About Chiquito Falls (Lion Canyon Falls)
Chiquito Falls (or Lion Canyon Falls) was a diminutive seasonal waterfall near the Ortega Highway that was definitely off-the-beaten path.
In fact, the word chiquito literally means “little boy”, but there’s a lot of Mexican slang associated with this word to drive home the connotation of being “tiny” (I’ll let you figure out what those other associations are).
So don’t expect this 10-15ft waterfall (that doesn’t even flow for most of the year) to knock your socks off, especially since it required quite a long hike.
To give you an idea of the trail length, my GPS logs suggested that we had gone at least 9.6 miles not counting side excursions.
Nevertheless, that effort could be this waterfall hike’s main appeal in a strange way.
You see, over the years, we’ve noticed that just about every known, reasonably easy-to-access waterfall in Southern California has been either loved to death or exhibited urban blight, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.
However, if you’re going to spend that much effort on a hike where the waterfall is not guaranteed to satisfy you, then it will definitely reduce the number of people doing it (and reduce the side effects that would come with it).
Therefore, as an overall experience, I view Chiquito Falls as an alternative waterfall excursion where it’s more about the journey than the destination.
Experiencing Chiquito Falls (Lion Canyon Falls)
According to the Gaia Topo map, Chiquito Falls was more formally known as Lion Canyon Falls after the namesake canyon it was in.
We timed our visit to this waterfall less than 24 hours after the last of a series of heavy rain storms had passed in late December 2021.
Since most of California had been in a drought for much of that year as well as the end of 2020, the rains were welcome, but as you can see from the photos on this page, the falls still didn’t flow as much as I had hoped.
That kind of gives you an idea of how much you’d have to time a visit to this falls since I’d imagine Lion Canyon’s creek may not have much of a catchment to sustain a longer and more vigorous flow.
While the temporary waterfall was an attraction in and of itself, even if it wasn’t flowing, there were large boulders nearby, which also acted like fun climbing obstacles.
Although the falls may not be that tall, the ledge giving the waterfall its height was definitely high enough to make you seriously think twice about going down by jumping!
Anyways, if you attempt this hike at a warmer time of the year (i.e. spring, summer, or fall), you really have to pay attention to the conditions, because the length, elevation gain, temperature, and sun exposure will increase the risk of heat exhaustion.
That’s why in order to get the maximum enjoyment out of the Chiquito Falls Experience, I’d recommend timing this hike for winter right after a significant storm (or two) has passed.
Chiquito Falls Trail Summary
The entire hike can be broken up into two parts – the San Juan Loop Trail and the Chiquito Trail.
Together, the overall trail length is about 4.8 miles in each direction or 9.6 miles round-trip, and it took a group of three of us about 5-6 hours of hiking time.
This does not count any side excursions like San Juan Falls and a smaller waterfall further downstream (I called it “Lower San Juan Falls”).
The San Juan Loop portion of the hike makes up the first 1.1 to 1.2 miles (losing about 300ft of elevation), and we had a choice of which direction to go from the trailhead – clockwise or counterclockwise.
Personally, I’d recommend starting in a counterclockwise manner, and this is how I’m describing the trail in detail in the next sections.
That’s because this route is not as affected by the noise of the Ortega Highway, and there are two waterfalls on the way to the Chiquito Trail Junction (about 1.2 miles from the trailhead).
Conversely, the clockwise route pretty much skirts along the noisy Ortega Highway for almost the entire 1.1-mile stretch before reaching its fork with the Chiquito Trail.
Although we could have returned via the noisier side of the San Juan Loop, we ultimately treated this as an out-and-back hike to avoid that noisier side.
Then, the Chiquito Trail makes up the remaining 3.6 miles from the departure of the San Juan Loop Trail to Chiquito Falls.
During this stretch, we initially gained about 950ft of elevation to the apex of the trail before losing about 250ft to reach the target waterfall.
The highest points of the Chiquito Trail treated us with expansive panoramas encompassing distant views of the Ortega Highway as well as boulder-strewn canyons.
There were also opportunities to look more closely at the plant life as well as observing wildlife (I noticed some soaring falcons during our New Year’s Eve visit).
Trail Description – Hiking Part Of The San Juan Loop
Starting from the northern end of the San Juan Loop Trailhead, we hiked roughly 0.3-mile as the trail rounded a bend while overlooking the Ortega Highway.
After the bend, the trail descended to an overlook with a bench and a railing with a wide view of the three main drops of San Juan Falls (which I have a detailed write-up for).
In any case, I really used this falls as an indicator of whether I should bother continuing with Chiquito Falls even though they’re technically sourced by different drainages.
Continuing on the San Juan Loop Trail, it skirted the top of a ravine of San Juan Creek before rounding a bend and continued losing the remainder of its elevation over a couple of switchbacks.
On the second of the switchbacks (about 0.3-mile from the overlook at San Juan Falls or roughly 3/4-mile from the parking lot), I noticed an unsigned side trail.
This optional side trail descended a somewhat steep and overgrown 200ft path towards the bottom of a small 5-10ft waterfall on San Juan Creek that I called “Little San Juan Falls” (I wasn’t sure if it had a formal name or not).
Continuing with the San Juan Loop Trail, it eventually bottomed out alongside San Juan Creek, where we obeyed the signs and ignored a false trail before reaching the signed trail junction with the Chiquito Trail.
By this point, we had gone 1.2 miles from the trailhead, and we had the option of looping back to the trailhead or going to our right to embark on the Chiquito Trail.
Trail Description – The Chiquito Trail
Shortly after leaving the San Juan Loop Trail, the Chiquito Trail started off with a crossing of San Juan Creek.
During our visit, there was enough water in the creek to inundate our hiking boots so we made a brief detour to our left (downstream) to traverse the creek over some strategically-placed rocks.
Once past the crossing, the trail then skirted a smaller feeder stream for nearly a mile before crossing it and starting the hardest part of the hike.
In this stretch, the trail climbed nearly 1000ft over 2 miles, and the scenery noticeably changed from thicker vegetation and trees flanking the feeder stream to low-lying bushes with lots of big boulders.
In the early part of the ascent (as we climbed above the trees and vegetation in the lower reaches of the canyon), we were able to look east and south towards the Ortega Highway.
As the trail climbed even higher, we started to skirt alongside giant boulders while noticing unusual vegetation (including some bulbous venus fly trap-looking plant).
Then, the trail descended into Lion Canyon for the remaining 3/4-mile dropping about 250ft in that stretch, where we started to get distant glimpses of Chiquito Falls.
Eventually, the trail veered to the left at an unsigned junction (the other path continued the Chiquito Trail to the north) before arriving at the top of the falls.
In order to safely get to the bottom, we backtracked a short distance from the brink, where we noticed a benign trail that went around the large boulders on a narrow use-trail.
It deposited us by the stream, where we then scrambled upstream along its slightly overgrown banks to the bottom of the waterfall.
Overall, this long 3.6-mile stretch of the hike took us the better part of 2 hours, and we savored the spot for a bit before going back the way we came.
Chiquito Falls (Lion 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.
Chiquito Falls shares the same trailhead as that of San Juan Falls. While you can consult that page for driving directions, I’ll reproduce the directions here for convenience.
The Drive Via Lake Elsinore
From the Central Ave exit from the I-15 in Lake Elsinore, we drove west (turning left from the off-ramp) on Central Ave for 0.3 miles.
We then turned right onto Collier Ave (following the Hwy 74 signs).
After another 0.5-mile on Collier Ave, we then turned left onto Riverside Dr.
We followed Riverside Drive for about 3.2 miles as it bent to the left onto Grand Ave, then we turned right onto the Ortega Hwy (Hwy 74) to the right after another 0.7 miles.
We followed the twisty Ortega Highway for about 9 miles, where the San Juan Trailhead parking lot was on the right (just across from the Ortega Oaks Candy Store).
Signs here indicate that a Forest Adventure Pass must be displayed on parked vehicles, which you can buy from the Ortega Oaks Candy Store (provided they don’t run out).
The Drive Via San Juan Capistrano
Going in the opposite direction to the San Juan Loop Trailhead via San Juan Capistrano, we’d drive on the I-5 south before getting off at the Ortega Hwy 74 exit.
Then, we’d turn left and follow the Ortega Highway for nearly 20 miles through a fairly curvy yet high-speed road.
Definitely be careful driving this road because even though people go fast on it, I’d imagine it’s quite easy to get into an accident here due to the blind corners and the tendency for there to be rock falls or mud slides.
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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