Ortega Falls is said to be a 35ft waterfall though in addition to its main drop near its top, it also contains a series of cascades further downstream.
The falls is set against a backdrop of exposed rock formations typical and indicative of how dry this part of the Southland normally is. Thus, it’s intriguing to find a waterfall like this where we wouldn’t expect to find one. I guess most folks on the Ortega Highway (Hwy 74) zoom by this waterfall without even knowing it’s there!
In fact, this waterfall managed to elude us back in our earlier days of waterfalling. Apparently, we didn’t follow directions too well because we almost gave up on this one the second time around. It wasn’t until Julie figured out from the guidebook description that there were a couple of key landmarks we should’ve paid attention to (see directions below).
In any case, once we found the correct pullout, we then scrambled towards the falls to the right of the Forest Service sign. Although the trail itself was unmarked and more of a trail of use, we were able to follow the somewhat obvious trail down to the base of the waterfall. There might be a couple of spots of rock scrambling while some caution was warranted to not touch some of the poison oak we saw growing here, but all in all, it wasn’t too bad of a 1/4-mile scramble.
The first time we came here, we actually took a steep path to the left of the sign, which ultimately took us to the bottom of the cascades downstream of the main falls. While trying to scramble up to the main falls along the cascades was a bit dicey (we had to backtrack to the pullout before we took the correct path), it did make us realize that there was a little more to Ortega Falls than the main waterfall itself.
As obscure as this waterfall seemed to us, it was apparently pretty popular. We almost always saw people at the falls at one time or another. I don’t think we’ve ever had a moment when we had the falls to ourselves. On one particular visit, we saw some abseilers (rappelers) climbing down the rock faces adjacent to the main waterfall.
From Lake Elsinore, take the Ortega Highway (Hwy 74) south roughly 8 miles from its intersection with Grand Ave (at the very north end of the highway). Look for where the Hwy 74 makes a large sweeping S turn flanked by signposted pullouts (signposts on each pullout say “Parked vehicles must display a forest adventure pass”). These pullouts are between the tiny village of El Cariso and the Ortega Oaks Candy Store.
The scramble begins on the west side of Hwy 74 (be careful if you’re parked on the east pullout as you’ll have to cross the highway on foot).
If you’re heading north on Hwy 74 from San Juan Capistrano, it’s about 20 miles from its exit off the I-5.
Overall, the drive from downtown Los Angeles to Lake Elsinore would be 74 miles (90 minutes) via the I-15. Similarly, the drive south from downtown Los Angeles to San Juan Capistrano would be 54 miles (a little under 90 minutes).
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