El Cariso Nature Trail
in the Santa Ana Mountains
El Cariso Nature Trail is a self-guided hike in the Santa Ana Mountains, beautifully situated on the range’s main divide straddling the border of Orange and Riverside counties. The 1.35-mile loop is lined with small panels that identify and describe the area’s plants. Starting just off Ortega Highway, at 2,600 feet above sea level, the short loop presents excellent views across the range. The easy hike also passes an abandoned mine and the hike can easily be extended to 1.55 miles by venturing off the loop to the El Cariso Memorial to Wildland Firefighters. There is just 125 feet of elevation change along El Cariso Nature Trail, making it suitable for hikers of all abilities.
You don’t need to carry a pamphlet on this nature trail, because there are over a dozen small panels set up along the hike. The interpretive signs were provided by a Boy Scouts of America Eagle Project (props to Troop 133) and placed next to common area plants like eastern manzanita, Coulter pines, white sage, sugar bush, scrub oak, chamise, and California buckwheat. The well-written panels provide fun facts about trees and plants along the trail. You’ll learn that Native Americans used berries from sugar bush to make a lemonade-like drink, and that bees count on California buckwheat for honey nectar because buckwheat has a long blooming season. Also, Coulter pines have one of the heaviest cones on any pine tree in America, as the second panel along the trail explains:
The cones may weight 4-5 pounds when green, and fully mature cones can weight in excess of 10 pounds. Because of the size and weight of these cones, they are called widow makers.
Start hiking from the El Cariso Nature Trailhead, located behind the El Cariso Visitor Center, the main visitor center for the Trabuco Ranger District of Cleveland National Forest, across Ortega Highway from El Cariso Campground. Take the steps to the right of the small building and find the dirt single track weaving gradually up the mountainside. The trail slips through an oak grove at the start, but most of the hike is sun exposed with open views. While you rise far enough above Ortega Highway for the roadway to fall out of sight, you will probably still hear a few motorcycles zipping down the road, which is the main pass across the mountains between the east and west.
You’ll reach a bench at the forth panel, 0.2 miles from the start, which is labeled Vista Overlook. Take a break here and admire the cluster of mountains around Los Pinos Peak on the main divide to the north. As you continue up the trail you will learn more about the area’s chaparral and get increasing views to the west across rolling mountains dotted with boulders and ranch houses.
As you curl around the west side of the loop, you’ll cross a slope that appears to have been cleared by wildfire, giving hikers expansive views over a beautiful stretch of the Santa Ana Mountains. Broad Decker Canyon narrows toward the coast to the southwest, backed by the Sitton Peak.
The distant views lead to an up-close attraction, half a mile from the start. Take the spur trail on the left and walk a few steps to a small mineshaft carved into the rock face. The entrance of the mine is barred over because there are potential hazards inside (like deadly gasses, unsafe ladders and shafts, unstable explosives, and deep pools). A panel here describes how animals have repurposed old mines:
There are thousands of mines, such as this one, scattered throughout the Southern California mountains. Early miners searched for gold, silver, lead, tin and coal hoping to strike it rich. However, most of these mines were abandoned because little or no ore was found. Many of the old mine shafts have become wildlife dens for animals that live in the mountains.
Proceeding along the trail, you’ll be treated to more views west down Decker Canyon. The trail heads downhill for a stretch before ascending to South Main Divide Road, a paved road that you will cross to continue the loop.
At this road crossing, 0.7 miles from the start, you’ll pass a pair of small buildings that were used by the CCC in the 1930s to store explosives used in the construction of nearby roads and sites. El Cariso Campground, located across from the trailhead, is one example of the many enduring park features that were built by the CCC.
Watch for traffic as you cross to the east side of the road where the trail resumes, heading downhill through pines and brush. The views are far less panoramic on this half of the loop. After 0.35 miles, you will run back into South Main Drive. Here, you have an option. Crossing the road again, you can hike the final 0.3 miles back to the trailhead, but if you turn right, you can walk a short distance down the road to a worthy extension.
A tenth of a mile down South Main Divide Road, you will find the El Cariso Memorial, which honors the brave California Wildland Firefighters who gave their lives in these mountains fighting wildfires. A plaque on the fitting memorial reads:
This Memorial is dedicated with limitless pride, heartfelt gratitude, profound reverence and unbound love to the enduring cherished memory and indomitable spirit of California’s fallen sons and daughters who don the mantel of Wildland Firefighters by a grateful citizenry, respectful colleagues, and living families.
When you are finished, backtrack up South Main Divide Road and turn right to continue along El Cariso Nature Trail. The trail borders El Cariso South Picnic Area for a stretch and crosses through more pine and brush with intermittent views north toward the main divide and Los Pinos Peak. When the trail ends, walk across a paved area next to the fire station to return to the parking area by the visitor center.
No fee or permit is required to hike El Cariso Nature Trail (and an Adventure Pass is no longer needed to park at the trailhead). Mountain bikes are allowed on the trail and you can bring your dog on a leash. The visitor center (951-678-3700) is only open on Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m (and potentially on Fridays too). When the visitor center is closed, you cannot access to a bathroom at the trailhead, but there is a vault toilet near the El Cariso Memorial.
To get to the trailhead: From Orange County, take the 405 Freeway to San Juan Capistrano and take exit 82 for Ortega Highway (Route 74). Take Ortega Highway up into the mountains for 23 miles and turn right into the parking area for the El Cariso Visitor Center. If you reach Main Divide Road, you drove a quarter mile to far. The small visitor center is just below El Cariso Fire Station.
From Riverside County, take the 15 Freeway to Lake Elsinore and take exit 77 for Ortega Highway (Route 74). At the end of the ramp, head south on Central Avenue, make a right on Collier Avenue and left on Riverside Drive (which are all also Route 74) to take Ortega Highway through town and up into the mountains. It is 10 miles from the freeway to El Cariso Visitor Center, which will be on the left just past the intersection with Main Divide Road.
Trailhead address: 32353 Ortega Highway, Cleveland National Forest, Lake Elsinore, CA 92530
Trailhead coordinates: 33.650867, -117.413113 (33° 39′ 03.12″N 117° 24′ 47.20″W)
You may also view a regional map of surrounding Southern California trails and campgrounds.
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El Cariso Nature Trail in Best Easy Day Hikes Orange County by Randy Vogel
El Cariso Nature Trail in Afoot & Afield Orange County by Jerry Schad
A San Diego Reader article on El Cariso Nature Trail (also by Jerry Schad)
El Cariso Nature Trail on Brian and Ashley's hiking blog
El Cariso Nature Trail on nobodyhikesinla.com
The official Cleveland National Forest webpage for the El Cariso Visitor Center
The official Cleveland National Forest webpage for El Cariso Nature Trail
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