In the Loop

image In the Cleveland National Forest

Today we hit the trail and revisit one of our favorite hikes from last year, the San Juan Loop off the Ortega Highway. It’s not a long trail, only 2.2 miles, but it’s a scenic circle that overlooks the Highway, descends into a green valley, and then winds back up again.

We begin ascending a rocky terrain with views of the surrounding mountains.

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A few steps further, the Ortega Highway comes into view.

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And it gets tricky navigating the rocks.

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Notice the mountain bike tire tracks in the picture above. Two guys blow by us as we scurry to step aside and find some footing on the rocks. Correction… one biker seamlessly flies down the trail, while the other hesitates, bounces along and keeps saying, “Holy Cow!”

Up we go as the path narrows. We try to hug the mountain to our left while looking straight down the side of the mountain to our right. Below, the sun reflects the sky, coloring  a pool of water bright blue.

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Water and rocks? Jeff stops at a viewpoint railing to throw rocks into the water. (He claims he is determining how deep the pools are!)

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What goes up quickly begins to descend gradually. I stop and capture the beauty of the present moment.

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Then the terrain becomes less rugged, more lush, and greener. We walk under the canopy of large trees as we approach the valley.

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The sun highlights a rocky cliff above.

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As we loop our way back, the Ortega Highway peeks through the trees.

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After crossing through a campground, closed for the season, I am captivated by some rock formations

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and the red berries on this tree.

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It’s amazing how much more I noticed on the hike this time. But the best part is that Jeff’s bum leg didn’t give out on him, bolstering his confidence and reassuring him that he is healing.

Highway to the Sea… The Ortega Hwy Part 3

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Unfortunately deadly accidents are also a part of the Ortega Highway experience.

 

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We parked in traffic for an hour while a crash was cleaned up. Just last Sunday the highway was closed off of Grand Avenue because a car crossed over the center line and killed the driver of an SUV. The speed limit is 55mph except where posted and most of the route is separated by double yellow lines. There are turn offs every mile or so for slower moving vehicles. But these do not deter motorcyclists and impatient drivers to push the limits.

The scenery starts flattening out to eye level after leaving the Cleveland National Forest and passing the fire station in Orange County.

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Today we are turning around at the traffic light for the Nichols Institute which is part of Quest Diagnostics.

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What lies beyond is Casper State Park and the Rancho Mission Viejo area. The Ortega Highway ends at its intersection with I-5 in San Juan Capistrano.

And now we head back to Lake Elsinore.

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Not far from the road on the left, you can see part of the trail of the San Juan Loop. You guessed it, we are approaching the Ortega Oaks Candy Store!

As we continue on our return trip, we pull into a turn out and take pictures of some of the original fire trails that are now popular off roads for bikes and SUVs.

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Just beyond El Cariso Village on the left and the fire station on the right in Riverside County, the road intersects with the north and south main divide. We turn to the right to pick up the Morgan Trailhead off of the south main divide. This road is also known as Killen Road, or so we discover after hiking 2.3 miles in and coming across a sign marking the route to Tenaja Falls.

Hang-gliders and para-gliders take off from the cliffs of the south main divide hoping to catch the thermal pockets to sail down to the open field near the intersection of Grand Avenue and the Ortega Highway.

And so, we too head back down to Lake Elsinore as we pass our icon boulder we nicknamed Big Ass Rock.

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Highway to the Sea… The Ortega Hwy Part 2

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Just beyond  El Cariso Village is the turn off for Hot Shots. One day we took the road expecting to find a scenic overlook or an interesting venue. Not finding anything but construction equipment, I did a little research and discovered that hot shots pertain to fire fighting.

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A hotshot crew consists of 20 career and temporary firefighters specifically trained to suppress wildfires by constructing fire lines, working with aerial firefighting aircraft, and extinguishing flames and high heat areas in order to protect natural resources and populations living on wild land borders. These crews are trained and equipped to work in remote areas for extended periods of time. The history of hotshots goes back to the 1940s in Southern California’s Cleveland and Angeles National Forests. The term comes from the firefighters being assigned to the hottest parts of a wildfire. (en.m.wikipedia.org) According to wildfiretoday.com, the El Cariso Hotshots disbanded in September of 2013.

The Ortega Highway is peppered with spectacular views of rocky mountainsides. Hiking affords a close up and personal encounter with these large, round, white granodiorite boulders. (academics.ivc.edu) Granodiorite rock is similar to granite but contains more plagioclase feldspar than orthoclase feldspar. (en.m.wikipedia.org) I don’t understand what any of this means but you will have to trust that this is the briefest explanation I could find to attempt to identify these plentiful species of rock matter.

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After crossing a narrow bridge, the San Juan Loop Trail parking lot appears on the right. The loop trail is about a 2 mile hike, enough to wear out our dogs. Midway the Chiquito Trail intersects and continues on for another 8 miles or so to the Bluejay Trail. Jeff and I hiked from the Bluejay Campground until we came to a fork in the road with an ambiguous sign pointing to the Chiquito Trail leading in 2 different directions. Where can you buy trail maps around here?

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Across the street from the parking lot is the Ortega Oaks Mobile Home and RV Park which had no vacancies when we arrived in the area on October 31, 2015. In hindsight we are happier at Lake Elsinore Marina than having to navigate an RV and car on a tow dolly over the Ortega Highway.

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Next to Ortega Oaks is their famous Candy Store.

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The Candy Store features nostalgic candies that baby boomers grew up with along with new twists on the old, such as chocolate-covered gummy bears. Delicious homemade goods include pumpkin roll, brittles, chocolates, and over a dozen flavored of fudge. Made-to-order sandwiches, fresh baked pies, cheesecake, specialty cakes, and soups on rainy and cold days round out the menu. (the74candystore.com) Open 7 days a week, snacks, sodas, bottled water, coffee, cookies, unique gifts, and some general store items are available to purchase. (ortegaoaks.com)

Just beyond the candy store is the Bear Canyon Trailhead, a 6+ mile hike we hiked twice, once together and again with my son, John, and his father-in-law, Tim O’Connell. This trail connects with the Morgan Trail and upon reaching 4 Corners, intersects with several other hiking trails.

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Hold on now as we twist and curve through the mountains with the wind whistling and echoing along every turn.

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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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The Shoe Story Part Three

 If the Shoe Fits!

Within a few days we are back on the trails again. This time I put on 2 pairs of socks and as soon as I place my right foot inside of my boot, the outside of my big toe feels a small electrifying jolt. I adjust my socks and re-do the laces until the ah-ha moment arrives and my big piggy zones out shopping at the market.

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Today we hike the Bear Canyon Loop. The trailhead begins about 100 yards south of the Ortega Highway Candy Store.

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Speaking of candy, we discover, a package of edible cannibus as we start the trail.

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Medical marijuana is legal in California and can be purchased at a dispensary. But first one needs a doctor’s recommendation and proof of CA residency. For $75, more or less, you can register at a clinic, skype with a doctor, and, if approved, receive an annual physician’s statement which is a certified legal document allowing you to purchase and carry so many ounces of marijuana and/or cultivate a certain number of plants. The yellow hard candy we find contains 40 micrograms of marijuana which is a double dose and probably meant to be a now-and-later edible.

So, do we taste the hemptation temptation? No. We leave it in the trail registration box. We remember our parents’ warning from when we were little kids and choose to not take candy from a stranger.


The Bear Canyon Loop Trail begins on the Ortega Highway, meets up with the Morgan Trail, and continues to Four Corners. From here you can loop back or continue on several different trails for a longer hike.

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After a mile or so we meet up with the Morgan Trail. So far so good with my feet.

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We take the high road to the right for another mile or so. My feet are not talking back yet.

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We reach the trail marker for the  4 Corners loop.

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We continue on to 4 Corners which is the half-way point of our 6.5 mile hike. Honestly, I don’t know if my feet hurt or not. I am so focused on reaching 4 Corners that, come toes that wished they had stayed home or toes that wished they were more beefed up for hiking, I ignore all of my piggies and zero in on the destination.

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And we arrive at a clearing.

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There are several trail markers here:

North Tenaja Trail

North Tenaja Trail

Verdugo Trail to Oak Flats

Verdugo Trail to Oak Flats

Sitton Peak

Sitton Peak

We opt for the trail leading us back to the Ortega Highway. Just an FYI… Trail maps and information are difficult to find online. The Cleveland National Forest web site is part of fs.usda.gov. The trail descriptions are limited at best. The total mileage is often questionable.  The trail markers are confusing when hiking. 

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As soon as we head back I become aware of my aching feet. I try to ignore them by concentrating on taking pictures of the trail.

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At last we complete the 4 Corners loop and I tell my aching toes we only have 2+ miles to go.

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I think I can! I know I can! I have no choice!  So I dig my heels into the ground, with each step, to take the pressure off my toes. And I continue to take pictures to help me forget that my piggies are crying all the way home to the car!

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At last, the big rocks return and the end is in sight!

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Now, all I need to do is hobble across the Ortega Highway, get to the car, and get my hiking boots off!

My socks are bloody and the tops of my toes are blistered. Could anyone use a pair of slightly worn (just 2 times) Merrell hiking boots size 8.5? Let me know.


I order a new pair of boots on Amazon.com and now too tight is just right and too small is not at all.

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I test these out on the Chiquito Trail. Here’s a picture of Jeff basking in the joy of my happy hiking feet:

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The Shoe Story Part Two

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So, after slipping and sliding in my Nike tennis shoes, Jeff and I travel to the nearest Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Murietta to purchase some hiking boots for me. The selection is slim and the help is unhelpful, sorry to say. The most comfortable shoes are low tops with mesh covering. I like them but Jeff and the salesperson insist I try on a sturdier pair of high tops with closed toes. They feel okay and, since a larger size to try on and compare with is not available, I buy them.

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The next day we hike the Morgan Trail in the Cleveland National Forest. The trail head is located off the Ortega Highway on the South Main Divide Road, aka Killen Road. According to the trail map it is a 4.2 out and back hike which can be interpreted as one way or round trip. Since I am used to walking over 5 miles, on an average of 5 days a week, and now have hiking boots, I feel up to the challenge.  And so we begin…

The trail leads down to a canopy of oak trees that run along Morell Canyon Creek. Remember I said, “leads down…” There is also a box with a clip-pad, paper, and pencil for registering our names, date and time. Remember that too.

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Soon after registering, my outer big toe on my right foot starts talking to me. “Suck it up,” I respond. My feet just need to get used to my new boots.  And I forget about any tender spots and enjoy the beautiful scenery of the San Mateo Wilderness.

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Jeff and I continue through the shaded grassy areas and begin the climb along  a low ridge offering views of Sitton Peak and eventually crossing through the outskirts of private ranches and property. My feet take a backseat to the natural beauty we encounter with each step along the trail.

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We reach a new trailhead marker.

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We’ve hiked 2.3 miles. Jeff suggests we turn around and go back. I insist we keep going. Remember that I insist.

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And so we continue hiking for another 2 + miles. I no longer feel my feet. I just want to see where the Morgan Trail intersects with the Bear Canyon Trail.

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And finally, here it is!

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Before heading back, Jeff adjusts my hiking boots by loosening the laces as I finally acknowledge that my toes are not happy hikers. And we begin our journey back. What descended now ascends and I dig my heels into the earth to relieve my aching toes while we huff and puff our way back, thirsty, tired, and sore-muscled. Never once does Jeff say, “I told you so,” as I ignored his good sense to turn back 2+ miles ago. Oh, and did I forget to mention that we brought no water or snacks with us? I even half-jokingly suggested that we consider hiking the mile to the Ortega Highway Candy Store and sticking our thumbs out for a ride back to our car at the Morgan Trailhead or contacting the park rangers we registered with to rescue my aching feet! No, we have to hike 4+ miles back to the trailhead.

I do not stop to take pictures on the way back. I just want to be done, take off my boots, and drink something, anything! Oh, and did I mention that I was feeling dizzy? Well, you get the picture. But instead of focusing on my toes which are between the rocks on the uphill trails and the hard places of my shoe coverings, allow me to entertain you with pics of the rocky terrain I took on the first half of this hike. Meanwhile, Jeff and I trudge back to the trailhead and the comfort of our car.

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At last! We make it back 3 3/4 miles later. I peel off my shoes and socks. Jeff stops at the Market at the end of Ortega Highway to purchase thirst quenchers. We guzzle water and 1 liter bottles of soda.

The jury is still out, however, on my hiking boots.

The Shoe Story Part One

imageTHESE SHOES AREN’T MADE FOR HIKING IN THE MOUNTAINS!

To the west of us lies the 28 mile stretch of CA State Route 74 called the Ortega Highway, linking Lake Elsinore to San Juan Capistrano crossing from Riverside County into Orange County and passing through the Santa Ana Mountains.

Mountains = Trail Heads = Hiking = Dogs = Family Outing

Fifteen minutes away from us is the San Juan Loop Trail off the Ortega Highway in the Cleveland National Forest. The important word here is NATIONAL because that means FREE to folks my age young with our “America the Beautiful Senior Pass.” National Parks, National Forests, National Anything means we don’t have to pay to enter and enjoy. Now, State Parks are another matter altogether…

senior pass

So, in the middle of November on a warm and sunny day, Jeff and head out with the dogs to explore and hike the San Juan Loop Trail which is about 2 miles long. Casey and Murph should be able to endure this adventure to its completion and then collapse into long naps afterward.

Jeff wears his hiking boots and I have on my most comfortable Nike walking shoes ever,

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in which I traversed through Italy and most recently wore on my 5 mile daily hikes in Ohio. Besides, look at this trail…

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But look at the slopes beside us…

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And you guessed it,  somewhat flat and sandy paths begin ascending and descending into rocky footholds that challenge the support and treads of my favorite walking shoes! I eventually slip and scraped my knee and begin fearing the most benign challenges…

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However, this does not deter me from savoring the scenic splendor of this trail! Thus, I digress about my shoes to share with you some of my favorite views of our hike.

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With the proper foot attire, the S. J. Loop is an easy to moderate hike overlooking the San Juan River and Falls and looping around the San Juan Campground. It passes through portions of open trail, old oak tree covered sections and creek beds.  We did not see the river or falls, however, due to the severe California drought. What we did see were QR codes posted throughout like some sort of scavenger hunt or game for kids. Later I found out that they are part of the Agents of Nature mobile game to encourage movement and learning about nature, culture, science, and technology in a unique fun way.

(The Chiquito Trail is a 9.2 miles out and back trek connecting the San Juan Loop and the Viejo Tie trails. According to the fs.usda.gov web site, Chiquito is rated as a difficult to strenuous hike through canyons of oak and maple offering panoramic views of Orange and Riverside counties and during wet years 2 beautiful waterfalls.)

As predicted, our dogs are tired and thirsty after their hike. They take turns lapping up a bowl of water before lethargically jumping into the back of the car for the return ride home. My knee finally stops bleeding and Jeff smugly suggests I seriously get some hiking boots which I will. Besides, I need to go back to play the QR code game!