Often dry or merely trickling, Ortega Falls can come to life for days or for weeks following any significant winter storm. During the unusually wet years of 1997 and 2005, when the region received double or more the normal precipitation, these falls managed to put on an impressive show until summer. During the current, generally dry winter and spring season, the falls will likely dribble rather than roar.
The unmarked trailhead for the falls lies on Ortega Highway, Highway 74, the scenic state highway that crosses the Santa Ana Mountains between San Juan Capistrano and Lake Elsinore. The trailhead is actually a roadside turnout on the west side of the highway, 21 miles east of Interstate 5 at San Juan Capistrano and about 8 miles west of Lake Elsinore. Yet another clue is that this turnout lies 2.1 mile south of the El Cariso visitor center, and 1.5 mile north of the "Candy Store" (a local landmark). For even more precise navigation, note that the trailhead turnout is at mile 4.4 according to the roadside highway markers stenciled "Riv" for Riverside County. Because the trailhead and falls are within the Cleveland National Forest, you'll need to display a National Forest Adventure Pass on your parked car.
The hike to the falls is almost trivially short, but not quite a piece of cake, particularly for small kids. Follow the unmarked use trail descending through brush and boulders and down a steep draw to the boulder-choked streambed of Long Canyon, which is an upper tributary of San Juan canyon and creek. You turn upstream and make your way, preferably on the right bank, over sand, matted-down vegetation, and rocks. When the water is high, it may be easier to wade in a couple of spots rather than to boulder hop. Beyond a series of smaller cascades, you'll arrive at the foot of the main waterfall, which drops about 35 feet over a blocky granitic outcrop. Rock climbers sometimes practice on the sheer rock faces here, and it's unfortunate that spray-paint vandals also visit from time to time.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.