Expedition Ortega Highway
Hiking and chasing waterfalls go hand-in-hand. The more captivating falls seem to require more effort. The required hike also keeps away the people who don’t appreciative these wonderful landmarks. The abundance of rain in the desert environment of Southern California had me dreaming of the rare desert falls.
The Ortega Highway has become a route for daily commuters who are in search for affordable housing but can’t afford to leave their jobs in Orange County, California. The highway links the southern Riverside County to the OC through the Santa Ana Mountains and the Cleveland National Forest. Thousands of people make this pilgrimage every week. I wonder how many know about the beautiful trails just a short distance from the road?
During the recent, high volume of rain, in Southern California standards, I figured this would be the perfect time to visit the waterfalls that are so easily accessible. Ortega Falls was my first visit. It’s proximity to the highway makes it a popular sight for people in the area. The falls are just a five minute hike away from a road turnout. There are no posted signs but if you put Ortega Falls in the Google directional application, it will take you directly to the turnout.
Being the adventurous type, I walked down to the lower fall and made my way up the creek to the higher larger fall. I scrambled over boulders and climbed a small cliff. It would have been much easier to just follow the path to the larger fall but what’s the fun in that. The convenient location is a blessing but also a curse. It’s visited by people who don’t truly appreciate its value and some have vandalized the cliffs of the waterfall with Graffiti.
I then got back in my car and made my way west along the highway, and within minutes, I made a right turn into the San Juan Trail parking lot, directly across the road from the candy store. On the eastern side of the parking lot, on the right as you enter the lot, is a posted sign for the trail. Take this San Juan Trail for about half a mile and you will arrive at the San Juan Falls. This cascading falls has no direct access so it remains pristine and unmarked. Just the way it should be. I wanted to get a better shot than the one provided by the viewpoint so I made my way down the cliff, just passed the last rail. It was obvious I wasn’t the first to take this route and I stopped half way down and perched myself on this cliff to take videos and multiple photos. If you’re not the athletic type, I recommend you stay on the trail.
These two stops weren’t enough to quench my hiking appetite so I then drove to the Blue Jay Campground to hike a trail I did last year. The upper San Juan Trail head is directly next to the Blue Jay Campground entrance, look for the posted trail sign. It’s a trail that can be accomplished by beginners with wonderful views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. The second half of the trail changes and becomes thickly wooded with oak trees and, surprisingly, ferns. The trail runs parallel to the campground and is a good place for a restroom stop at the end of the hike which is 3.5 miles long.
Living in a desert environment, waterfalls are rare and short lived. When the opportunity presents itself, you have to take advantage of it.
So, I did!!!