From San Juan Capistrano to Lake Elsinore, two-lane Ortega Highway (Highway 74) stretches like a snake over the midriff of the Santa Ana Mountains, giving road warriors a taste of southern Orange County's wild east margin. Even the most casual traveler can get to know the rugged and circumspect beauty of these corrugated mountains better by trying out the 2.1-mile-long San Juan Loop Trail. It's right off the highway amid one of the most scenic spots in the range.
Drive 19.5 miles east on Ortega Highway from Interstate 5 in San Juan Capistrano to reach the starting point, a trailhead parking lot on the left. (On the right is a humble but noted local landmark: the Ortega Oaks Store, or "Candy Store.") Because the region lies within the Cleveland National Forest, you'll need a National Forest Adventure Pass for parking at the trailhead.
From the trailhead, a well-worn path takes off north along a slope overlooking the highway. Around a bend to the left, the trail starts threading the side of a narrow gorge that resounds -- after a decent amount of rainfall -- with echoes of falling water. A spur trail leads down toward the lip of a small waterfall; from there you can boulder-hop over to the edge of a reflecting pool. A single gnarled juniper clings sentinel-like to a rock face overlooking this pool, far from its normal high-desert habitat 50 or more miles north or east. If the mood strikes you, rest your bones amid the smooth contours of the water-polished granite, and settle in for a moment's quiet meditation.
Past the falls, you descend on ramplike switchbacks through dense chaparral and presently reach the oak-dotted floodplain of San Juan Creek. Stay left at the Chiquito Trail junction to remain on the loop trail. Ahead, you'll plunge into a veritable thicket of centuries-old coast live oak trees. The overarching limbs mute the glare of the sun and sky. In the soft, filtered light, the ground glows with the seasonal greens, browns, and reds of ferns, poison oak, and wild grass.
The path veers sharply left to gain an open slope, again parallel to the highway. Continue for another 0.5 mile across this sunstruck slope, dotted with wildflowers (March through June), and arrive back at the trailhead.