Falls Canyon Falls ("Hidden Falls")

Cleveland National Forest / Rancho Santa Margarita / Lake Forest, California, USA

About Falls Canyon Falls (“Hidden Falls”)


Hiking Distance: 1.2 miles round trip; scramble
Suggested Time: 90-120 minutes

Date first visited: 2016-02-21
Date last visited: 2016-02-21

Waterfall Latitude: 33.67906
Waterfall Longitude: -117.53661

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Falls Canyon Falls (also known as “Hidden Falls”) was an elusive waterfall that nearly defeated us as I’m sure it probably had many others. In fact, we weren’t even aware of the existence of this falls until Julie stumbled upon an OC hiking blog as well as a photo showing that it had pretty good flow just two days prior to our late February weekend visit in 2016. It was definitely not in any of our waterfalling hiking guides. And yet it was through those vague directions given on that blog that led us to some moments of frustration and even having a GEICO commercial moment arguing amongst ourselves before experiencing the elation of reaching the falls after having finally figured out where we were supposed to go. You see, there was a reason why they called this falls “Hidden Falls”, and this was despite the amount of vehicular traffic going right past the mouth of the canyon containing this waterfall. Ultimately what did the trick for us was that we studied the topographic maps prior to making our visit, and it was only because of our ability to correlate the map with what we were observing in the field did we finally realize how misleading the internet literature could be (note the irony as I say this since this write-up is technically part of the internet literature concerning this falls).

So was the effort and moments of mental anguish worth it? Well, as you can see from the photo above, when it’s flowing, this nearly 40ft waterfall was probably more scenic than the nearby Holy Jim Falls. However, in addition to the rather obscure and hidden nature of this falls, we suspect that it might also have a short season. What you see pictured above was merely three days after the last fairly significant rain storm that hit this part of Orange County in February 2016. Granted, we had a rather unusually dry month of February where that storm was the lone one that replenished the watershed of Falls Canyon for the moment, but Julie said she saw a photo on the internet taken just two days prior to our visit showing even more waterflow than what we were able to witness. Therefore, we suspect that unless there had been a bit of snow accumulation in the Santa Ana Mountains, this waterfall probably wouldn’t have much flow beyond a week of no rain after the last significant rain.

Falls_Canyon_Falls_116_02212016 - The cave at the mouth of Falls Canyon that was kind of a tell-tale sign to us that we were indeed in the right place
The cave at the mouth of Falls Canyon that was kind of a tell-tale sign to us that we were indeed in the right place

Our “hike” (which was more of a scramble) began from the hidden mouth of Falls Canyon. The nearest pullout to the start of the scramble into Falls Canyon is given in the directions below. You really have to pay attention to the canyon walls within Trabuco Canyon, and keep an eye out for a opening where a side canyon (Falls Canyon itself) would confluence with it. Once that confluence is found, that was when we looked real hard for clues as to where to make the scramble to enter Falls Canyon. Luckily, once we found the correct path, Julie spotted a steep gully that led down from the rough Trabuco Creek Road down to a log crossing traversing Trabuco Creek. Immediately beyond the log crossing of the creek, we then spotted a trail-of-use that went over another fallen log before we were able to spot a small cave to our left within the mouth of Falls Canyon.

The cave wasn’t deep, and there really wasn’t a whole lot to see in there, but it was the key landmark that indicated to us that we were in the right place. At this point, we pretty much followed the trail-of-use that was obvious in spots and tricky in others as we meandered along the seasonal stream responsible for Falls Canyon. Some of the trickier moments involved scrambling over log jams, over rocks with dropoffs as well as narrow ledges, and all the while we were doing our best to minimize skin exposure to the ubiquitous poison oak. That said, our five-year-old daughter was able to make it through most of this trail on her own, and she only required a little assistance from us in the trickiest spots.

Falls Canyon was remarkably quiet as it was apparent to us that this place was not that well-discovered. So unlike some of the other local hikes we’ve been to where graffiti and litter would be a major problem, these eyesores were noticeably absent during our visit. Let’s hope it stays that way, but I do fear that it’s only a matter of time before this place becomes a social media darling, and then you’ll start to get people with little regard for Nature and start trashing the place (as had many other places that wound up in Yelp). In the end, we spent about 45 minutes to get from Trabuco Creek Road to the dead-end right at Falls Canyon Falls, which according to our trip logs was roughly 0.6 miles in each direction. We took a little less time on the way out (about 35 minutes; mostly because we knew where we were going) so I’d allow at least two hours for this excursion for both the hiking as well as some time spent just enjoying the waterfall.

We definitely wouldn’t attempt this hike if there was any threat of rain given how flooded Trabuco Creek can get, and the evidence of flash flooding from log jams within Falls Canyon itself attested to the inherent dangers here. And speaking of safety around the falls, we noticed that there were some rope tied to hanging limbs against the nearly vertical cliffs surrounding the waterfall. I’m sure some people have probably managed to throw caution to the wind and climb the ropes to continue further up Falls Canyon, but I shudder to think how weather worn these ropes would be so we ignored them. So we were pretty content with experiencing this waterfall from its base before we headed back.

Falls_Canyon_Falls_009_02212016 - At first, we tried to follow some hiking blog directions, which had us follow Trabuco Creek Road then look for Falls Canyon's mouth somewhere near this sign
Falls_Canyon_Falls_012_02212016 - This hiking group was also in search of Falls Canyon Falls, and they were armed with a guidebook from Jerry Schad
Falls_Canyon_Falls_014_02212016 - Eventually, we figured out that this was the nearest pullout to Falls Canyon
Falls_Canyon_Falls_015_02212016 - We then walked backwards along Trabuco Creek Road in search of the right place to scramble into Falls Canyon
Falls_Canyon_Falls_017_02212016 - The hiking group we saw earlier backtracked and found us at this scrambling point. This was Julie and Tahia waiting for them to make the steep scramble towards Falls Canyon
Falls_Canyon_Falls_126_02212016 - Julie making her scramble down towards Trabuco Creek and the mouth of Falls Canyon
Falls_Canyon_Falls_020_02212016 - Julie and one of the guys from the hiking group assisting Tahia on the log crossing of Trabuco Creek
Falls_Canyon_Falls_022_02212016 - Julie and Tahia climbing over a fallen log while someone in the hiking group spotted a cave across Falls Canyon
Falls_Canyon_Falls_024_02212016 - The hiking group scrambled around the mouth of the small cave, which indicated to us that we were indeed in the right place
Falls_Canyon_Falls_025_02212016 - Once we were in Falls Canyon, the trail-of-use was fairly obvious enough to follow that Tahia didn't have too much difficulty doing the hike on her own
Falls_Canyon_Falls_036_02212016 - One thing we did have to be careful about was the ubiquitous poison oak within Falls Canyon
Falls_Canyon_Falls_042_02212016 - Initially at the mouth of Falls Canyon, there seemed to be hardly any water in the creek, but the further up we went, we started to see stagnant pools, then we started to see flowing water like this mini-cascade
Falls_Canyon_Falls_045_02212016 - This log jam not only made a tricky obstacle for Tahia and Julie to get through, but it also hinted to us at how dangerous Falls Canyon can be during a flash flood
Falls_Canyon_Falls_049_02212016 - This was another tricky obstacle where we had to use our hands as well as our legs to get over this rock wall
Falls_Canyon_Falls_052_02212016 - The nice thing about Falls Canyon was that there was a decent amount of shade so the hike didn't feel terribly hot
Falls_Canyon_Falls_084_02212016 - Finally after about 45 minutes of scrambling, we finally arrived at Falls Canyon Falls
Falls_Canyon_Falls_086_02212016 - Looking up towards the top of Falls Canyon Falls while examining the algae-colored wall more closely
Falls_Canyon_Falls_091_02212016 - Looking up in the other direction towards the top of Falls Canyon Falls
Falls_Canyon_Falls_103_02212016 - Julie and Tahia making their way out of Falls Canyon
Falls_Canyon_Falls_120_02212016 - Back at the log crossing of Trabuco Creek
Falls_Canyon_Falls_121_02212016 - Tahia and Julie making the final climb back up to Trabuco Creek Road
Falls_Canyon_Falls_130_02212016 - Given the amount of traffic on the rough and rugged Trabuco Creek Road, it's amazing that Falls Canyon Falls has managed to remain as hidden as it has been over the years despite its close proximity to Holy Jim Falls

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The driving directions for Falls Canyon Falls pretty much follows that of Holy Jim Falls. So see that page for directions on at least getting to Trabuco Canyon and the rough unpaved Trabuco Creek Road.

At roughly 2.8 miles along Trabuco Creek Road from Trabuco Canyon Road, we reached a concrete ford over Trabuco Creek. Beyond this concrete ford, there’s a reassuring sign saying that the Holy Jim Trailhead was another 2 miles away. Some of the literature from hiking blogs that are out there had us start the hike from here, which would make sense if parking further down Trabuco Creek Road is too limited or unavailable. That said, I sometimes wonder if such blogs are being intentionally vague to keep the “Hidden Falls” hidden. In any case, if this was the starting point of the hike, then we would still have to walk another 3/4-mile along Trabuco Creek Road before actually reaching the “hidden” opening for Falls Canyon.

Falls_Canyon_Falls_002_02212016 - This pullout next to the concrete ford of Trabuco Creek was where some hiking blogs suggested we should start hiking; except that we were still 3/4-mile from the mouth of Falls Canyon at this point
This pullout next to the concrete ford of Trabuco Creek was where some hiking blogs suggested we should start hiking; except that we were still 3/4-mile from the mouth of Falls Canyon at this point

So what we did was we continued driving Trabuco Creek Road for almost that 3/4-mile stretch (the road became even rougher and narrower along the way). Paying very close attention to the canyon walls along Trabuco Canyon, I eventually saw the relatively hidden opening of Falls Canyon on the north side of Trabuco Canyon (this would be where studying the topo maps prior to making the visit helped a lot). There was another roadside pullout along Trabuco Creek Road a short distance beyond the mouth of Falls Canyon, and it was this pullout where we stopped the car and began hiking/scrambling towards Falls Canyon Falls.

If you somehow find yourself at the Holy Jim Falls Trailhead or even the Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department, then you’ve gone too far.

Overall, this 58-mile drive from downtown Los Angeles to the mouth of Falls Canyon took us roughly 90 minutes or so (not counting the extra hour wasted arguing about where the correct path to the falls was).

Sweep examining the Hidden Falls from a distance, then examining closely the algae and flowing water as I got right up to it. Finally, the movie ends by examining the surrounding cliffs before focusing back at the waterfall itself

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Tagged with: cleveland national forest, rancho santa margarita, lake forest, mission viejo, irvine, trabuco, orange county, southern california, california, waterfall, hidden



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