Ortega Falls Santa Ana Mountains Ortega Highway waterfall

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.

Ortega Falls
Ortega 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.

Ortega Falls
Showering beneath Ortega Falls

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!

rtega Falls
The pool and cascade below Ortega Falls

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, CA92530
Trailhead coordinates: 33.625765, -117.426339 (33° 37′ 32.75″N 117° 25′ 34.82″W)

Trail Map
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Elevation Profile
Click or hover over any spot on this elevation profile to see the distance from the start and elevation above sea level at that location, which will be highlighted on the map.

You may also view a regional map of surrounding Southern California trails and campgrounds.

Photos

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These photos were taken in June of 2011. Click to enlarge.
Nearby Trails
El Cariso Nature TrailEl 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.
Fisherman's CampFisherman’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.
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Nearby Camping
El Cariso CampgroundEl 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.

7 Comments on Ortega Falls in the Santa Ana Mountains

  1. Daniel Varnersays:

    Is the water swimable 6/8/2013?

    • Skip Lockesays:

      When it’s there, it is cold and refreshingly fine. We just need a good storm to get it rolling. There are also 2-3 falls both above and below the main one. It’s fun place to hike even in the dry season. Nice to know you no longer need a pass. This is my favorite highway break spot.

  2. T. LaMusgasays:

    Does anyone know if the falls have dried up for the year?

  3. Skip Lockesays:

    Yes, but still a great place to visit. I stopped for a quick hike to the top and on the way out met a lady who looked like she was heading for some sun.

    Wait for the next major rain storm and then check out the waterfall. Meanwhile, I hear that Eaton Canyon Falls runs year round.

  4. Ortega Falls looks fun!

  5. S. Nesbitsays:

    I went today for the first time and it was dry. Had the place to myself aside from two rock climbers. It is a peaceful, beautiful place. There is some trash people have left behind, unfortunately.

  6. codiesays:

    when is the waterfall dried up, or how can we know if it is dried up or not?

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