Hidden waterfalls of Orange County

Looking up at sun-dappled water cascading some 40 feet between emerald-green canyon walls, I find it nearly impossible to believe that less than an hour ago I was stuck at a red light.

What’s weirder, given the county’s reputation as little more than a mess of tract homes and beach, is that Falls Canyon is in Orange County.

It’s practically a secret that the county is home to some of the best waterfalls in Southern California. And with the much-heralded El Niño storms petering out, this is likely this year’s best chance to witness the magic of waterfalls in our own backyard.

Sure, most of us have heard of Holy Jim Falls. Chances are you might have checked out the 18-foot fall after a rugged drive along Trabuco Creek Road and a short hike.

But for real wonder – the kind Dorothy felt when she first saw the Land of Oz – Falls Canyon and Black Star Falls can’t be beat.

Don’t expect massive amounts of water. There was supposed to be flooding by now. But fortunately for hillside residents, El Niño let us down.

Aliso Creek is running about 4 inches deep. Villa Park Dam reports less than 7 inches of seasonal rain.

So the local waterfall magic now is gentle and quiet, like a fairy’s kiss.


Adopt your Indiana Jones attitude to discover the coolest falls in the county, which also happen to bear the coolest name, Black Star. You’ll need a little swagger in your strut and the ability to crack a joke when the going gets tough to enjoy this outing.

The quick hit: A 2.5-mile hike along a canyon road followed by 1.25 miles of rugged trekking and boulder scrambling. Then you have to turn around and do it in reverse before sunset.

First, a few tips.

Carry about 4 quarts of water per person. Bring lunch and munchies. Wear a hat; slather on sunblock. My best tip: When I reach the stream, I switch to long pants, long-sleeve shirt and old garden gloves to fend off poison oak.

Plan for plenty of time and get to the trail no later than midmorning. Expect to take four to five hours, and that is if you don’t struggle with path finding. Here’s one fellow’s account on alltrails.com from two months ago:

“It took me about until 11 p.m. to reach the waterfall. … I only had a bottle of water with me and some nuts, although I did have a flashlight. I ended up getting to that dried waterfall and then tried turning around to follow my path back and got lost. That was when a helicopter came to my rescue because my brother had called the police since I didn’t show up.

“Thankfully they rescued me and I was OK.”

So, know the route. Stay on the route. It’s actually pretty simple because you follow a stream.

Don’t try climbing the cliffs. They are crumbly, dangerous and potentially lethal. A few days ago, two teens scrambled up only to send rocks the size of baseballs down about 60 feet to the exact spot I had occupied moments earlier.

Black Star Canyon Road is off Santiago Canyon Road. Park at the end before the steel gate. Hike the 2.5 miles. Stop when the dirt road makes a sharp U-turn up a series of switchbacks. There is a short path to the stream on the right.

Go down to the stream. Ignore other trails. Make your way up the stream a little more than a mile until you see the falls.

Don’t worry about which side of the stream you’re on or if you find yourself going up the middle. Hikers have stomped out multiple choices. If you think the going is too difficult, look around. You will see an easier route.

Water flow is minimal this year. The saving grace is that less water means easier going, up and down the stream.

Still, the payoff remains. Over thousands of years, water – and at least one mining outfit – has carved the towering rock into a twisting, turning labyrinth worthy of a pirate’s hideout.


Entering Falls Canyon in Silverado is a bit of a mystery. There are no trail signs, or even an official trail. The tip-off is a widening in the dirt road, some deep ruts down an embankment and a tree trunk across the stream.

Once you enter the forest, the world is peaceful and calm, with deep green foliage and spots of white wildflowers. My visit to local falls over the past few days found this waterfall to be the most robust.

To get there, drive east on Trabuco Creek Road for 3.4 miles. Check your odometer because there are no trail markings, only a triple-wide clearing on the right (south) to park at.

If you have access to a high-clearance vehicle, go for it. If not, you have two choices. Sweat the last mile of road (a minivan was navigating the bumps the other day) or park just before the first wet stream crossing. That’s where the county road ends and the national forest begins.

After the triple-wide spot, walk back down the road 40 yards. Cross where the log is. The trail continues up to the left.

You crisscross a little stream several times, but the path is clearly visible. The falls and a small pool offer a great place for a snack or lunch. It is a family-fun hike for children 7 and older. While the trail is rugged in spots, it takes only about 30 minutes to reach the falls.

If there is time, stamina and passion for more waterfalls, continue up Trabuco Creek Road and park in the large lot just past the volunteer fire station to tackle Holy Jim Falls.


To get to Holy Jim Falls, park at the end of Trabuco Creek Road and hike to the trailhead by taking the road on the left that is limited to cabin residents. Follow the signs and hike 1.5 miles on a relatively flat trail to a waterfall about 18 feet high.

Stay on the trail to avoid poison oak and getting lost. A few years ago, a young couple spent several days lost in this area. Use trekking poles to avoid slipping on rocks.


At 50 feet, Harding Falls is the county’s biggest man-made waterfall.

Park in the lot at the end of Modjeska Canyon Road and walk past the steel gate and up the well-marked Harding Truck Trail. Hike about a quarter mile until you see a wide trail to the left, off the main fire road. Walk down to the wide, flat riverbed. Head left until you see the drop-off that marks the top of the dam.

One more tip: Be extra careful to avoid getting too close to what can be a slippery edge.

One more tip: Turn around early if you need to. This is about fun.

Contact the writer: dwhiting@ocregister.com

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