About Upper Hot Spring Canyon Falls
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Falls (perhaps more descriptively referred to as the Upper Hot Spring Canyon Waterfalls) are a series of waterfalls within the accessible part of Hot Spring Canyon.
It turns out that the entirety of Hot Spring Canyon is one of the most pristine canyons to be found in the Santa Ana Mountains, which is shared between Orange County and Riverside County.
The reason why it’s mostly pristine is that it requires technical canyoneering (i.e. a combination of rappeling, climbing, swimming, and scrambling) throughout most of the canyon.
Only the Upper Hot Spring Canyon and its waterfalls are accessible to hikers, and that’s the focus of the remainder of this write-up.
The Hot Spring Canyon Waterfalls
As far as the waterfalls within Upper Hot Spring Canyon are concerned, we encountered four notable ones – two main waterfalls and two intermediate waterfalls in between them.
Of the two main waterfalls, the first one is said to be 15ft while the second one is said to be about 25ft (though I actually think the cumulative heights are more like 25ft and 40ft, respectively).
Regarding the two intermediate waterfalls, one was on the order of about 5-10ft or so while the other one is a sloping cascade that’s closer to about 10-15ft or so.
By the way, among the many waterfalls further within the Lower Hot Spring Canyon is the 160ft Tanriverdi Falls, which is said to be the tallest in the Santa Ana Mountain Range.
As much as I would like to witness this waterfall in person, it is not realistic for me to attempt.
In fact, I’d imagine the vast majority of hikers would be unwilling to risk life and limb to pursue this waterfall so it should be avoided until someone decides to make a sanctioned trail to get to it from the lower end of Hot Spring Canyon.
Are The Upper Hot Spring Canyon Falls Worth The Effort?
As you can see from the low scenic rating we gave this waterfall, there’s a bit of a dilemma when it comes to making a visit to the Upper Hot Spring Canyon Waterfalls.
Come when there’s low flow like you see in the photo above, and you’re set up for a disappointing visit (especially given the tagging around the falls, which further doesn’t help).
However, if you come when there’s high flow, then it becomes more difficult (maybe even dangerous) to get a good look at the top of the second main waterfall, especially considering how slippery the rocks were around it.
Indeed, even though the first waterfall wasn’t doing so well on our first visit, just downstream from the first Upper Hot Spring Canyon Falls was a tributary feeding Hot Spring Creek (at least that’s what I think it’s called).
The resulting increase in the stream’s volume made witnessing the remaining waterfalls of Upper Hot Spring Canyon more satisfying though the undeveloped terrain made for a more challenging experience.
Moreover, witnessing waterfalls from their top is rarely a satisfying exercise, and this situation was no different.
As far as timing a visit to the Upper Hot Spring Canyon Waterfalls, we made our first visit in mid-January 2022 (two weeks after the passing of an intense series of atmospheric river storms).
At least given those conditions, the first main waterfall didn’t do so well, but the remaining waterfalls had pretty good flow.
Nevertheless, the creek didn’t have so much water that getting into it for a good view of that second main waterfall wasn’t as downright foolish.
Now when we returned to Upper Hot Spring Canyon a year later, we timed it for the passing of the first wave of a series of intense atmospheric river storms went through the end of 2022 with residual instability in the New Year.
In this experience, we went down to the first waterfall and saw it had much more significant flow than on our first visit, but it took a little longer with the higher flow as there were times where the water encroached on the trail.
Given this more challenging experience, knowing how hard it was going down to the second waterfall when it was drier, we opted not to go down there on our second visit when there was more water.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Trail Summary
For all intents and purposes, the hike to explore the Upper Hot Spring Canyon can be divided into two sections.
The first section starts from the Falcon Group Campground (see directions below) and ends at the first Upper Hot Spring Canyon Falls.
The distance covered here is about 1.5 miles (or 3 miles round-trip) with about 300ft net elevation loss.
The majority of this hike is on a well-used but unofficial trail so there was a noticeable lack of signage, especially around the false trails near the Falcon Group Campground.
I’d imagine that this first section would be sufficient for most day hikers, especially if the appetite for rough and rugged adventures is not there.
For the second part of the hike, it continues where the first section left off just downstream of the first Upper Hot Spring Canyon Falls.
The remaining 0.6-mile of the hike continued to follow some trails clinging to the embankments of the Hot Spring Creek, but the trail eventually disappears into the creek (or crosses it several more times) as the canyon walls close in.
This stretch contains more obstacles, including a pair of intermediate waterfalls, where it can get quite slippery on the rocky surfaces around these waterfalls.
Once at the second main waterfall, you’ll quickly see that further progress from this point forward is not feasible without technical canyoneering gear and a lot of experience.
Therefore, this is pretty much the turnaround point of the Upper Hot Spring Canyon hike, making for about a 4.2-mile round-trip hike with 425ft elevation loss in total.
Depending on your acceptable level of risk and preparation, most people may be content with just visiting the first waterfall while the more adventurous can continue further to reach the top of the second waterfall.
However, any further progress beyond that point is for the highly prepared and highly skilled (and maybe a bit crazy).
Overall, the stretch involving the first waterfall and back took maybe around 2 hours or less on the first visit, but this stretch on the second visit took around 2.5 hours given the increased waterflow and creek encroachment on the “trail”.
On the other hand, my mom and I spent a little over 3.5 hours to get to the second waterfall and back, where the difficulty score is indicative of encompassing this part of the hike.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Trail Description – The First Waterfall
From the trailhead, there was immediately a pair of trails branching out of the pullout area.
We first went left, which then traversed an open area before going in and out of open terrain interspersed with lightly dense groves of prickly vegetation.
There were a handful of false trails, which can get confusing since there was a lack of signage.
Fortunately, armed with a GPS app, we were able to figure out that most of the false trails to the left went back to the Falcon and Blue Jay Campgrounds.
At around a quarter-mile from the trailhead, the trail then started to skirt alongside Hot Spring Creek (at least that’s what I think it’s called), which started off dry since we were at the headwaters of Hot Spring Canyon.
The trail pretty much stayed to the right of the creek as we went downstream with the exception of maybe one section where the trail was eroded, slippery, and narrow (there was an alternate path to the left of the creek bypassing that section).
The further downstream we went, the more water was present in the creek (thanks to additional seasonal streams feeding the main stream).
Eventually, after about 1.5 miles from the trailhead, we then reached the first waterfall of Upper Hot Spring Canyon, which was about a 15-25ft double-drop.
Because this waterfall was exclusively fed by a singular drainage near the headwaters of the canyon, you really have to time your visit to see this one flow well.
In our experiences, on our first visit, it didn’t even last two weeks before it already went from a good flow to trickling, but it did quite well immediately after the passing of a pretty strong storm on our second visit.
Nevertheless, this waterfall is the most accessible of the ones on this excursion, and the amount of graffiti around it is kind of a testament of its accessibility (despite its unofficial nature).
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Trail Description – The Second Waterfall
Beyond the first waterfall, a side tributary stream that actually carried more water fed Hot Spring Creek, and that made the creek itself persist with flowing water (though even this can dry up with a sustained dry period).
For the first quarter-mile, we were still able to follow a trail hugging mostly the right side of the creek with a few sections where we had to cross over to the left side.
However, we then reached the first intermediate waterfall, which was about a 5-10ft small falls, where we had to cross the creek upstream of the falls before carefully making our way down the right side of the creek past the falls.
The rocks here were definitely worn smooth, and we really had to be careful about slipping and falling here even when it was dry.
Beyond this waterfall obstacle, we crossed to the left side of the creek and then descended towards another crossing where we did a bit of leap to cross a deep part of the creek.
From there, we then skirted the banks of the creek before crossing over to the left again, and this ultimately took us alongside a second intermediate waterfall, which was a sloping cascade.
Beyond this cascade, we then kept to the left of the creek before the trail eventually forced us to go to the right side of the creek as well as coinciding with the creek itself given that the canyon walls had closed in by this point.
Needless to say, this would not be the place to be under heavy rains or when the creek had been swollen given how slippery smooth the rocks are here.
Eventually after about 0.6-mile from the first waterfall (or maybe another 0.2-mile from the last of the intermediate waterfalls), we then approached the brink of the second Upper Hot Spring Canyon Falls.
As tempting as it was to continue to cling to the ledges to the right of the waterfall, the slope of that ledge tilted downwards to the dropoffs and the surface was way too slick for me to even entertain the thought of traversing.
In order to get the best view that I could get of this second waterfall, I crossed the creek one last time to get to the brink next to a tree that had some rappeling rope tied around it (evidence that it was an anchor for canyoneering down the falls).
Needless to say, this should only be attempted if the waterflow is low because of how slippery and dangerous it was here.
And that is the essence of the catch-22 of visiting these waterfalls – where high flow would make for a good experience at the first falls but a treacherous experience for the second falls (like on our second visit).
We experienced the opposite situation on our first visit where we had a disappointing experience with the first waterfall but a better experience with the second waterfall (albeit still unsatisfactory as far as I was concerned).
Upper Hot Spring Canyon Falls resides in the Cleveland National Forest near Lake Elsinore in Riverside County, California (the waterfall itself is actually across the county line in Orange County). 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.
Although Upper Hot Spring Canyon Falls is accessed from the Ortega Highway, it’s actually closer to the Lake Elsinore side of the route so I’ll only describe the directions as if we took the I-15 south.
Heading south on the I-15 from its interchange with the 91 Freeway in Corona, we drove about 14 miles to the Lake Street exit, then we turned right to go onto Lake Street.
We then followed Lake Street (becoming Grand Ave) for about 6 miles before turning right onto the Ortega Highway (Hwy 74).
Then, we followed the Ortega Highway for about 6.5 miles before the turnoff for the Long Canyon Road on the right.
After about 1.6 miles on Long Canyon Road, we then turned right onto the NF-6S05 Road, which is paved but pretty much single-lane supporting bi-directional traffic.
We then drove the remaining 1.2 miles to an unsigned trailhead parking area (with maybe room for about 5 cars) on the left just past the turnoff for the Falcon Group Campground.
Overall, this drive took us on the order of about 90 minutes (though it could be longer depending on traffic and where in LA you’re coming from).
The turnoff for Long Canyon Road is to the left of the Ortega Highway roughly 2.4 miles north of the Ortega Oaks Candy Store.
Just to give you some geographical context, Lake Elsinore was about 34 miles (under an hour drive) northeast of San Juan Capistrano, about 46 miles (an hour drive) north of Escondido, 47 miles (about an hour drive) east of Irvine, and 70 miles (about 90 minutes drive) southeast of Downtown Los Angeles.
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