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 prior to our first visit in January 2016.
It was primarily a waterfall that we only considered visiting if it happened to be conveniently on the way time permitting.
By the way, that first visit happened to occur after a series of saturation storms so we figured that this waterfall had a chance of being revived.
However, the falls still trickled, which led me to wonder if the falls would ever flow under more “normal” circumstances.
Fast forward another 5 years after another series of saturation storms at the end of December 2021, and our second visit was met with a little better flow than on our first visit (though it still left us underwhelmed).
A litle over 2 years later, the Southland experienced a series of atmospheric river storms, and finally we got to witness this waterfall flowing like we had never seen before!
I met a local who said that he remembered a time when this waterfall would flow like this for a period of about 5 years before it then went primarily dry for a period of about 20 years.
So could San Juan Falls be in a multi-year pattern where it doesn’t flow for several years before going through a few years of reliable flow and then returning to a multi-year dry state again?
That’s hard to say, but time will tell whether we’re entering a prolonged wet climate pattern in the next few years (or not).
In any case, San Juan Falls wasn’t big, and 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, and we also noticed some tinier upper tiers further upstream (which may add to the modest height estimate to around 40-50ft or so).
In any case, it seemed like the allure of this excursion was really more about the rocks and the cliffs surrounding the waterfall as opposed to the falls 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).
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.
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.
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 to keep the path from being totally overgrown.
The degree of usage of this informal path was 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
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, 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 (you can forget about doing this if the creek is flowing like it did on our March 2023 visit).
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.
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
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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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