Highway to the Sea… The Ortega Hwy Part 1

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We live within 2 miles of one of California’s most dangerous but convenient highway routes, the 28 mile stretch of State Route 74 through the Santa Ana Mountains that connects Lake Elsinore in Riverside County to San Juan Capistrano in Orange County. Continue west for 3 more miles to reach the Pacific Ocean.

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This highway started as footpaths by the original Native American settlers and fire trails. According to historian Evaline Morrison, valley ranchers from Lake Elsinore began the process of widening the fire trails using only horse teams, slip scrapers, wheel barrows, and shovels in 1917. After the State of California granted permission for 2 counties to work together to build a road through the mountains, the official construction of the Ortega Highway began in June 1929 in San Juan Capistrano. In August 1933 the overpass was completed and dedication ceremonies were held in Lake Elsinore. (theortegahighway.com)

The namesake of the highway is Spanish explorer Don Jose Francisco Ortega who was a part of the 1769 Portola Expedition. This journey was the first attempt to enter the interior of California. Up until now only the coastline had been scouted. (en.m.wikipedia.org) Jose Francisco Ortega also helped found the San Juan Mission. (theortegahighway.com)

So, let’s turn right off of Grand Avenue and experience the Ortega Highway!

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Up we go…

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After crossing several switchbacks the Lookout Roadhouse appears on top of the ridge overlooking the mountains and lake. Open from 10:00 am – 5:00 pm, this friendly place serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No, we haven’t stopped here yet, but it is on our Lake Elsinore “bucket list” before we leave this area and travel back to Ohio for my grandson Oliver’s first birthday.

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The northernmost area of the Cleveland National Forest consists of the Santa Ana Mountains and is bisected by the Ortega Highway. President Theodore Roosevelt created the forest and named it after former president Grover Cleveland. Besides an incredible vista of boulders, the CNF consists of schrubland and plant communities along the banks of streams. The climate here is characterized by hot dry summers and mild to wet winters.  (en.m.wikipedia.org) All of my hiking posts so far, San Juan Loop, Morgan Trail, Chiquito Loop, and Bear Canyon are about trails in the CNF. Jeff and I also hiked the Bluejay Trail.

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Does anyone else remember Smoky the Bear from their youth? He is still alive and well in California!

Coming up is El Cariso Village, a very small community that is not governed by its own  local body. I’m not sure who is responsible for this unincorporated village within the CNF.

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I think it’s cool that today’s population is only 250!

El Cariso is believed to be the hideout of Juan Flores of the Flores Daniel Gang. The area of mountain meadows provided the perfect shelter for stolen horses from Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties. In 1857 this site may also have been the location of a shootout between this gang and a posse from Temecula and Los Angeles. Most of the gang was either killed or captured. (en.m.wikipedia.org)

Just beyond El Cariso is Hell’s Kitchen, a motor sports restaurant located among the hills and trees of the Ortega Highway, according to its web site.

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Owned by a Willow Springs racer, the restaurant opened and tapped its first kegs on January 31, 2004. The name came from the rough and tumble borough in New York City known for its melting pot of various cultures and now known as the area where the most firemen lost their lives in the 9/11 tragedy. Come hungry for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Open at 9:00 am on the weekend and 10:00 am during the week, the restaurant closes at 6ish everyday, and is another item on our Lake Elsinore “bucket list.” (hellskitchen-ca.com)

The sign outside of the restaurant:

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Across from Hell’s Kitchen is the Country Store known for its beef, venison, and buffalo jerky… Yet another Lake Elsinore “bucket list” item.

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