Ortega Falls

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Base of Ortega Falls
Base of Ortega Falls

Text and photography copyright 2011 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. The author does not take any responsibility for injuries sustained during hikes or walks on the routes described here. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Ortega Falls

  • Location: Santa Ana Mountains, between Lake Elsinore and San Juan Capistrano.  From I-5 in Orange County, take the Ortega Highway (74) northeast for 22 miles and park at a turnout on the left side of the road, at Riverside County mile marker 4.4  (just after the “S” curve north of the Candy Store).  From Lake Elsinore, take the Ortega Highway southwest and look for the turnout on the right at 7.4 miles (if you hit the “S” curve, you’ve come too far).  A National Forest Service Adventure Pass ($5 for a day or $30 for the year) are required.  Click here to purchase.
  • Agency:  Cleveland National Forest/Trabuco Ranger District
  • Distance: 0.5 miles
  • Elevation gain: 200 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 30 minutes
  • Best season: December- May
  • USGS topo maps: “Sitton Peak”
  • Recommended gear: Hiking Poles
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Orange County
  • More information: here and here
  • Rating: 4

Few of the commuters who use the Ortega Highway to get between the Inland Empire and Orange County have any idea that a sizable waterfall lies just off the road.  You can actually see the waterfall from the turnout – and even if you have no interest in hiking whatsoever and just happened upon this page by accident, you can still get out of your car to stretch your legs here and see it from a distance.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, of course, and the waterfall’s proximity to the road has made it the target of a depressing amount of vandalism and trash, but the cascade is still impressive, especially after rain, and there’s also some interesting geology to check out in the canyon here.

From the parking lot, look for the trail descending behind the brown “All Parked Vehicles” sign.  You head downhill (a few other trails branch off, but the main route sticks pretty close to the sie of the ridge).  Soon, you reach a rocky slope which descends down to the creek.  You can climb carefully down this stretch and see the falls from the bottom, or you can continue on higher ground via an obscure trail that goes through some bushes before arriving at a boulder which gives you nice views of the fall’s upper levels.

Overall, navigation is pretty easy here, as the falls are never far out of sight or sound, but the terrain can be tricky, and if you decide to boulder-hop, be extra careful.  When you are done watching the waterfall, head back uphill to the parking area.


    1. It might be a little tricky with a stroller – lots of rocks to lift it up and over, but if it turns out to be too tough you can watch the waterfall from the turnout at the side of the road.

  1. Great picture! Are there any hikes in the area like this that are a little longer? I’m hoping to do something closer to a 5 mile round trip if you have any suggestions

  2. Do you know if the waterfall is still running right now (7/12/11)? I’m trying to take a friend there for a day hike and would love to see the falls in action. Also, can you swim/touch the water?

    1. I haven’t been down there since January, so I’m not sure what it looks like. I seem to remember that it was pretty hard to actually get down to the water.

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