With five tiers and a total drop of about 150 feet, Tenaja Falls is the most interesting natural feature in Cleveland National Forest's San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. In late winter and spring, water coursing down the polished rock produces a kind of soothing music not widely heard in this somewhat dry southeastern corner of the Santa Ana Mountains.
To reach the trailhead for Tenaja Falls, exit Interstate 15 at Clinton Keith Road in the community of Murrieta. Proceed 6 miles south on Clinton Keith Road and 1.7 miles west on Tenaja Road to a marked intersection, where you must turn right to stay on Tenaja Road. Continue west on Tenaja Road for another 4.2 miles, then go right on the narrow, paved Cleveland Forest Road. Proceed another mile to Old Tenaja Road, then turn right and drive 4.6 miles north on new pavement to a clearing on the left (west side) of the road, where you may park your car. This particular territory requires that you have a National Forest Adventure Pass posted on your parked car.
You'll be entering a designated wilderness area, with no bikes allowed -- only foot and horse travel. Leashed dogs are welcome. On foot, head downhill to the creek and cross it on the concrete ford of an old roadbed. You might have to wade through water ankle-deep or higher. Continue north on the steadily rising former fire road, and you'll soon be treated to a fairly distant view of the falls. After 0.7 mile the road passes near the upper lip of the falls, where a few large oaks provide welcome shade.
Further close exploration of the falls requires rock-climbing skills and extreme caution. The flow of water has worn the granitic rock almost glassy smooth. Don't be lured into dangerous situations. A somewhat safer way of approaching the lower falls is to scramble over the rough-textured rocks well away from the water. You could also backtrack down the road and then scramble down the slope into the brush-choked creekbed down near the base of the falls.
A visit in April or May maximizes your chances of spotting a rattlesnake, or at least hearing its buzz-saw whine, so proceed with due deliberation and be cautious about where you are placing your feet and hands.