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Top 10 Questions About the Mysterious Black Star Canyon

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Photo by David Lockeretz of Nobody Hikes in L.A.
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By David Lockeretz of Nobody Hikes in L.A. / Special to LAistIn northeast Orange County, barely ten miles from Disneyland as the crow flies, is a remote and rugged canyon called Black Star. Deep in the canyon, a large, multi-level waterfall has captured the imagination of Southern California hikers.

As popular as it is, Black Star Canyon Falls has a certain air of mystery about it. Some have described it as a fairly routine, moderately challenging hike; others have told horror stories of rampant poison oak in the canyon and violent drifters who hang out here to prey on hikers. But just what exactly is Black Star Canyon Falls really about? Based on the author’s experience, here are the ten most frequently asked questions about Black Star Canyon Falls.

Does the waterfall actually exist?

Don’t laugh; some have expressed a belief that Black Star Canyon Waterfall is a hoax. The waterfall is certainly real.

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Why does it look the way it does?

One reason that’s led people to think the waterfall is a hoax is its unusual appearance. The water goes through a small tunnel that is, in fact manmade; it’s an old mine shaft that was cut into the rocks.

Is it true that Black Star Canyon Falls is on land owned by crazy residents that will shoot first and ask questions later?

Black Star Canyon Falls itself is in the Cleveland National Forest. The road that leads to the canyon is surrounded by private land, but the public is allowed to travel it. There have been stories circulating about altercations between hikers, mountain bikers and land owners, but if one just goes about their business and respects the privacy of the residents, not making noise or doing other distracting activities, any conflict is extremely unlikely.

Is it true that gangs of criminals hang out here at night?

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Possibly, but such stories are hard to verify. In general, you should avoid all hiking trails at night unless you are adequately experienced and equipped, and hiking alone at night is not advisable.

What about stories of paranormal activity in and around the canyon?

Got me on that one.

Do you need a National Forest Service adventure pass to park here?

There is no sign at the trailhead indicating that one needs a pass. The lower part of Black Star Canyon is operated by the Irvine Land Conservancy, which allows free parking with no special permits at all of their public trailheads, such as this one. Because the waterfall itself is in the Cleveland National Forest, many assume that one needs the pass for parking here. If you have one, you might want to display it just to be safe; if you don’t, you might want to consider purchasing one ($5 per day or $30 for the year). Many other hikes in the area - such as popular Holy Jim Falls - do require the pass, and it’s also good in the Angeles, Los Padres and San Bernardino National Forests.

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Is the poison oak as bad as everyone says?

Yes—there’s tons of it in the canyon, so be careful. Wear long sleeves and long pants, and perhaps even work gloves. Coat yourself with TECNU or some other kind of poison oak treatment (as you would use sunblock when going to the beach) before and after the hike. And remember: leaves of three, let them be!

What’s the best time of year to see the waterfall?

Any time after a recent rain. “Afoot and Afield in Orange County” suggests November to May.

How hard is the hike, and how long does it take?

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The easy part—the 2.5 mile walk on the dirt road - shouldn’t be much of a problem, but the scramble through the canyon will probably challenge even veterans, especially with all of the poison oak. There are a few tricky rock climbs that don’t require technical equipment, but are still potentially dangerous and should not be taken lightly. Navigation isn’t too difficult; at 2.5 miles (shortly after the third creek crossing) the road makes a hairpin turn to the left, and it’s here that you look for the path descending to the canyon. When you arrive at the canyon bottom, turn left and head upstream. (Make sure you remember this spot on the way back). Half a mile into the canyon, another fork comes in from the right; you must take the left route to reach the waterfall.

Even experienced hikers should allow four hours to complete the trip: an hour each way on the dirt road from the trailhead to the canyon entrance, and an hour each way to scramble up the 0.8 miles of rocks and stream in the actual canyon itself. For some, it may take as much as six hours.

Is it worth it?

This is a matter of opinion, of course, but despite its difficulty, the hike to Black Star Canyon Falls is one of Orange County’s most popular. Those who know the risks and challenges, and prepare accordingly, and are fortunate to see the waterfall at its fullest, are glad they made the effort.