About San Juan Falls
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 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, 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, but it was still borderline trickling.
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.
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 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), 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.
That said, 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, but 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.
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.
Scrambling to the base of San Juan 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 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.
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.
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.
Getting down there 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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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