About Ortega Falls
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 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.
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.
In fact, we started to notice the presence of graffiti as well as litter, and it’s getting worse every time we visit (especially since the COVID-19 pandemic).
Not only has the tagging gotten worse around the main drop of Ortega Falls itself, but we’ve also started noticing tagging going on along the scrambling paths as well.
I’m not sure what can be done about bringing the ghetto into Nature, but this place is starting to resemble a more trashed version of the Hosier Lane in Melbourne, Australia.
If anything, they probably decided that it takes too many resources to enforce behavior and clean up the mess, and the only real way to make things sustainable would be to charge visitors for their use as well as the inevitable clean-up and maintenance.
Nevertheless, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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