Ortega Falls

Cleveland National Forest / Lake Elsinore, California, USA

About Ortega Falls


Hiking Distance: 1/4-1/2 mile round trip
Suggested Time: 30 minutes

Date first visited: 2009-02-21
Date last visited: 2019-03-17

Waterfall Latitude: 33.62671
Waterfall Longitude: -117.42819

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.

Exposed rock formations surrounding this waterfall certainly provided an attractive backdrop.

Ortega_Falls_084_03172019 - Ortega Falls in healthy flow with lots of visitors on a warm St Patrick's Day in 2019
Ortega Falls in healthy flow with lots of visitors on a warm St Patrick’s Day in 2019

While we tend to think of this part of the Southland as hot and dry, we’ve seen this place increase in popularity over the years (especially when it flows).

When we first visited Ortega Falls, it seemed like most people zoomed along the Ortega Highway (Hwy 74) without even knowing this waterfall existed!

In fact, Ortega Falls managed to elude us back in our earlier days of waterfalling.

The breakthrough came when Julie figured out from the guidebook description that we had to pay attention to a couple of key landmarks (see directions below).

Ortega_Falls_010_04032010 - Ortega Falls when it wasn't so busy when we saw it back in April 2010
Ortega Falls when it wasn’t so busy when we saw it back in April 2010

However, in recent years, zooming past the waterfall was no longer the case as the visitor numbers seemingly started approaching Eaton Canyon Falls-type levels.

I guess that’s the price of convenience since we only needed to go on a short quarter-mile scramble from the highway to reach it.

Accessing Ortega Falls

From the start of the scramble, we can actually see part of Ortega Falls if it has a healthy flow.

That provided us an indication as to whether it was worth pursuing this waterfall as well as acting as a guide to steer us closer to it as well.

Ortega_Falls_014_03172019 - Tahia and Julie approaching one of the eroded sections that we had to navigate through on the way to Ortega Falls
Tahia and Julie approaching one of the eroded sections that we had to navigate through on the way to Ortega Falls

Without such a visual clue, we could have followed one of several use paths descending steeply into the bush (quite possibly missing out on the correct path).

Anyways, we generally favored the trails that were to the right of the Forest Service sign (when it was there), because that was the direction of the main waterfall.

The use-trails to the left of the sign led us to less remarkable cascades well downstream of the main drops of Ortega Falls.

As the years have gone by, the use trails seemed to have been more eroded and undulating, especially with the increased amount of foot traffic.

Ortega_Falls_016_03172019 - Looking down at one of the lower cascades beneath the main Ortega Falls in healthy flow
Looking down at one of the lower cascades beneath the main Ortega Falls in healthy flow

However, by and large we didn’t have too much difficulty navigating through the trail despite the obstacles.

Given the high amount of human traffic as well as water gullies eroding further into the trail, we also noticed that the use trails seemed to have gotten wider so overgrowth was becoming less of a problem.

I guess that’s the trade off being the erosion from overuse versus the poison oak exposure from infrequent use.

As the sound of the water got louder, we started noticing more use trails leading steeply to the lower cascades of Ortega Falls.

Ortega_Falls_050_03172019 - Right at the main drop of Ortega Falls
Right at the main drop of Ortega Falls

Continuing on the more level footpaths, we’d eventually reach the jumble of rocks and the familiar tree fronting the main drop of Ortega Falls.

This made the scramble more-or-less about a quarter-mile, and it probably took us around 15 minutes or less to do it in each direction.

Authorities

Ortega Falls resides in the Cleveland National Forest near Lake Elsinore in Riverside County, California. Is it administered by the USDA Forest Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website or Facebook page.

Ortega_Falls_001_03172019 - Looking down at the context of Ortega Falls and the rock formations around it as seen from the pullouts along the Ortega Highway during our visit in mid-March 2019. Note that the next several photos took place on this visit
Ortega_Falls_006_03172019 - That forest service sign (about parked vehicles needing to show a forest service pass) was not there when we came back to Ortega Falls in mid-March 2019
Ortega_Falls_007_03172019 - Tahia and Julie descending from the pullouts by the Ortega Highway in pursuit of the Ortega Falls during our visit in mid-March 2019
Ortega_Falls_011_03172019 - Tahia and Julie descending one of the eroding use trails after leaving the pullout by Ortega Highway en route to Ortega Falls in March 2019
Ortega_Falls_015_03172019 - Context of our approach to the main drop of Ortega Falls in good flow on March 2019
Ortega_Falls_031_03172019 - Lots of people chilling out at Ortega Falls during our March 2019 visit
Ortega_Falls_032_03172019 - Another contextual look at a lot of people enjoying the base of Ortega Falls in mid-March 2019
Ortega_Falls_036_03172019 - Looking up towards the rock formations above the Ortega Falls as seen in mid-March 2019
Ortega_Falls_041_03172019 - There seems to be a bit of a persistent graffiti problem at Ortega Falls as seen in March 2019
Ortega_Falls_053_03172019 - People keeping cool in the plunge pool of Ortega Falls during our visit in mid-March 2019
Ortega_Falls_056_03172019 - Tahia wading in the plunge pool and creek beneath Ortega Falls in mid-March 2019
Ortega_Falls_074_03172019 - Tahia enjoying the plunge pool in front of Ortega Falls during our visit in mid-March 2019
Ortega_Falls_087_03172019 - Tahia and Julie heading back after having our fill of Ortega Falls in March 2019
Ortega_Falls_092_03172019 - Tahia and Julie continuing to scramble past the eroded parts of the trail as we were returning from Ortega Falls in mid-March 2019
Ortega_Falls_094_03172019 - Some parts of the Ortega Falls scramble required a little bit of minor bouldering during our March 2019 visit
Ortega_Falls_095_03172019 - In all the times that we've visited Ortega Falls, I never recalled seeing this bent-over tree, which we noticed during our visit in mid-March 2019
Ortega_Falls_099_03172019 - Approaching the final ascent back up to the pullout and the Ortega Highway to end our Ortega Falls visit in March 2019
Ortega_Falls_001_01102016 - Back in January 2016, we scouted out Ortega Falls, but it wasn't flowing as a result of California going through several years of drought
Ortega_Falls_005_04032010 - Approaching Ortega Falls during a visit in April 2010
Ortega_Falls_008_04032010 - Context of Julie approaching the Ortega Falls during our April 2010 visit
Ortega_Falls_021_04032010 - Context of poison oak growing behind one of the rocks that Julie sat on while experiencing the Ortega Falls back in April 2010
Ortega_Falls_033_04032010 - Focused look at the plunge pool fronting the Ortega Falls when we saw it in April 2010
Ortega_Falls_036_04032010 - Looked like there was poison oak around the Ortega Falls during our April 2010 visit
Ortega_Falls_042_04032010 - Context of people scrambling to the Ortega Falls as we headed back to the pullouts to end our April 2010 visit
Ortega_Falls_001_jx_04032010 - Context of someone climbing or rappeling off the rocks adjacent to the Ortega Falls and some hideous graffiti in April 2010
Ortega_Falls_006_02212009 - Looking towards one of the lower cascades downstream of Ortega Falls upon our visit in February 2009. The rest of the photos in this photo gallery took place on this day
Ortega_Falls_007_02212009 - The lowest cascade we could reach downstream of Ortega Falls during our February 2009 visit
Ortega_Falls_009_02212009 - Looking upstream at the jumble of rocks around the lower waterfalls downstream of the main Ortega Falls as seen in February 2009
Ortega_Falls_021_02212009 - Cascade just downstream from the main Ortega Falls with some surrounding rock context as seen during our February 2009 visit
Ortega_Falls_026_02212009 - Frontal look at the Ortega Falls when we first came here in February 2009. Notice how few people were around back then
Ortega_Falls_034_02212009 - The Ortega Falls as seen on an overcast day in February 2009
Ortega_Falls_048_02212009 - Julie checking out Ortega Falls in February 2009 when there didn't seem to be many people around
Ortega_Falls_051_02212009 - More contextual look at the Ortega Falls during our February 2009 visit

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From Lake Elsinore, we took the Ortega Highway (Hwy 74) south roughly 8 miles from its intersection with Grand Ave (at the very north end of the highway).

We then looked for where the Hwy 74 made a large sweeping S turn flanked by pretty big pullouts acting more like parking lots these days.

Ortega_Falls_002_02212009 - Back in the day, the pullouts along the Ortega Highway closest to Ortega Falls were pretty easy to miss since not many people knew about it. That said, we knew to look for this forest service sign, which was kind of a dead giveaway
Back in the day, the pullouts along the Ortega Highway closest to Ortega Falls were pretty easy to miss since not many people knew about it. That said, we knew to look for this forest service sign, which was kind of a dead giveaway

These pullouts used to be signposted with signs saying “Parked vehicles must display a forest adventure pass”.

However, we noticed on a visit in 2019, such signs appeared to have disappeared (though we’re not sure if this removal of the sign was vandalism or the forest service taking them down).

Anyways, the pullouts were between the tiny village of El Cariso and the Ortega Oaks Candy Store (the two landmarks we alluded to earlier in this write-up).

The scramble began on the west side of Hwy 74, but we had to be careful if we happened to park on the east pullout as we’d have to cross the highway on foot.

Ortega_Falls_004_03172019 - The busy pullout for Ortega Falls along the Ortega Highway as the waterfall is no longer obscure and easy-to-miss
The busy pullout for Ortega Falls along the Ortega Highway as the waterfall is no longer obscure and easy-to-miss

If we headed heading north on Hwy 74 from San Juan Capistrano, it was 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).

Sweep covering the lower waterfall before hiking up to a view of the main waterfall


Left to right sweep of the area around the falls before zooming in and sweeping down the waterfall itself then ending with a contextual look against blue skies


Bottom up sweep of the main falls from right at its plunge pool


Bottom up sweep of the falls before shifting over to someone rock climbing near the falls


Sweep from the 2nd cascade to the main falls in the distance with rock context


Sweep at the very bottom of the cascade after rather steep scramble off the Ortega Hwy

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Tagged with: cleveland national forest, lake elsinore, ortega, highway, orange county, southern california, california, waterfall, riverside, irvine, laguna, mission viejo



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Visitor Reviews of this Waterfall:

I really liked these falls! (Ortega Falls) May 17, 2010 5:19 pm by Brooke - I'm 15 years old and I went to these falls with my best friend and my 4 younger siblings and my dad. It was a ton of fun! Be warned, the hike we took to get there was crazy! My little brother was terrified he was going to die. We finally got to what we… ...Read More

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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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