Ortega Falls

img_5343 A Short, But Rocky Scramble

I knew there was a Falls somewhere off the Ortega Highway, near the Candy Store. I also knew that with the drought, it was dried up and not cascading last year when we stayed in Lake Elsinore for the winter. But this year was different, turning cooler and wetter with severe storms pummeling Southern California. One such storm damaged a section of Road on the Ortega Highway in Orange County preventing traffic flowing from Lake Elsinore to San Juan Capistrano.

img_5328

But businesses such as the Candy Store, Kristy’s Country Store, Hell’s Kitchen, and The Lookout House were still open, as were our favorite places to hike. It took a homemade sign near the intersection of Grand Avenue and the Ortega Highway to remind me of the Falls. It simply said Candy Store, Hiking, Falls, Camping.


We have driven by this dirt packed turnout between El Cariso Village and the Candy Store many many times not knowing that a trail leading to the Ortega Falls is hidden here. (Or, that from the turnout you could actually view the waterfall.)

img_5329

So, bound and determined, I used Google Maps for an exact location, trying to visualize the turnout.

img_5363

img_5364

Apparently, some 5+ years ago the turnout was marked by a sign requiring all parked cars to display an Adventure Pass or its equivalent.

img_5365abhiking.blogspot.com

But not in 2015, 2016, or 2017…

So, after several rainy days we go exploring in search of the Ortega Falls.

There are several trails leading from the turnout where we park, beside many other cars filled with fellow hikers and waterfall seekers. We choose one because Jeff assures me that all trails will meet eventually. As we start out I capture the Santa Ana Mountains above us.

img_5330

According to hikespeak.com, Ortega Falls is a 35-foot seasonal waterfall just off the Ortega Highway in the Santa Ana Mountains. Although the hike to and back is only 1/3 of a mile, the most prominent trail is an arduous scramble of rocks leading to the base of the Falls. Apparently we missed the fork in the trail leading to the right “uphill along the lip of the canyon along a dirt and rock trail heading straight to the base of the Falls.” 

img_5331

I scramble on my butt and knees while Jeff confidently hops from rock to rock until it becomes too slippery. (In my defense, I have miss-stepped one too many times spraining my ankle or hurting my knee.) Too much caution, however can be just as dangerous. I rely on Jeff’s strong arms and encouragement to support me.

We arrive at the pool beneath the Falls. (Other hikers along the way have expressed my same hesitation to continue. But a father and his small son jump from rock to rock in bare feet.)

img_5332

img_5333

img_5334

Below the pool, the cascade continues.

img_5336

img_5340

img_5335

img_5337

img_5345

We look up to the top of the Falls.

img_5339

And decide to head back.

I take a picture of the trail back. Can you find it?

img_5344

Neither can I!

Rain, Rain…

img_5149 …Comes again so many days!

This is the view of the lake from inside the RV over the past several days.

img_5139

img_5161

Last winter was sunny, warm, and dry. This winter is cloudy, cool, and wet. But California needs the rain to repair the devastation of the last decade of drought. Unfortunately, many areas are flooded and mudslides from barren mountain sides are closing streets, especially near Los Angeles.


Jeff and I venture out one cool, windy morning to check out the lake.

So cool… these photos look like they were filtered in black and white! Also notice how high the water has risen at the pier.

img_5140

img_5141

This is what the pier looked like in October.

img_4982


We head southeast to the sandy beach where tent campers and RVs with no hook-ups spend the night.

img_5157

Erosion breaks down the sand creating watery veins off the lake.

img_5156

The clouds and wind cast a gloomy shadow across the lake while the sun struggles to take over.

img_5146

img_5153

To the west the Ortega Highway is shrouded in clouds.

img_5154

Then we turn around looking back from where we started, toward where our RV is parked…

img_5155

The black and white view is gone. The sky shines blue and a rainbow peeks in and out.

img_5142

img_5144

img_5145

img_5148

img_5152

img_5158


According to the National Weather Service, Los Angeles has received more than 13.52 inches of rain between October 1, 2016 and January 23, 2017. That’s a 216% increase from the norm! Floods, mudslides, overturned trees, and deaths have occurred.

The Ortega Highway, our mountain pass lifeline into San Juan Capistrano and the Pacific Ocean is also closed indefinitely. Part of the roadway, about 1.5 miles east of Gibby Road in Orange County, has been damaged due to the recent rains.

img_5169 ocregister.com

Originally thought to be a sinkhole, city workers from Lake Elsinore say the damage is actually a “slip out”, where water sliding down from the upper slopes pools into a culvert and starts to erode the highway underneath. This undermining of the road bed under the asphalt has created at least a 2-foot void. Further geo-technical assessments will determine exactly how far down the pavement has been compromised. (Lake Elsinore Patch, January 2017)

According to KTLA News, engineers think the damage is even more significant than first believed. Unfortunately, the equipment needed to assess the damage is in Sacramento, CA. (ktla.com)

img_5167 ocregister.com

Highway to the Sea… The Ortega Hwy Part 3

image

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

 

image

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.

image

image

image

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

image

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.

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

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.

image

image

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.

image

image

image

Highway to the Sea… The Ortega Hwy Part 2

image

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.

image

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.

image

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?

image

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.

image

Next to Ortega Oaks is their famous Candy Store.

image

image

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.

image

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

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

Highway to the Sea… The Ortega Hwy Part 1

image

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.

image

image

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!

image

Up we go…

image

image

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.

image

image

image

image

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.

image

image

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.

image

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.

image

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:

image

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

image

image