San Juan Falls

Cleveland National Forest / Lake Elsinore, California, USA

About San Juan Falls


Hiking Distance: 0.6 miles round trip or 2.2 mile loop
Suggested Time: 30-45 minutes; scramble (to base)

Date first visited: 2016-01-10
Date last visited: 2021-12-31

Waterfall Latitude: 33.61662
Waterfall Longitude: -117.42742

Waterfall Safety and Common Sense

San Juan Falls was one of those waterfalls that we had overlooked in all our years of waterfalling the Southland.

Part of the reason why we hadn’t bothered to visit this waterfall for all this time was that we were in the midst of a severe drought (our first visit happened in January 2016).

San_Juan_Falls_030_01102016 - San Juan Falls barely trickling despite a few days of saturation rains
San Juan Falls barely trickling despite a few days of saturation rains

But when we were returning home from a Legoland Trip, where we made a detour to visit Jack Creek Falls near Escondido, we figured we mind as well seize the opportunity to see what this waterfall along the Ortega Highway (nearby Ortega Falls) was all about.

After all, we had just come off from a series of saturation storms so we figured this waterfall had a chance of being revived.

But as you can see from the photo above, San Juan Falls did have some flow, and it was still borderline trickling.

However, when we came back the next day after the passing of the last of the saturation storms at the end of December 2021, the falls did a little better than on our first visit but not by much.

Chiquito_Falls_449_12312021 - Direct look at the lower two drops of San Juan Falls doing a little better on our New Year's Eve visit at the end of 2021 than on our first visit in January 2016
Direct look at the lower two drops of San Juan Falls doing a little better on our New Year’s Eve visit at the end of 2021 than on our first visit in January 2016

The waterfall itself was quite tiny as its most visible drop was probably on the order of 15-20ft tall.

It turned out that there was a lower tier that was similarly sized but much harder to see.

We also noticed some much tinier upper tiers of San Juan Falls further upstream.

So the overall height of this waterfall if you count those other tiers could very well be on the order of 40-50ft or so.

San_Juan_Falls_046_01102016 - Looking up at part of the San Juan Falls from right in front of one of its drops, which shows that it was indeed barely trickling during our first visit in January 2016
Looking up at part of the San Juan Falls from right in front of one of its drops, which shows that it was indeed barely trickling during our first visit in January 2016

In any case, it really seemed like the allure of this excursion was really more about the rocks and the cliffs surrounding the waterfall itself.

Hiking Directly To San Juan Falls

We started our hike from the San Juan Trailhead (see directions below), which was right across the road from the Ortega Oaks Candy Store.

From the trailhead signage on the north side of the parking lot (towards the back of the lot on the right hand side as we entered).

This was actually in the direction of the San Juan Loop Trail going in a counterclockwise direction (more on the overall loop, which I’ll discuss later).

San_Juan_Falls_013_01102016 - Hiking along the trail to San Juan Falls where the Ortega Highway can be both seen and heard down below
Hiking along the trail to San Juan Falls where the Ortega Highway can be both seen and heard down below

We then followed a pretty straightforward trail that was well within earshot of the noisy Ortega Highway.

In fact, we were able to see and appreciate just how busy the Ortega Highway was (especially with motorcycles) during the first 1/4-mile or so of the San Juan Loop Trail as that highway was practically beneath us.

Then, the trail veered more inland away from the road and over a few rocky sections as it made its gradual descent towards the ravine containing the San Juan Falls.

Eventually, the trail reached a junction near some railings and a bench, where we were able to get our first glimpses of the most visible part of the San Juan Falls.

San_Juan_Falls_020_01102016 - Looking down at the ravine containing San Juan Creek and ultimately the elusive San Juan Falls just as the San Juan Loop veered away from the Ortega Highway
Looking down at the ravine containing San Juan Creek and ultimately the elusive San Juan Falls just as the San Juan Loop veered away from the Ortega Highway

That said, the view from here left a lot to be desired due to some desert vegetation getting in the way, but if San Juan Creek had better flow, then it would be a suitable place to see all three of the waterfall’s tiers.

This was as far as Julie and Tahia were willing to go in terms of experiencing this waterfall.

However, I knew that in order to improve the views of the San Juan Falls, some fairly risky off-trail scrambling was required.

The first opportunity to improve the view was actually on a trail of use just on the other side of the left side of the railings.

San_Juan_Falls_026_01102016 - This was the lookout area right above San Juan Falls
This was the lookout area right above San Juan Falls

This trail led down to a precarious ledge yielding the view of San Juan Falls that you see in the photo at the top of this page.

It seemed like this “trail” was a climbers trail because I noticed bolts on the sheer cliff separating me and the watefall down below.

The trail was a little steep and overgrown, but it had enough usage probably due in part to it being frequently used by climbers as well as rappelers.

Nevertheless, in my mind, this precarious ledge above the bolts was probably the best spot to view San Juan Falls.

Optional Scrambling to the Base of San Juan Falls

San_Juan_Falls_051_01102016 - Looking upstream from the San Juan Falls towards a wide pool and more rocky terrain where I'd imagine more of its upper cascades would be
Looking upstream from the San Juan Falls towards a wide pool and more rocky terrain where I’d imagine more of its upper cascades would be

The second opportunity to improve the San Juan Falls experience involved getting right to the base of the waterfall’s main tier.

Returning back to the lookout area, I then followed an obvious trail on the right side of the railings, which led down to the creek well upstream of the San Juan Falls.

From there, it was a slippery stream scramble towards the top of the waterfall.

Once near the San Juan Falls, I saw that there was a somewhat slippery and dicey short scramble around the south bank of the creek to get around the main drop of the falls.

San_Juan_Falls_047_01102016 - Looking down at the lower drop of the San Juan Falls and another steep dicey scramble that would be required to make it down there
Looking down at the lower drop of the San Juan Falls and another steep dicey scramble that would be required to make it down there

The dicey scramble ultimately got me right to the pool fronting the waterfall.

By the way, this scramble could be especially dicey when the rocks are wet and slippery, and it’s the very reason why I would bump up the difficulty rating to 2.5 instead of just 1.5 had this scramble been necessary to get the best viewing experience.

Fortunately, as described earlier, this scramble wasn’t that necessary, and I’d actually argue against doing it unless you know what you’re doing.

Anyways, once I got to the base of the main tier of San Juan Falls, that was when I realized that there was a lower tier further below.

San_Juan_Falls_041_01102016 - Looking up at someone doing a real steep scramble to get back up from the San Juan Falls. Clearly, they've been here before and knew they could do this, but I didn't dare try this
Looking up at someone doing a real steep scramble to get back up from the San Juan Falls. Clearly, they’ve been here before and knew they could do this, but I didn’t dare try this

Getting down there involved another dicey scramble that I wasn’t as willing to go far on.

From this vantage point, this lower tier was also not as visible nor as photogenic as the upper tier so this was my turnaround point.

When I looked around and observed all the white rocks surrounding me, I realized that the cliff next to me was the same vertical cliff where I managed to get my best photo of San Juan Falls at its top.

I guess I could see why there were bolts on this cliff given its sheer verticality.

Optional Completion Of The San Juan Loop

Chiquito_Falls_433_12312021 - Looking back at the context of the ravine carved out by San Juan Creek just downstream from the San Juan Falls
Looking back at the context of the ravine carved out by San Juan Creek just downstream from the San Juan Falls

It’s possible to visit San Juan Falls by doing the San Juan Loop Trail in the opposite direction as described above.

However, the majority of the hike going in the clockwise direction skirted the noisy Ortegy Highway for an even longer stretch than the counterclockwise direction.

Then, we’d have to do almost the entire 2.2-mile loop (maybe a little under 2 miles) before circling back to the target waterfall.

In fact, the trailhead parking area for the San Juan Loop Trail gets pretty busy because of this entire loop.

Chiquito_Falls_130_12312021 - If doing the San Juan Loop in a clockwise direction, then this is the signed trail junction where the Chiquito Trail branches off to the left while the continuation of the San Juan Loop proceeds to the right
If doing the San Juan Loop in a clockwise direction, then this is the signed trail junction where the Chiquito Trail branches off to the left while the continuation of the San Juan Loop proceeds to the right

That said, I personally haven’t done the entire loop largely because of that not-so-peaceful stretch around the south end of the San Juan Loop Trail while also needing to work harder to reach the San Juan Falls.

So what’s the appeal?

Well, the far (northwestern) end of the San Juan Loop Trail actually skirted by the San Juan Creek while offering an option for an even longer hike on the Chiquito Trail (more on that in a different write-up).

Between the Chiquito Trail junction and the San Juan Falls, there was an unsigned spur trail (at the end of one of the switchbacks on the San Juan Loop Trail) descending steeply for about 180ft to an intimate waterfall that I’m calling the “Lower San Juan Falls”.

Chiquito_Falls_020_iPhone_12312021 - This is the intimate 'Lower San Juan Falls' at the bottom of a fairly steep, overgrown, and slippery 180ft scramble beneath one of the switchbacks of the San Juan Loop Trail
This is the intimate ‘Lower San Juan Falls’ at the bottom of a fairly steep, overgrown, and slippery 180ft scramble beneath one of the switchbacks of the San Juan Loop Trail

This 5-10ft waterfall was flowing during our December 2021 visit, and we pretty much had it all alone as the majority of hikers on the San Juan Loop Trail seem to miss this scramble (even though the falls is within earshot provided it’s flowing).

If you’re only interested in doing the waterfalls on San Juan Creek and not so much on doing the entire loop, then you can do an out-and-back hike where the “Lower San Juan Falls” is the turnaround point.

This would make the out-and-back hike about 3/4-mile or 1.5 miles round trip.

However, if you’re only interested in visiting the main San Juan Falls, then this entire excursion could be as little as about 0.5 to 0.6 miles round-trip.

Chiquito_Falls_492_12312021 - When doing the San Juan Loop Trail directly to San Juan Falls and back, this is the view back at the trailhead ending this short hike
When doing the San Juan Loop Trail directly to San Juan Falls and back, this is the view back at the trailhead ending this short hike

The hiking difficulty scoring reflects the shorter excursion to just the main San Juan Falls, which should take around 30 minutes, but you could easily spend more time here scrambling around the creek (safely, that is).

For the “Lower San Juan Falls”, I’d recommend spending at around two hours for the entire experience of both waterfalls and returning to the trailhead without doing the whole loop.

Authorities

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

Chiquito_Falls_001_12312021 - Looking across the entrance to the San Juan Loop Trailhead towards the Ortega Oaks Candy Store, where we bought our Adventure Pass to park legally on Forest Service Lands. This photo and the next several shots were taken on our late December 2021 visit
Chiquito_Falls_003_12312021 - Looking across the parking lot towards a pit toilet restroom facility in case it needs to be used before the hike
Chiquito_Falls_008_12312021 - Starting on the San Juan Loop Trail in a counterclockwise direction, which was the shortest route to San Juan Falls
Chiquito_Falls_020_12312021 - Initially on the San Juan Loop Trail as it briefly went by some trees and shrubs with the Ortega Highway audible but not visible yet
Chiquito_Falls_023_12312021 - Skirting around a bend as the San Juan Loop Trail overlooks the Ortega Highway as well as some knobs in the distance (which I'd imagine was closer to Ortega Falls)
Chiquito_Falls_027_12312021 - Context of the San Juan Loop Trail and the Ortega Highway down below to the right
Chiquito_Falls_032_12312021 - Contextual look towards the lookout area and the vicinity of San Juan Falls. I believe this canyon we're looking at is called Decker Canyon even though it was drained by San Juan Creek
Chiquito_Falls_034_12312021 - The group descending towards San Juan Falls during our late December 2021 visit
Chiquito_Falls_037_12312021 - Approaching the lookout above San Juan Falls during our late December 2021 visit
Chiquito_Falls_038_12312021 - Our first (sanctioned) look down at the diminutive San Juan Falls from the lookout in late December 2021
Chiquito_Falls_040_12312021 - This was the broad view of the three main tiers of San Juan Falls (when flowing nicely) as seen on our late December 2021 visit
Chiquito_Falls_046_12312021 - Contextual look down at the main drop of San Juan Falls from one of the ledges on the climber's route behind the lookout railing as seen on our late December 2021 visit
Chiquito_Falls_047_12312021 - Morning view of the lower two drops of San Juan Falls as seen from the bolted ledge during our late December 2021 visit
Chiquito_Falls_052_12312021 - Looking up at the somewhat steep and overgrown climber's route leading down to perhaps the most direct view of San Juan Falls
Chiquito_Falls_011_iPhone_12312021 - Portrait view of the lower two drops of San Juan Falls as seen on our late December 2021 visit
Chiquito_Falls_060_12312021 - Direct look at the San Juan Falls' main drop from the bolted ledge on our late December 2021 visit
Chiquito_Falls_074_12312021 - Looking downstream over the brink of San Juan Falls with the lookout area to the topleft
Chiquito_Falls_076_12312021 - Looking upstream from the brink of the San Juan Falls towards more rocky formations flanking San Juan Creek as seen in late December 2021
Chiquito_Falls_015_iPhone_12312021 - Looking down at the context of San Juan Falls and the surrounding rocky terrain during our late December 2021 visit
Chiquito_Falls_082_12312021 - Continuing the hike beyond San Juan Falls
Chiquito_Falls_088_12312021 - The San Juan Loop Trail doing a switchback as we can see Long Canyon in the distance while the trail itself was descending towards the level of San Juan Creek
Chiquito_Falls_098_12312021 - A 10-year-old kid providing a sense of scale of this intimate waterfall on San Juan Creek that I'm dubbing the 'Lower San Juan Falls'
Chiquito_Falls_092_12312021 - Broad look at the fairly hard-to-see 'Lower San Juan Falls' probably due to that tree growing in front of it
Chiquito_Falls_100_12312021 - After having our fill of the 'Lower San Juan Falls', we had to scramble back up to the San Juan Loop Trail
Chiquito_Falls_101_12312021 - The rocks on this unsanctioned side trail to the 'Lower San Juan Falls' were slippery during our late December 2021 visit
Chiquito_Falls_102_12312021 - Looking up at more climbing that we had to do to get out of the ravine containing the 'Lower San Juan Falls'
Chiquito_Falls_103_12312021 - Continuing our scramble out of the ravine containing the 'Lower San Juan Falls'
Chiquito_Falls_106_12312021 - Still ascending out of the ravine after having had our fill of 'Lower San Juan Falls'
Chiquito_Falls_424_12312021 - Near the confluence of Long Canyon and Decker Canyon was where the 'Lower San Juan Falls' could be found. It involved an unsanctioned scramble that started from the end of one of the switchbacks
Chiquito_Falls_425_12312021 - Looking up at one of the switchbacks on the San Juan Loop Trail. This switchback happened to be the one where we could access the 'Lower San Juan Falls'
Chiquito_Falls_428_12312021 - Following the San Juan Loop Trail en route to the main San Juan Falls again
Chiquito_Falls_438_12312021 - Looking at the context of the San Juan Loop Trail and the ravine to the left containing the San Juan Falls
Chiquito_Falls_444_12312021 - Close-up look at a climbing bolt fronting the San Juan Falls
Chiquito_Falls_459_12312021 - Afternoon view of the San Juan Falls where we got a bit better lighting than earlier in the morning during our December 2021 visit
Chiquito_Falls_465_12312021 - Another look down at the lower two tiers of San Juan Falls as seen in the afternoon of late December 2021 on New Year's Eve
Chiquito_Falls_480_12312021 - Sign indicating the San Juan Loop Trail as we were returning to the trailhead from San Juan Falls
Chiquito_Falls_485_12312021 - It was a short descent to get down to the San Juan Falls so on the return, it was a similar ascent in the other direction
Chiquito_Falls_486_12312021 - Continuing to climb and round a bend to return to the San Juan Loop Trailhead parking lot after having our fill of San Juan Falls
Chiquito_Falls_491_12312021 - Going by this large tree whose bark might have been burned by fire at some point since it was pretty black as seen in late December 2021
San_Juan_Falls_005_01102016 - At the start of the trail towards San Juan Falls during our early January 2016 visit
San_Juan_Falls_007_01102016 - Looking back towards the parking lot from the San Juan Loop Trail as seen in early January 2016
San_Juan_Falls_016_01102016 - The beginning of the trail to San Juan Falls was very close to the Ortega Highway, where we could appreciate just how busy the road was given the amount of noise
San_Juan_Falls_018_01102016 - Parts of the trail to San Juan Falls along the San Juan Loop were rocky and uneven
San_Juan_Falls_054_01102016 - This railing marked the overlook of San Juan Falls, but to the right side was a trail leading down to the top of the waterfall, and to the left side was an informal trail-of-use to a ledge with the best view of the falls
San_Juan_Falls_035_01102016 - Focused on San Juan Falls with some water as seen in early January 2016 from what I thought was the best viewpoint
San_Juan_Falls_037_01102016 - During the scramble below the official lookout, I got this partial view of San Juan Falls
San_Juan_Falls_044_01102016 - Looking downstream from the base of San Juan Falls, which gives you an idea of how steep and dicey the scrambling further downstream would be
San_Juan_Falls_058_01102016 - Tahia navigating the somewhat tricky terrain on the San Juan Loop Trail as we headed back from the San Juan Falls back to the trailhead to end off our January 2016 visit
San_Juan_Falls_068_01102016 - Julie and Tahia hiking back from San Juan Falls to the trailhead to cap off our January 2016 visit
San_Juan_Falls_070_01102016 - Julie and Tahia navigating through some of the rocky sections of the San Juan Loop Trail after having had our fill of the San Juan Falls in early January 2016
San_Juan_Falls_082_01102016 - Tahia returning to the trailhead for the San Juan Loop Trail


There are a couple of ways to reach the San Juan Loop Trailhead – one via Lake Elsinore and another via San Juan Capistrano.

The Drive Via Lake Elsinore

From the Central Ave exit from the I-15 in Lake Elsinore, we drove west (turning left from the off-ramp) on Central Ave for 0.3 miles.

San_Juan_Falls_004_01102016 - Context of the parking lot at the San Juan Falls Trailhead with the Ortega Oaks Candy Store in the background across the street
Context of the parking lot at the San Juan Falls Trailhead with the Ortega Oaks Candy Store in the background across the street

Lake Elsinore was about 48 miles north of the I-15/Hwy 78 junction in Escondido and 20 miles south of the I-15/91 Fwy junction in Corona.

We then turned right onto Collier Ave (following the Hwy 74 signs).

After another 0.5-mile on Collier Ave, we then turned left onto Riverside Dr.

We followed Riverside Drive for about 3.2 miles as it bent to the left onto Grand Ave, then we turned right onto the Ortega Hwy (Hwy 74) to the right after another 0.7 miles.

We followed the twisty Ortega Highway for about 9 miles, where the San Juan Trailhead parking lot was on the right (just across from the Ortega Oaks Candy Store).

San_Juan_Falls_002_01102016 - Looking back across the street from the trailhead parking towards the Ortega Oaks Candy Store
Looking back across the street from the trailhead parking towards the Ortega Oaks Candy Store

Signs here indicate that a Forest Adventure Pass must be displayed on parked vehicles, which you can buy from the Ortega Oaks Candy Store (provided they don’t run out).

The Drive Via San Juan Capistrano

Going in the opposite direction to the San Juan Loop Trailhead via San Juan Capistrano, we’d drive on the I-5 south before getting off at the Ortega Hwy 74 exit.

Then, we’d turn left and follow the Ortega Highway for nearly 20 miles through a fairly curvy yet high-speed road.

Definitely be careful driving this road because even though people go fast on it, I’d imagine it’s quite easy to get into an accident here due to the blind corners and the tendency for there to be rock falls or mud slides.

Chiquito_Falls_005_12312021 - One thing I noticed about the San Juan Loop Trailhead was that there was this water pump that you can actually use to get some water before setting out.  It can get quite hot and sunny here, especially in the drier months of late spring through fall
One thing I noticed about the San Juan Loop Trailhead was that there was this water pump that you can actually use to get some water before setting out. It can get quite hot and sunny here, especially in the drier months of late spring through fall

Just to give you some geographical context, Lake Elsinore was about 34 miles (under an hour drive) northeast of San Juan Capistrano, about 46 miles (an hour drive) north of Escondido, 47 miles (about an hour drive) east of Irvine, and 70 miles (about 90 minutes drive) southeast of Downtown Los Angeles.

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Afternoon sweep around the San Juan Falls from the bolts as seen in New Year's Eve 2021


Comprehensive sweep around the intimate Lower San Juan Falls


Back and forth sweep of San Juan Creek upstream of the falls as seen in New Year's Eve 2021


Comprehensive sweep of the 3 tiers of San Juan Falls from a couple of different spots in the morning


Sweep from the top of a cliff looking down at the ravine and the upper tier of the falls (shot from just below the sanctioned trail) as seen in January 2016


360 degree sweep from the bottom of the hidden lower tier (barely visible) then climbing up to the base of the upper tier and doing another 360 degree sweep

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



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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of the award-winning 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.
Read More About Johnny | A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls.