El Cariso Nature Trail

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Firefighter memorial on the El Cariso Trail
Abandoned mine on the El Cariso Trail

El Cariso Nature Trail

  • Location: Santa Ana Mountains in eastern Orange County.  From I-5 in San Jaun Capistrano, take highway 74 north for 23 miles and park at the El Cariso Fire Station on the right side of the highway.  From Grand Avenue in Lake Elsinore, take the highway southwest for 5.4 miles and the station will be on your left.  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: 1.4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 150 feet
  • Suggested time: 45 minutes
  • Difficulty rating: G
  • Best season: Year-round
  • USGS topo map: “Alberhill”
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Orange County
  • More information: CNF site info here; trip report here
  • Rating: 5

For such a short hike, the El Cariso Nature Trail packs in a great variety of scenery.  It’s also a good year-round hike, unlike many others in the Santa Anas, which become notoriously hot during the summer.  The only downside is the noise from nearby highway 74 and Main Divide Road, but this is nevertheless a very enjoyable little excursion.

From the parking lot, head up the stairs and begin your climb on the self-guided nature trail.  Interpretive signs will describe the plant and tree life you are seeing, which include manzanitas, Coulter pines and more.  As you climb, you get nice, wide-ranging views of the Los Pinos complex to the north, Decker Canyon to the south and the southern Santa Anas into San Diego County in the east.  Over your shoulder, you can see San Gorgoino Mountain on clear days.

After climbing, the trail levels out, passes by an abandoned mine shaft and crosses Main Divide Road.  You make a short loop through a pine-shaded area and reach a second street crossing.  Here, you can take a short detour to the right to visit a fire fighters’ memorial.

After crossing Main Divide a second time, the trail makes its way back to the far end of the parking lot.  Yes, it’s short, but for veteran hikers, it’s a good way to beat the the summer heat without having to climb too high into the mountains, and for people who drive the Ortega Highway without ever stopping, it’s a nice taste of some of the scenery this area offers, and it might inspire those who haven’t hiked to get out and start finding more trails.

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.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

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