Tenaja Falls

Cleveland National Forest / Murrieta, California, USA

About Tenaja Falls


Hiking Distance: 1.5 miles round trip
Suggested Time: 1 hour

Date first visited: 2009-02-21
Date last visited: 2023-02-13

Waterfall Latitude: 33.55585
Waterfall Longitude: -117.39824

Waterfall Safety and Common Sense

Tenaja Falls is one of those waterfalls that might not seem like much to people outside the Southern California area.

But considering how 150ft waterfalls are quite rare here, and that it’s near Lake Elsinore, it really is a pretty big deal!

Tenaja_Falls_044_03312019 - Tenaja Falls on a warm Spring day with pretty healthy flow thanks to a heavy precipitation year
Tenaja Falls on a warm Spring day with pretty healthy flow thanks to a heavy precipitation year

Of course as I qualified the above statement with its existence in Southern California, that also means that seeing this waterfall flowing requires some serious timing.

Optimizing the Tenaja Falls Experience

By this, I mean we had to time our visit for after the Southland has received any significant storms (even better after a series of such storms).

In each of our visits to Tenaja Falls, they have followed immediately after passing storms (in 2009, 2010, and 2023) or on a wet year (2019).

The falls itself cascades over several sliding tiers on exposed slippery-when-wet granite.

Tenaja_Falls_048_03312019 - Closer look at Tenaja Falls where at least one person managed to make the very steep scramble to the waterfall's base
Closer look at Tenaja Falls where at least one person managed to make the very steep scramble to the waterfall’s base

The only way we were able to get a comprehensive view of the waterfall was from across the canyon on the trail leading to the falls itself.

Once we were at the top of the falls, we would need to attempt some somewhat daring scrambling to get a frontal view of any part of the falls let alone any of its pools.

We would especially have to watch out for the slippery granite as it was very easy to slip and fall into the many dropoffs.

As for the hike itself, we took the obvious trail just past a trailhead register, as it left from the modestly-sized parking lot (see directions below).

Tenaja_Falls_005_02132023 - Signage as we approached a fork in the trail leading to either Tenaja Falls or Fisherman's Camp. This sign used to not be there prior to our March 2019 visit (and we made the mistake of following the wrong trail on our first visit back in 2009!)
Signage as we approached a fork in the trail leading to either Tenaja Falls or Fisherman’s Camp. This sign used to not be there prior to our March 2019 visit (and we made the mistake of following the wrong trail on our first visit back in 2009!)

The footpath then reached a fork, where the path on the left went towards Fisherman’s Camp.

Meanwhile, the path on the right went past a steelhead fish sign as it directed us towards the Tenaja Falls.

The first time Julie and I were here around 2009, we messed up and actually went left on that fork instead of right.

In recent years, it appeared that enough people made the same mistake that we made so the forest service erected a sign to make it very obvious to keep right at this fork.

Tenaja_Falls_018_03312019 - Watching people going across the flooded 'unimproved crossing' near the start of the Tenaja Falls hike prior to when improvements were made in recent years to avoid having to do this
Watching people going across the flooded ‘unimproved crossing’ near the start of the Tenaja Falls hike prior to when improvements were made in recent years to avoid having to do this

Just past this fork, the trail went past a barricade (since taken away as of one of our more recent visits in 2019) then bent to the right.

That was where we encountered what used to be an “unimproved crossing” of the creek responsible for Tenaja Falls.

The crossing was actually a concrete ford, which would typically be flooded and require wading to cross, and that prompted us to go further upstream in search of an easier way to get across.

However, as of my 2023 visit, I noticed that the forest service set up boulders to divert hikers away from the concrete ford and towards an improved stream crossing.

Tenaja_Falls_008_02132023 - This semi-concrete rock hop 'bridge' made going over the old concrete ford unnecessary, and it also made rock hopping on loose and slippery rocks unnecessary as well
This semi-concrete rock hop ‘bridge’ made going over the old concrete ford unnecessary, and it also made rock hopping on loose and slippery rocks unnecessary as well

I call it “improved” because instead of rock hopping on somewhat loose rocks, they’ve apparently partially poured concrete over some of the larger boulders.

This created a sort of rock hopping “bridge” that’s much easier to get across without getting wet.

In the past, we used to advocate for bringing hiking poles to help with maintaining balance at this crossing.

Heck, even as of our 2019 visit, someone had tied a rope at this crossing, which we found that to be unnecessary (and even detrimental).

Tenaja_Falls_034_03312019 - Examining a particularly eroded part of the Tenaja Falls Trail showing how water has cut into it over the years
Examining a particularly eroded part of the Tenaja Falls Trail showing how water has cut into it over the years

Anyways, once on the other side of the creek, we then regained the main trail at the opposite side of the concrete ford.

From there, we followed the trail past a couple of bends before the hike climbed moderately in its trajectory towards the top of Tenaja Falls.

During this climb, we noticed how prone to erosion the trail was as water from past rains have cut gullies and eroded banks.

These sections of the trail made hiking in proper footwear (not flip flops, Crocs, nor even sneakers) a good idea to prevent the odd slip-and-fall or turned ankle.

Tenaja_Falls_029_02212009 - Looking in the distance at Tenaja Falls in somewhat low flow during our visit in February 2009
Looking in the distance at Tenaja Falls in somewhat low flow during our visit in February 2009

This uphill section of the hike was also quite exposed to the sun, which underscored how hot and dry it could be here.

We definitely were wise to bring plenty of water to ensure we were hydrated in this stretch.

The trail continued its ascent past some blooming wildflowers and eventually providing a cross-canyon view of Tenaja Falls (see photo at the top of this page).

Next to the lowermost of the Tenaja Falls views, we noticed an abandoned vehicle somewhat hidden off the main trail.

Tenaja_Falls_041_03312019 - Some mangled and dilapidated vehicle left near the Tenaja Falls Trail
Some mangled and dilapidated vehicle left near the Tenaja Falls Trail

We never remembered seeing that vehicle in any of our prior hikes so we really don’t know how or why it got there.

Tenaja Falls Trail Description – hiking to the top of falls

While the fairly well-used trail continued ascending, we continued to get full views of Tenaja Falls.

We also noticed more wildflowers in bloom (especially in the late Winter and early Spring timeframe), which added color to the landscape such as purples, pinks, and yellows.

As for timing these floral blooms, with Climate Change, our Winters and Springs are getting shorter so the wildflowers could show up as early as February (as it did on my February 2023 visit).

Tenaja_Falls_100_03312019 - Some purple wildflowers in bloom along the Tenaja Falls Trail
Some purple wildflowers in bloom along the Tenaja Falls Trail

Eventually, the trail topped out and descended to the refreshing wading pools just upstream of the very top of Tenaja Falls.

This was seemingly the right place to relax and let the kids play in the water, when there’s enough flow in the creek (but not in flood).

We did see other people make daring scrambles down the steep and slippery-when-wet granite slopes to the bottom of Tenaja Falls.

I personally haven’t tried this myself nor would I recommend doing it as it’s well beyond my risk tolerance to attempt.

Tenaja_Falls_127_03312019 - Looking down at the top two tiers of Tenaja Falls
Looking down at the top two tiers of Tenaja Falls

Although this place was great for water play and relaxing, we couldn’t help but notice that the graffiti problem seemed to have worsened over the years.

After having our fill of the top of Tenaja Falls, we then returned back the way we came.

In total, the out-and-back hike to the top of Tenaja Falls was about 1.5 miles round-trip.

This distance didn’t include any additional scrambling that we did to maneuver around the waterfalls’ upper drops themselves.

Tenaja_Falls_141_03312019 - Sharing the top of Tenaja Falls with others who want to touch the cool creek
Sharing the top of Tenaja Falls with others who want to touch the cool creek

It also doesn’t include any additional scrambling necessary to pursue getting to the bottom of the falls, which I’d imagine would be an off-trail upstream creek scramble as opposed to the very risky descent from the top of the falls.

Authorities

Tenaja Falls resides in the Cleveland National Forest near Murrieta in Riverside County, California. It is administered by the USDA Forest Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website or Facebook page.

Tenaja_Falls_002_02132023 - Arriving at a pretty empty trailhead parking area for Tenaja Falls on a Monday in February 2023. This photo and the next several were taken from this visit
Tenaja_Falls_004_02132023 - The Tenaja Falls Trail seemed unusually green for my mid-February 2023 visit
Tenaja_Falls_003_iPhone_02132023 - During my February 2023 visit, I couldn't help but notice that they set up this line of boulders to steer me away from the old concrete ford branching off to the left
Tenaja_Falls_005_iPhone_02132023 - Going over the improved semi-concrete 'bridge' and rock hop to get over the creek crossing at the start of the Tenaja Falls hike
Tenaja_Falls_011_02132023 - Ascending the sun-exposed Tenaja Falls Trail not long after the creek crossing
Tenaja_Falls_012_02132023 - It looked like the water gully cutting into the Tenaja Falls Trail was an even deeper chasm than the previous time I was here in 2019
Tenaja_Falls_015_02132023 - Wildflowers were already blooming in mid-February 2023, which made me wonder if this was Climate Change at work
Tenaja_Falls_022_02132023 - The familiar Tenaja Falls as seen from the trail to its top in February 2023
Tenaja_Falls_029_02132023 - Context of the Tenaja Falls Trail with the waterfall itself to the right as seen in February 2023
Tenaja_Falls_048_02132023 - Continuing to ascend the trail to the top of Tenaja Falls
Tenaja_Falls_049_02132023 - Looking down over the slope of the Tenaja Falls looking deceptively more shallow than it really is when you're at the top of it
Tenaja_Falls_008_iPhone_02132023 - Looking down towards one of the boulders in the canyon that was apparently tagged with graffiti, which indicated to me that people can and do stream scramble their way up to the base of Tenaja Falls
Tenaja_Falls_052_02132023 - Context of some people chilling out at the lip of the Tenaja Falls during my February 2023 visit
Tenaja_Falls_009_iPhone_02132023 - I was surprised to see this concrete ford upstream from the Tenaja Falls during my February 2023 visit, but I guess it showed me perhaps my faulty memory or how much I didn't pay attention in my prior visits
Tenaja_Falls_058_02132023 - Context of looking at the upper two drops of Tenaja Falls with some daring scramblers who made their way down to the top of the tallest of the drops during my February 2023 visit
Tenaja_Falls_060_02132023 - Looking back up at the steep scramble I made to get the view I had of the upper two drops of Tenaja Falls in February 2023
Tenaja_Falls_014_iPhone_02132023 - Portrait look at the upper two drops of Tenaja Falls with one guy standing at the slippery lip of the third drop of the falls
Tenaja_Falls_065_02132023 - Looking back at the context of the top of Tenaja Falls with one guy standing atop a precarious boulder overlooking the falls and the San Mateo Wilderness during my February 2023 visit
Tenaja_Falls_070_02132023 - Zoomed in look at a couple of people making the very slippery and daring scramble down the Tenaja Falls to reach its base during my February 2023 visit
Tenaja_Falls_086_02132023 - Checking out Tenaja Falls one last time with some people at its base for a sense of scale during my February 2023 visit
Tenaja_Falls_093_02132023 - Another look at the interesting abandoned car just off the Tenaja Falls Trail.  One thing I noticed during my February 2023 visit was that there appeared to be a use trail going past this car, and it made me wonder if that's the access to the stream scramble to reach the base of Tenaja Falls from the bottom up
Tenaja_Falls_096_02132023 - Looking down at the deepening chasm on the way back from Tenaja Falls during my February 2023 visit
Tenaja_Falls_010_03312019 - Julie and Tahia about to start the hike to Tenaja Falls. Notice the no alcohol sign next to the trailhead, which I'd imagine people would ignore because we've seen broken beer bottles in the area before. By the way, this photo was taken in March 2019 and the next several photos were taken on this day
Tenaja_Falls_011_03312019 - Julie and Tahia on the beginning of the Tenaja Falls Trail during our March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_014_03312019 - This sign making it clear to keep right to go to Tenaja Falls was only put there in recent years
Tenaja_Falls_020_03312019 - During our March 2019 visit, someone had set up this flimsy rope to facilitate crossing Tenaja Creek, but I don't think it was very beneficial
Tenaja_Falls_022_03312019 - Julie and Tahia resuming the Tenaja Falls hike after the creek crossing during our March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_024_03312019 - Context of people on the Tenaja Falls Trail as we were about to make the moderate ascent during our March 2019 hike
Tenaja_Falls_028_03312019 - Julie and Tahia ascending the Tenaja Falls Trail where the footing could be a little tricky due to rocks and erosion as seen on our March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_031_03312019 - Julie and Tahia on the moderate and sun-exposed ascent to the top of the Tenaja Falls as seen during our March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_032_03312019 - Julie and Tahia dealing with some of the gullies that had cut into the Tenaja Falls Trail as seen during our March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_042_03312019 - Contextual look across the canyon at the Tenaja Falls during our March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_068_03312019 - Tahia checking out the context of Tenaja Falls from the trail during our March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_076_03312019 - Looking back at the Tenaja Falls as we continued along the hike to the waterfall's brink during our March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_085_03312019 - Focused look at the main drops of the Tenaja Falls in late March 2019
Tenaja_Falls_090_03312019 - Angled look back at the Tenaja Falls as we continued onwards with the hike to its top in late March 2019
Tenaja_Falls_094_03312019 - This view of Tenaja Falls kind of shows how much slope most of Tenaja Falls was on as seen during our March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_096_03312019 - Looking towards attractive yellow and purple wildflowers during our hike to the Tenaja Falls in March 2019
Tenaja_Falls_099_03312019 - Julie and Tahia continuing on the ascent to the top of the Tenaja Falls during our March 2019 hike
Tenaja_Falls_102_03312019 - A different kind of wildflower blooming alongside Tenaja Falls Trail on our late March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_111_03312019 - Julie and Tahia descending towards the top of Tenaja Falls during our late March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_115_03312019 - Context of people playing in some of the pools upstream of the brink of Tenaja Falls as seen in late March 2019
Tenaja_Falls_118_03312019 - Tahia wasting no time getting right into the cool waters of Tenaja Creek above the waterfall on our late March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_120_03312019 - Side view of Tahia wading in the pools upstream of the brink of Tenaja Falls as seen during our March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_126_03312019 - Checking out the upper two tiers of Tenaja Falls after a bit of scramble for this view in late March 2019
Tenaja_Falls_136_03312019 - It still boggles the mind why idiots need to tag and mark up the rocks around Tenaja Falls. This was seen in late March 2019 as the problem appeared to have gotten worse over the years
Tenaja_Falls_137_03312019 - Looking over the brink of Tenaja Falls into the San Mateo Wilderness during our late March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_143_03312019 - Context of the crossing over Tenaja Creek after having had our fill of the Tenaja Falls during our late March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_145_03312019 - Looking back towards people chilling out around Tenaja Creek upstream from Tenaja Falls as we were heading back during our late March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_147_03312019 - Julie and Tahia descending the trail after having had their fill of Tenaja Falls in late March 2019
Tenaja_Falls_163_03312019 - Context of Julie and Tahia descending on the Tenaja Falls Trail as they're headed back to the trailhead to end our March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_169_03312019 - Since Tahia had Crocs on, she had no trouble splashing through the crossing of Tenaja Creek towards the end of our March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_171_03312019 - Looking back at the unimproved crossing sign at the end of our March 2019 visit to Tenaja Falls
Tenaja_Falls_172_03312019 - Julie and Tahia finally making it back to the Tenaja Falls Trailhead at the end of our late March 2019 visit
Tenaja_Falls_009_jx_04032010 - The Tenaja Falls trailhead parking as seen during our April 2010 visit. Notice how few cars there were back then
Tenaja_Falls_003_04032010 - Avoiding the concrete ford for this stream crossing, where we were aided with trekking poles for balance during our April 2010 visit
Tenaja_Falls_006_04032010 - Wildflowers along the Tenaja Falls Trail during our April 2010 visit - always a pleasing sight
Tenaja_Falls_014_04032010 - Contextual view of Tenaja Falls in lighter flow when we saw it for a second time in April 2010
Tenaja_Falls_016_04032010 - Focused look at the Tenaja Falls as seen from the trail during our April 2010 visit
Tenaja_Falls_022_04032010 - Contextual look with a more direct angle at the Tenaja Falls as seen in April 2010
Tenaja_Falls_033_04032010 - Zoomed in look at the Tenaja Falls in April 2010
Tenaja_Falls_040_04032010 - Julie heading back towards the trailhead after having had her fill of the Tenaja Falls in April 2010
Tenaja_Falls_042_04032010 - Another contextual look at Julie returning on the Tenaja Falls after having our fill of it in April 2010
Tenaja_Falls_044_04032010 - The water looked a little too deep for our liking across the concrete ford during our April 2010 visit of Tenaja Falls
Tenaja_Falls_003_02212009 - Julie starting the hike to Tenaja Falls during our February 2009 visit. The rest of the photos in this gallery took place on this date
Tenaja_Falls_004_02212009 - Julie on the beginning of the Tenaja Falls Trail when we first came here in February 2009
Tenaja_Falls_006_02212009 - This is what the trail to Fisherman's Camp looks like back in February 2009. Before the sign identifying the trails was erected, this was the mistake that we made the first time we did this hike to Tenaja Falls.  So don't do what we did when we turned left at that trail junction!
Tenaja_Falls_007_02212009 - Julie going around the barricade towards the creek crossing en route to Tenaja Falls.  This was the way we should've gone in the first place during our February 2009 hike!  Note that this barricade was gone in recent years
Tenaja_Falls_009_02212009 - Julie on the Tenaja Falls Trail on the other side of the creek during our February 2009 visit
Tenaja_Falls_011_02212009 - Contextual view of Tenaja Falls in lighter flow when we first saw it in February 2009
Tenaja_Falls_027_02212009 - More zoomed in look at the Tenaja Falls in lighter flow when we first saw it in February 2009
Tenaja_Falls_039_02212009 - Looking down into the canyon from around the top of Tenaja Falls during our visit in February 2009
Tenaja_Falls_044_02212009 - Looking down across the top of Tenaja Falls on our February 2009 visit
Tenaja_Falls_048_02212009 - Julie checking out the downstream scenery from around the top of the Tenaja Falls during our February 2009 visit
Tenaja_Falls_051_02212009 - Looking back at the uppermost drop of Tenaja Falls from the other side of its creek in February 2009
Tenaja_Falls_060_02212009 - Looking right up at the light-flowing Tenaja Falls' uppermost drop during our visit in February 2009
Tenaja_Falls_069_02212009 - Another look directly at the uppermost waterfall of Tenaja Falls with a woman relaxing above it for a sense of scale as seen back in February 2009
Tenaja_Falls_076_02212009 - Looking over the brink of Tenaja Falls and into the San Mateo Wilderness when we first showed up here in February 2009
Tenaja_Falls_095_02212009 - Our parting look at the Tenaja Falls when we were hiking back from its brink during our visit in February 2009. Notice how light its flow was back then compared to our later visits
Tenaja_Falls_098_02212009 - Looking back at the concrete ford over Tenaja Creek from back in February 2009. Over the years, this ford has had sediment and rocks washing onto thereby obscuring the concrete
Tenaja_Falls_101_02212009 - After having crossed back to the front side of the concrete ford near the end of our Tenaja Falls experience in February 2009, the rest of the hike was easy


Driving to the Tenaja Falls is pretty straightforward and fairly well signposted.

Coming from Los Angeles, we headed east towards the I-15 from any one of the eastbound freeways (the 91, 10, or 60).

Tenaja_Falls_001_04032010 - View of the Tenaja Falls Trailhead from back in April 2010 when there used to be plenty of parking space
View of the Tenaja Falls Trailhead from back in April 2010 when there used to be plenty of parking space

We then took the I-15 south about 16 miles or roughly 14 miles south of the Lake Street exit in Lake Elsinore towards the Clinton-Keith Road exit in Murrieta.

Then, we turned right onto Clinton Keith Road and followed it for about 5 miles as the road eventually hit a 15mph bend followed by another one not long thereafter.

By this point, the road became Tenaja Road, which we followed for the next 1.7 miles to a stop sign junction.

We then turned right to remain on Tenaja Road (going straight would have led to Via Volcano Rd).

Tenaja_Falls_001_03312019 - Over the years, we've observed that parking space is very limited in almost every Southern California waterfall and the Tenaja Falls situation is no different
Over the years, we’ve observed that parking space is very limited in almost every Southern California waterfall and the Tenaja Falls situation is no different

Next, we followed this road for over the next 4 miles before turning right onto Forest Service Road.

There used to be a Forest Service sign at this intersection, but I suspected that they took that sign away as it was missing during our March 2019 visit.

Once on Forest Service Road, we found ourselves driving over mini gullies, undulations, and potholes.

The road itself was pretty much single-lane (especially given how big American cars are).

Tenaja_Falls_002_03312019 - The busy and limited parking lot for the Tenaja Falls Trailhead
The busy and limited parking lot for the Tenaja Falls Trailhead

We followed this road for the remaining four miles or so before arriving at the well-used and pretty conspicuous parking space for Tenaja Falls.

Overall, the drive from downtown Los Angeles to Lake Elsinore would be 74 miles (90 minutes) via the I-15. Similarly, the drive south from downtown Los Angeles to San Juan Capistrano would be 54 miles (a little under 90 minutes). Finally, the drive between Lake Elsinore and Murrieta would be on the order of 12 miles or around 15 minutes.

Find A Place To Stay

Starting off this video with a fixated zoom-in on people at the base of the falls before gradually zooming out and fixating at each zoom


Brief contextual frontal sweep of the upper 2 drops of the falls before doing a zoomed pan-in then zooming back out at the end


Downstream to upstream sweep of the falls as seen from the trail across the canyon


Right to left broad sweep of the canyon leading past the falls before panning back to the falls for a closer examination


Sweep covering the area around the top two tiers of the falls including a closeup of the tiers themselves


Fixated on the full view of the falls as seen from the trail


Sweep from the top of falls to the scenic canyon below


Sweep from the uppermost tier to the scenic downstream canyon and lower cascades

Tagged with: cleveland national forest, murrieta, riverside, lake elsinore, san mateo canyon, southern california, california, waterfall, orange county



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Tenaja Waterfalls October 8, 2012 3:50 pm by Mike C. - Yesterday October 7th 2012 was a huge disappointment for my family and I when we arrived at this location, the waterfall was completely dried out :( we hope that one day it flourishes again. ...Read More

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Updated Directions to Tenaja Falls September 1, 2010 4:30 pm by Andy Bird - After turning right onto Tenaja road you will go through a few miles of beautiful driving. There is no fork when you get to Cleveland Forest rd (there is a small street sign on your right so you may pass it), simply make a right hand turn. From here the falls are approximately 5.2 miles.… ...Read More

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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of the award-winning A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
Read More About Johnny | A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls.