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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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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