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: 2019-03-31

Waterfall Latitude: 33.55585
Waterfall Longitude: -117.39824

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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 both 2009 and 2010) 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.

Tenaja Falls Trail Description – hiking to the views of the waterfall

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_014_03312019 - 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
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

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

Meanwhile, the path on the right headed to the Tenaja Falls.

The first time Julie and I were here, 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.

Tenaja_Falls_018_03312019 - Watching people going across the flooded 'unimproved crossing' near the start of the Tenaja Falls hike
Watching people going across the flooded ‘unimproved crossing’ near the start of the Tenaja Falls hike

Therefore, the forest service erected a sign clearly indicating which fork to take to go to the waterfall.

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

That was where we encountered 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.

Tenaja_Falls_003_04032010 - Julie making use of trekking poles to maintain her balance on the crossing of Tenaja Creek en route to Tenaja Falls
Julie making use of trekking poles to maintain her balance on the crossing of Tenaja Creek en route to Tenaja Falls

However, we’ve relied on a much easier crossing requiring nothing more than a nimble rock hop to get across without getting wet.

We did this by doing a brief rocky scramble alongside the creek before encountering the aforementioned rock hop crossing.

The rocks here were slippery so hiking poles would definitely be helpful in maintaining balance.

On a recent visit, someone had tied a rope at this crossing, but 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

After all, we witnessed one guy on his back in the creek while holding onto the flimsy rope.

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

Now, we followed the trail up a couple of bends before the hike climbed in earnest.

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

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

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.

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.

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

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

Next to the lowermost of the Tenaja Falls views, we noticed an abandoned vehicle somewhat hidden off the main 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, which added color to the landscape such as purples, pinks, and yellows.

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, we descended to the refreshing wading pools just upstream of the lip of Tenaja Falls.

This was seemingly the right place to relax and let the kids play in the water.

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 incur any more risk than necessary.

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 didn’t include any additional scrambling to find a way to cross the Tenaja Creek early on in the hike without getting our feet wet.

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_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_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_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

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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.

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

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



Visitor Comments:

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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Visitor Reviews of this Waterfall:

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 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.
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