San Juan Falls

Cleveland National Forest / Lake Elsinore, California, USA

About San Juan Falls


Hiking Distance: 1 mile round trip or 2.2 mile loop
Suggested Time: 1 hour

Date first visited: 2016-01-10
Date last visited: 2016-01-10

Waterfall Latitude: 33.61662
Waterfall Longitude: -117.42742

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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).

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, 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.

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
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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Authorities

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

San_Juan_Falls_005_01102016 - At the start of the trail towards San Juan Falls
San_Juan_Falls_007_01102016 - Looking back towards the parking lot from the San Juan Loop Trail
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 was 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 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
San_Juan_Falls_068_01102016 - Julie and Tahia hiking back from San Juan Falls to the trailhead
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
San_Juan_Falls_082_01102016 - Tahia returning to the trailhead for the San Juan Loop Trail

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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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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)


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

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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