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, Julie and I waited patiently for an opportunity to pursue this rather hidden and elusive waterfall.
Unfortunately, for one reason or another (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 the first weekend of the year 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 considering Black Star Creek’s fickle flow combined with the trail’s physically demanding nature.
Nevertheless, by my estimation (based on assuming the height of people standing at the falls), Black Star Canyon Falls dropped around 60ft 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, I guess you can decide for yourself whether or not it’s worth pursuing.
Therefore, we’ve detailed our experiences below in this write-up to fill in the blanks of the summary we’ve provided above.
Timing A Visit To Black Star Canyon Falls
Since Black Star Canyon Falls resided in the typically-dry foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains bordering the far northern end of Irvine, 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.
Conversely, 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, seeing the falls in a satisfactory state was pretty much a coin flip (or 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 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, the stream scrambling may be much easier and less slippery, but the waterfall itself wouldn’t put on a show.
Nevertheless, as you can see in the photo above, the waterfall does possess an intriguing tunnel between its upper and lower drops, which provided a rather unique character about it.
The tunnel was said to be an old mine shaft so the current shape of the falls has a man-modified aspect to it.
I’d imagine that when Black Star Creek would have high flow, enough water could flow to the point that the falls it would take on a “backwards h” shape.
Indeed, the stains and streaks to the lower right side of the apparent tunnel attested to the waterfall’s former trajectory before the creation of the mine shaft, which would now only occur under higher flow.
Of course, the “trail” conditions tend to degenerate a lot more under such high flow conditions.
The Black Star Canyon Falls Hike
In summary, we considered the Black Star Canyon Falls hike to be very difficult.
When we finally managed to complete this hike, our GPS logs suggested that we hiked 7.5 miles round trip.
However, given the spotty reception along with route-finding and backtracking within Black Star Canyon, I’ve estimated the distance was distance was closer to 7.2 miles round trip (though it could be as little as 6.6 miles round-trip).
With our daughter doing the hike with us (she was 8 years old at the time), 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.
As for the hike itself, the first 2.5 miles involved following the Black Star Canyon Road.
The remaining mile or so required us to follow Black Star Creek upstream until we’d eventually reach the main waterfall itself.
Black Star Canyon Falls Hike: Black Star Canyon Road
Beyond the gate, we followed a wide and mostly flat unpaved road.
Even though we did our hike in the Winter, the relative lack of shade caused us to surprisingly warm up very quickly.
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 exhaust 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 a sunny day where the high temperatures topped out just under 70F.
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 keey 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 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.
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, where cars would get vandalized.
As far as our recent experience, visitors must walk this 2.5-mile 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 around 2.5 miles into the hike, that was when we encountered a sign right next to a switchback in the road.
It pointed to our right to leave the road and descend into Black Star Creek.
Black Star Canyon Falls Hike: Black Star Creek Scramble
After leaving the road and reached the banks of Black Star Creek, we then followed trails of use upstream alongside the creek itself.
While these “trails” typically followed alongside one side of Black Star Creek or the other, we could easily imagine how flash floods could rearrange the obstacles and obscure 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, we even noticed 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 obstacles became.
Ultimately, we found ourselves using all of our limbs to climb somewhat vertical obstacles, scoot across eroded ledges, and grabbing 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 Julie and Tahia to help boost them up the more vertical obstacles.
Indeed, I’d say the final quarter- to half-mile of Black Star Creek alone took about an hour in each direction.
And according to my trip logs, it took us just under 2 hours to finish our upstream scramble to reach Black Star Canyon Falls.
Moreover, it took a similar amount of time to go back downstream to the Black Star Canyon Road after having our fill of the falls.
The downstream 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 creek scramble was only about a third of the overall hike distance-wise, it took two-thirds of the amount of trail time.
That said, we did notice plenty of hikers going faster than us so I’d imagine they might shave 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, and 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 mine shaft left behind by the mining operation, we’ve noticed some people with sufficient skills to climb vertical and wet rocks reach the mine shaft itself.
It’s not for everyone, and it looked too dicey for me to even attempt.
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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