San Juan Falls was one of those waterfalls that we had overlooked in all the years of waterfalling the Southland. Part of the reason why we hadn’t bothered to visit this waterfall for all these years was that we were in the midst of a severe drought (our visit happened in January 2016). But when we were returning home from a Legoland Trip, where we made a detour to visit Jack Creek Falls near Escondido before heading up through Temecula to Lake Elsinore on the way home, 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 photos on this page, San Juan Falls did have some flow, but it was still on the borderline trickling side. The waterfall itself was quite tiny as its most visible drop (shown in the photo above) 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 as well as some much tinier upper tiers. 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. But it really seemed like the allure of this excursion was really more about the rocks and the cliffs surrounding the waterfall itself.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), 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 hike 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 though the view from here left a lot to be desired due to some desert vegetation getting in the way. This was as far as Julie and Tahia were willing to go. In order to improve the views of the 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. 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. In any case, this was probably the best spot to view the falls.
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 took 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 waterfall, 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 and then get right to the pool fronting the waterfall. By the way, this scramble around the waterfall to its base can be a bit dicey, especially when the rocks are wet and slippery. It’s the very reason why I bumped up the rating to 2.5 instead of just 2.
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, which involved another dicey scramble that I wasn’t as willing to go far on. 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 a sheer vertical cliff, and that it contained that ledge where I manged to get the best photo that I could of San Juan Falls. I guess I could see why there were bolts on this cliff given its sheer verticality.
When I returned to the lookout area, I didn’t continue hiking the 2.2 mile San Juan Loop. Instead, I was content to turn back the way I came, which was roughly a mile round trip. Overall, we spent about an hour away from the car.
From the Central Ave exit from the I-15 in Lake Elsinore (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 drove west (turning left from the off-ramp) on Central Ave for 0.3 miles 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). Signs here indicate that a Forest Adventure Pass must be displayed on parked vehicles.
Overall, this drive took us about 90 minutes from Escondido. It was roughly an hour’s drive from Irvine going in the other direction on the Ortega Highway from San Juan Capistrano. Downtown Los Angeles was about 69 miles (over an hour drive) northwest of Lake Elsinore.
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