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: -117.42712

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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.

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).

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

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

In fact, this waterfall 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).

However, in recent years, that wasn’t 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

Ortega_Falls_014_03172019 - One of the eroded sections that we had to navigate through on the way to Ortega Falls
One of the eroded sections that we had to navigate through on the way to Ortega Falls

From the start of the scramble, you can actually see part of Ortega Falls if it has a healthy flow. That should help guide you towards the waterfall.

Without such a visual clue, we followed one of several use paths descending steeply into the bush.

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 ones to the left of the sign led us to less remarkable cascades well downstream of the main drops of Ortega Falls.

Anyways, the use trails seemed to have been more eroded and undulating as the years went by. However, by and large we didn’t have too much difficulty navigating through the trail despite the obstacles.

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

Given the high amount of human traffic as well as water gullies eroding further into the trail, we’ve encountered some slippery sloping sections as well as boulders that we had to climb over or around.

Depending on the season and amount of rainfall, there might be the possibility of brushing up against poison oak.

However, with the increased human presence as this place continued to rise in popularity, such overgrowth obstacles are becoming fewer and less frequent.

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.


Ortega Falls resides in the Cleveland National Forest. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website or Facebook page.

Ortega_Falls_002_02212009 - The easy-to-miss pullout
Ortega_Falls_006_03172019 - That forest service sign was not there when we came back to Ortega Falls in mid-March 2019
Ortega_Falls_042_04032010 - People scrambling to the falls
Ortega_Falls_011_03172019 - Julie and Tahia descending one of the eroding use trails after leaving the pullout by Ortega Highway
Ortega_Falls_015_03172019 - Context of our approach to the main drop of Ortega Falls
Ortega_Falls_008_04032010 - Julie approaching the falls
Ortega_Falls_036_04032010 - Looked like there was poison oak around the falls
Ortega_Falls_007_02212009 - The lowest cascade we could reach
Ortega_Falls_031_03172019 - Lots of people chilling out at Ortega Falls
Ortega_Falls_041_03172019 - There seems to be a bit of a persistent graffiti problem at Ortega Falls
Ortega_Falls_021_02212009 - Cascade just downstream from the main falls
Ortega_Falls_034_02212009 - The falls as seen on an overcast day in 2009
Ortega_Falls_048_02212009 - Julie checking out Ortega Falls in 2009
Ortega_Falls_087_03172019 - Julie and Tahia heading back after having our fill of Ortega Falls
Ortega_Falls_094_03172019 - Some parts of the Ortega Falls scramble required a little bit of minor bouldering
Ortega_Falls_099_03172019 - Approaching the final ascent back up to the pullout and the Ortega Highway


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.

Ortega_Falls_004_03172019 - The busy pullout for Ortega Falls along the Ortega Highway
The busy pullout for Ortega Falls along the Ortega Highway

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).

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 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

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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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