San Mateo Canyon Wilderness: Tenaja Falls Trail
Features: A rare chunk of wilderness surrounded by the southern California mega-cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, and the “Inland Empire” of Riverside County, the more than 37,000-acre San Mateo Canyon Wilderness is located in the Santa Ana Mountains and Cleveland National Forest. Its primary feature is the rugged canyon of San Mateo Creek, which flows from the crest of the Santa Ana Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The creek is the southern-most stream supporting the endangered southern steelhead in California. Its oak and sycamore woodlands, coastal chaparral, and meadows supports a diversity of wildlife. The wilderness receives relatively few visitors, except for the Tenaja Falls Trail in the spring.
A short hike half-mile walk on the Tenaja Falls Trail will take you from the trailhead to scenic Tenaja Falls. The falls can be roaring during the winter and spring, or just trickling in the summer and fall. Visitors who may wish to explore more of this little visited wilderness can proceed upstream or downstream from the falls on the Tenaja and San Mateo Canyon Trails (respectively) through groves of live oaks and sycamores and rich swaths of coastal chaparral. Avoid poison oak. The best time to visit is in the winter or spring. As the trail crosses San Mateo Creek to reach the falls, visitors should avoid crossing the creek during high flows.
Trailhead Directions: From I-15 in the community of Wildomar, take the Clinton Keith Road exit and proceed southwest five miles on Clinton Keith Road and then veer right on Tenaja Road. About 4-5 miles further, turn right on Forest Road 7S04 (which may be called Rancho California or Wildomar Road at this point, but there should be sign for the Cleveland Forest). Proceed another 5 miles past the Tenaja and Fisherman’s Camps Trailheads to the Tenaja Falls Trailhead on the left. For the most recent road and trail conditions, contact the Forest Service’s Trabuco Ranger District at (951) 736-1811.
Caution: Weather and road conditions can change in an instant. Always check with the managing agency before embarking on a trip. Always hike with a friend and carry a cell phone for emergencies. Bring plenty of drinking water, food, and clothing for changing weather conditions. Let someone know where you are going and when you intend to be back. Remember, California’s wild places are beautiful but they can also be dangerous to the unprepared and unwary. The California Wilderness Coalition assumes no liability if you intend to visit any of the wild places featured in our materials.
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