How far would you be willing to hike to reach an idyllic swimming hole beneath a 35-foot waterfall – 5 miles, 10 miles? In fact, you will only have to hike a third of a mile round trip to reach Ortega Falls, a refreshing seasonal waterfall just off Ortega Highway in the Santa Ana Mountains.
The hike begins from an unmarked turnout on Ortega Highway in a beautiful part of the Santa Ana Mountains that is protected by the Cleveland National Forest. Ortega Falls is on the west side of Riverside County close to the Orange County border. Take the path down into the ravine below Ortega Falls. The top of the waterfall should be visible from the start.
When a path to the right presents itself, seize the opportunity to avoid dropping all the way down to the creek, which would lead to a more arduous approach to Ortega Falls. Instead, go uphill along the lip of the canyon on a dirt and rock trail headed straight to the base of the falls.
Less than quarter mile from the start, you will arrive at a rock amphitheater enclosing the 35-foot Ortega Falls. Unlace your hiking shoes and slip into the shallow sandy pool beneath the falls. On a hot day, there is nothing as refreshing as a shower beneath the waterfall.
Below the Ortega Falls there is a cascade of about the same height as the waterfall. At its base you will find a deep pool that is inviting for swimmers. Ortega Falls is a refreshing swimming hole in the spring but typically runs dry in summer and fall. When the seasonal waterfall disappears, the remaining dry falls is enjoyed by rock climbers.
It is about a third of a mile round trip to Ortega Falls with 50 feet of elevation change. No permit is required to hike to Ortega Falls, and it is free to park at the trailhead (a National Forest Adventure Pass is no longer required). Dogs are welcome, so get out and enjoy!
To get to the trailhead: Take Route 74 (Ortega Highway) to an unmarked turnout on north side of the road, 1.5 miles north of Ortega Oaks Candy Store and two miles south of El Cariso Visitor Center, where El Cariso Nature Trail begins. It is 12 miles to the trailhead from the 15 Freeway in Lake Elsinore to the east and 21 miles from the 405 Freeway in San Juan Capistrano to the west.
Trailhead address: Ortega Highway, Cleveland National Forest, Lake Elsinore, CA 92530
Trailhead coordinates: 33.625765, -117.426339 (33° 37′ 32.75″N 117° 25′ 34.82″W)
You may also view a regional map of surrounding Southern California trails and campgrounds.
|El Cariso Nature Trail |
This 1.35 to 1.55-mile loop examines common plants in the Santa Ana Mountains, along with uncommon views views across the mountain range, passing an old mine for more fun.
|Tenaja Falls |
This 1.5-mile round trip hike ventures up a wilderness canyon to a tall, five-tier waterfall along San Mateo Creek in the Santa Ana Mountains.
|Fisherman's Camp |
This 3 1/3-mile round trip hike follows an old road to an old campground with views over San Mateo Canyon in the Santa Ana Mountains.
|More hikes in Southern California |
Explore more trails in Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties.
|San Antonio Falls |
This 1.4-mile hike visits a multi-tier waterfall along the trail to Mount Baldy.
|Eaton Canyon Falls |
This 3.5-mile hike goes up Eaton Wash to a narrow stretch of Eaton Canyon containing a pleasant 40-foot waterfall.
|Trail Canyon Falls |
This 4-mile hike ascends a mountain-framed canyon to a 30-foot beauty on the east side of the San Gabriel Mountains.
|Escondido Falls |
This 3.8-mile out and back hike visits a 200-foot waterfall that is split into two tiers. The upper tier is 150 feet tall and stunning after a rainstorm.
|Rose Valley Falls in the Los Padres National Forest |
This 1-mile round trip trail leads to the lower tier of a lovely two-tier 300-foot waterfall.
|Tangerine Falls in Los Padres National Forest |
This 2.5-mile hike visits a beautiful waterfall on the edge of Santa Barbara.
|More waterfalls around Los Angeles |
Explore other waterfalls in the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains.
|El Cariso Campground |
This 24-site campground in Cleveland National Forest offers convenience camping in the Santa Ana Mountains for $15 per night, with access to nearby trails like El Cariso Nature Trail.