I’ve also seen it spelled Blackstar Canyon Falls as well as just Black Star Falls) felt to us like one of those waterfalls where we showed up late to the party when it came to witnessing it in person.
Ever since a website visitor submitted a write-up about it back in April 2011, we waited patiently for an opportunity to pursue this rather hidden and elusive waterfall.
Unfortunately, due to competing priorities (e.g. raising our daughter, prioritizing other waterfalls abroad, waiting out climate-changed-induced droughts, honoring prior commitments, etc.), we’ve never had that opportunity until January 2020.
By that time, it appeared that much had changed about the Black Star Canyon Trail over the years, including its popularity as well as its accessibility.
Speaking of accessibility, we consider this waterfall as really more of an adventure (as opposed to conventional on-trail hike) considering Black Star Creek’s fickle flow combined with the canyon’s physically demanding and ambiguous course.
Nevertheless, by my estimation (based on assuming the height of people standing at the falls), Black Star Canyon Falls dropped around 60-80ft over a pair of tiers separated by a tunnel through which Black Star Creek flows.
That said, for all the trouble it took to get here (which we’ll explain in detail in the trail description), I guess you can decide for yourself whether or not it’s worth pursuing.
Now contrasting the challenge that we’re foreshadowing regarding this adventure, be aware that this could very well be one of (if not THE) most popular waterfall hikes in Orange County.
Timing A Visit To Black Star Canyon Falls
Black Star Canyon Falls resides in the typically-dry foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains east of the city of Orange (bordering the far northern end of Irvine) so I didn’t find it surprising that this falls had a very short and fickle flow.
In years past, I’ve seen websites or social media pictures where the falls had much more flow than what we witnessed, but I had also seen plenty of other accounts or photos in the literature where the falls either trickled or didn’t flow at all!
Thus, in my mind, witnessing the falls in a satisfactory state was pretty much a 50/50 affair, and that’s if you show up during the Winter or early Spring.
We faced such odds when we made our first visit, which followed about 10 days of dry weather after the last intense rain storm, which dumped a lot of snow in the local mountains and local street flooding in the city on Christmas night.
The water table may have also been further aided by earlier rain storms that started in late November and sporadically happened in early December.
As a result, if you combine the waterfall’s fickle nature with the difficulty of the stream scrambling involved (which we’ll get more into in the trail description below), we have a catch-22 situation regarding the Black Star Canyon Falls experience.
If there’s too much water, then the hike could be very slippery, very wet, and downright dangerous.
However, if there’s not enough water, then while the stream scrambling may be much easier and less slippery, the waterfall itself wouldn’t put on a show.
Although our first visit in January 2020 happened under rapidly diminishing flow, we did come back 3 years later (a couple of days after a strong storm blew by), and there was definitely more water.
Under those conditions, there were indeed more slippery stream traverses (making it more difficult to keep the feet dry even with hiking boots on) and slippery wet boulders (from people with wet shoes stepping on them).
That said, the water levels weren’t hazardous enough to be foolishly dangerous (though there were plenty of sections on this adventure that could be dicey regardless).
Nevertheless despite the effort required, as you can see in the photo above, the waterfall itself does possess an intriguing tunnel between its upper and lower drops, which provided a rather unique characteristic about it.
The tunnel was said to be an old mine shaft so the current shape of the falls can be considered man-modified (something I’m generally not keen on regarding appreciating waterfalls).
As a result, when Black Star Creek would have high flow (like it did on our second visit), some of the water bypasses the tunnel and falls straight down thereby giving the waterfall a “backwards h” shape.
Under lower flow conditions (like on our first visit), then pretty much all of Black Star Creek goes through the tunnel, and the stains and streaks to the lower right side of the tunnel attested to the creek’s former trajectory prior to the mine.
By the way, the presence of this mine nearby a Native American village resulted in a bloody history, which we’ll also briefly discuss later on in this write-up.
The Black Star Canyon Falls Hike
The Black Star Canyon Falls hike essentially consists of two parts – an easy on-road part and a more difficult “choose-your-own-adventure” creekside trail and scramble within Black Star Canyon itself.
In summary, the on-road part comprised the first 2.5 miles as it pretty much was on the unpaved Black Star Canyon Road (which can still be driven by authorized vehicles).
However, the second part comprised the remaining mile or so, and it’s in this section that makes me consider this excursion to be challenging.
In fact, in the last 1/4- to 1/2-mile, the excursion involves large steps, steep slopes, ledge clinging, and hand-over-feet boulder scrambling.
Because you would have hiked at least 3 miles to even have gotten to this point, weariness and fatigue may start to set in just when the going gets tough.
That’s why it’s here that I consider the excursion to be very difficult, especially if you’re not experienced, fit, nor flexible.
When we first completed this hike, our GPS logs suggested that we hiked 7.5 miles round trip.
On my second visit, the GPS logs actually said it was closer to 8 miles!
Of course, given the spotty reception along with route-finding and backtracking within Black Star Canyon, I wouldn’t be surprised if the hiking distance was a lot less than that.
I’ve estimated the distance was probably closer to 7.2 miles round trip, but others in the literature have said that it could be as little as 6.6 miles round-trip.
With my wife and 8-year-old daughter doing the hike with me on our first visit, the entire adventure took us 6.5 hours though we did spend about a half-hour enjoying our well-earned sighting of Black Star Canyon Falls.
With my 70-year-old mother doing this hike with me on my second visit, the whole excursion took us 6 hours, including spending about a half-hour chilling at the falls.
That said, we were probably on the slow side as there were lots of younger people that have passed us throughout the hike.
Therefore I’d imagine most people would spend closer to 5 hours in total (perhaps even as little as 4 hours or less if you’re really in a hurry).
Black Star Canyon Falls Hike: Black Star Canyon Road
First, once you park your car, you’ll want to walk towards the gate blocking public traffic from continuing on Black Star Canyon Road (see directions below).
Depending on how far back from the gate that you’ve parked (especially if it’s really busy like it is on the weekends), this could easily add another 1/4-mile or 1/2-mile in each direction to your overall hike.
Beyond the gate, we then followed the wide and mostly flat unpaved road flanked by hills on either side as well as ahead of us.
Even though we did our hikes in the Winter, the relative lack of shade (combined with our physical exertion) caused us to warm up very quickly.
Thus, had we taken on this hike in the late Spring, Summer, or even early Autumn, the sun exposure and heat could have easily caused us to consume the water we brought very quickly.
For example, I brought 2 40 ounce water bottles and consumed all the water by the time we finished the hike on our warm and sunny first visit (where the high temperatures topped out just under 70F).
Conversely, I brought the same amount of water on a cooler January day (the highs were in the high 50s or low 60s) on our second visit, and I only used up 1 of the 2 bottles.
That said, this 2.5-mile stretch was very straightforward (with the exception of getting out of the way of mountain bikers), and it took us a little over an hour with minimal breaks along the way.
As far as some noteworthy landmarks go (just to keep yourself occupied due to the relative lack of features here), at about the 0.5- or 0.6-mile point (shortly past the Silmo Trail junction), we encountered a gate accompanied with a sign.
The sign said Black Star Falls was 3 miles away as well as the Cleveland National Forest boundary being just couple of miles before it (which suggested that the falls belonged in the national forest boundary even though the trailhead was not).
Anyways, if we did the math based on this sign, then I could see why some might suggest that the overall hiking distance would be between 7-7.2 miles round trip.
Black Star Canyon Road also crossed over three bridges, where we got a preview of how much water flowed in Black Star Creek.
We encountered these (graffiti-laced) bridges at about 1.4, 1.7, and 2.3 miles into the hike.
Shortly after the third bridge, we noticed what seemed to be a “backyard” fronted by electric wire fencing that might also be someone’s residence.
I believe this might have been the “squatter’s camp” according to the website submission in April 2011.
In fact, I had recalled in the literature that people used to drive further into Black Star Canyon Road, and apparently cars would get vandalized here.
As far as our recent experiences, visitors now must walk (or bike) this stretch of Black Star Canyon Road as it appeared that the road was now flanked by various private properties where only locals may drive this road.
That would explain the presence of fencing and gates for much of this first part of the hike.
Eventually at about 2.5 miles into the hike, there was a sign for Black Star Canyon Falls right next to a switchback in the road.
In addition to some mountain bikers using this sign as a bike rack, the sign pointed to our right to leave the road and descend towards Black Star Creek.
Black Star Canyon Falls Hike: Black Star Creek Scramble
After leaving the road and reaching the banks of Black Star Creek, we then followed trails of use upstream along either side of the creek itself.
While some parts of the “trails” may seem fairly obvious at first, the course may change due to flash floods rearranging the obstacles and obscuring the paths with each passing storm.
In any case, we could follow the narrow paths for the most part and identify the spots where we needed to cross the creek.
In fact, there’s lots of graffiti where some people have tagged the rocks and boulders in an effort to perhaps identify where the easiest spots to cross the stream were.
Nevertheless, the further up the creek we went, the more Black Star Canyon closed in, and the larger the boulders obstructions became.
Indeed, it’s towards the latter part of the Black Star Canyon Canyon scramble that essentially became a “choose-your-own-adventure” experience as the trail became ambiguous and full of obstacles to overcome.
Ultimately, we found ourselves using all of our limbs to climb somewhat vertical obstacles, scoot across eroded ledges, and grab onto roots or branches to prevent sliding into a dropoff.
Often times, we had to brush up against overgrowth (some of which would bloom into poison oak towards the Spring) as well as push or pull people to help boost them up the more vertical obstacles.
I’d say in the final quarter- to half-mile of Black Star Creek alone, it easily took us about an hour in each direction.
Overall, the entire off-road section within Black Star Canyon took us an average of around 2 hours to reach Black Star Canyon Falls (according to my trip logs).
Now even though getting to the falls is an accomplishment, don’t underestimate the difficulty in coming back after having your fill of the falls.
In fact, it took a similar amount of time to go downstream (and downhill) to return to the Black Star Canyon Road.
This direction of the hike was particularly difficult due to blind dropoffs that often caused us to backtrack and pursue a less-riskier path to continue on.
As a result, even though the scramble within Black Star Canyon was only about a third of the overall excursion distance-wise, it took two-thirds of the total amount of trail hiking time.
That said, we did notice plenty of hikers going faster than us so I’d imagine they might have potentially shaved off up to a half the amount of time that we ultimately took.
Nomenclature and Checkered Past
Black Star Canyon Falls (or Black Star Falls) got its name from the Black Star Coal Mining Company, which used to operate at the mouth of the canyon that now bears its name.
This area has seen its share of violence, especially between fur trappers led by William Wolfskill and the Tongva Native Americans in 1831.
These conflicts resulted in the massacre of the Tongva Native Americans, where such bloodshed and history have apparently caused the canyon to be “haunted”.
While we didn’t personally encounter any apparitions or spine-tingling moments on our hike (other than the tension of some of the difficult parts of the bouldering obstacles and eroded gullies), apparently ghost hunters have come here around Halloween.
Regarding the relics left behind by the mining operation, we’ve noticed some people with sufficient climbing skills managed to go up the vertical and wet rocks to enter the tunnel itself.
Black Star Canyon Falls technically resides within the boundaries of the Cleveland National Forest near the city of Irvine in Orange County, California. However, its trailhead sits within the jurisdiction of the Irvine Open Space Preserve (of which Black Star Canyon Wilderness Park is a constituent of).
Black Star Canyon Falls was accessed from the Black Star Canyon Trailhead.
This trailhead is a well-known and well-geotagged landmark so you should be able to route to it on your GPS or smart phone.
The address to use is 13333 Black Star Canyon Drive, Silverado, CA 92676.
Since we came from Los Angeles County to visit Black Star Canyon Falls, we’ll describe the driving directions from the I-5 and CA-22 interchange.
At the I-5/22 Freeway interchange (just north of the Discovery Cube Orange County), we then headed east on the 22 for about 15 miles to the interchange with the 55 Freeway North.
Once we kept left to go north on the CA-55, we then took the first off-ramp for E Chapman Ave.
Turning right at the light onto E Chapman Ave, we then followed this street east for about 14 miles (it becomes Santiago Canyon Road after crossing Jamboree Rd) to a turnoff on the left for Silverado Canyon Road.
Then, after another 0.1-mile on Silverado Canyon Rd, we then turned left onto Black Star Canyon Rd, and we drove the remaining mile to a gate blocking further progress.
There were lots of shoulders and parking spaces flanking Black Star Canyon Road though this place was very popular so unsurprisingly there were also lots of cars filling up these spaces quickly.
Therefore, it’s conceivable that you might have to park a further back on Black Star Canyon Road thereby increasing the overall hiking distance.
If you’re coming from Irvine or San Diego, then the fastest way to Black Star Canyon Trailhead would be to take the 261 Toll Road or the 241 Toll Road north to Santiago Canyon Road.
Then, you would head east to Silverado Canyon Road and follow the rest of the directions as given above.
For geographical context, Irvine is about 43 miles (about an hour drive depending on traffic) southeast of Los Angeles, 85 miles (about 90 minutes drive depending on traffic) north of San Diego, and 136 miles (over 2 hours drive depending on traffic) southeast of Santa Barbara.
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