California Route 74, otherwise known as Ortega Highway, stretches just over 21 miles from beautiful San Juan Capistrano in the west to growing Lake Elsinore Valley in the east.
With its origins being nothing more than Indian footpath and a fire trail along the San Juan Creek, construction on the two-lane highway by the State of California, Orange and Riverside Counties began in 1929 and continued through 1933, when the Elsinore-San Juan Capistrano Highway-to-the-Sea was officially completed.
Today the highway is well-traversed, and traffic can be relatively heavy at times, especially during the weekdays, as it serves commuters traveling to and from Orange County to the Inland Empire.
The road has a lot of tight turns and changes in elevation, making it very popular amongst sports bike and sports car enthusiasts. The speed limit will typically be 55, but for those that want to enjoy the scenery, numerous turnouts can be used for taking breaks and pictures.
Before you begin, make sure you have enough gas to reach Lake Elsinore since there is essentially only wilderness in between.
We’ll begin our trip in the oldest neighborhood in California, located across the railroad tracks from the Capistrano Train Depot. The Los Rios Historic District. Settled in the late 1700s during the construction of the Mission San Jan Capistrano, Los Rios is on the corner of Ortega Hwy and Camino Capistrano.
After crossing the 405 freeway, Ortega winds through about three miles of suburbia before the road crosses over San Juan Creek and escapes out into the backcountry. From here on the road takes you through beautiful rolling hills until it climbs into the Cleveland National Forest.
Things to do Along the Ortega Highway
Your first stop is about an eight-mile drive, Ronald A. Caspers Wilderness Park, an awesome place for hiking, camping, picnicking, horseback riding, mountain biking, photography, and wildlife viewing.
This park has a campground, vast playground with picnic tables, and numerous trails offering a multitude of altitudes and inclines throughout the chaparral and riparian landscapes. It is also a great spot for viewing the abundance of migratory birds that frequent the park during the spring and fall seasons.
Guests will want to stop by the Interpretive Center on arrival for more information on the trails and wildlife, as well as some educational and interesting displays. The Center also provides visitors with a great view of the entire valley and San Juan Creek that runs into the Cleveland National Forest.
Back onto Ortega Highway, another five miles take you to the Ortega Hot Springs. The now-closed hot springs are located just off the Ortega Highway as it enters the western boundary of the Cleveland National Forest.
Only three buildings of the old San Juan Hot Springs resort remain standing, the rest are shells weathered by the elements. You can explore the ruins and the nearby San Juan Creek here, but be careful. The area is secluded and emergency services are nearly an hour away.
Ortega Oaks campground
Back out on Ortega highway the route narrows and heads up into the mountains through a particularly twisty section of the road. Extreme care must be taken when traveling this section. Headlights must be turned on while climbing up through the canyon.
After 14 miles of twists and turns, you arrive at Ortega Oaks campground with its adorable little shop called Ortega Oaks Candy Store. For nearly 40 years, the store has been selling confections to satisfy even the most severe sweet tooth.
Ortega Oaks Candy Store
When entering, patrons will be greeted with the most amazing smells that will take you back to your childhood. Inside you find an amazing variety of hand-made delights including dark or milk chocolate-covered honeycomb, Snickerdoodle cookies, and peanut butter cups. Loaded up on a myriad of goodies, you’re on the final leg of the Ortega Highway road trip.
A quick three-mile trip brings you to the little village of El Cariso at the crest of the Santa Ana Mountains. At one time, El Cariso was the hideout for an outlaw gang of horse rustlers. In 1857, a shootout between the gang and a large posse ended with the death or capture of the gang.
Ortega Highway Restaurants
Today El Cariso is home to Hell’s Kitchen restaurant and bar. The eatery is popular with bikers on the weekends and road trippers during the week. The restaurant features indoor and outdoor dining, a coffin condiment bar, beer, wine, Starbucks coffee, and good old Americana style food. Hours vary especially during the week.
Your final stop is Lookout Road House which offers a spectacular view of Lake Elsinore, the largest natural freshwater lake in Southern California with 3,300 surface acres and over 14 miles of shoreline.
Lookout Road House serves country-style breakfast and lunch along with cold beer. You can dine inside or out in the wind on the patio. From here you can return down Ortega Highway to San Juan Capistrano or head down to Lake Elsinore.
One final stop before reaching the Lake Elsinore overlook is Ortega Falls. Most of the time the falls are a trickle, but after a rainstorm, the falls can be spectacular. Ortega falls are a steep but easy half-mile hike from the highway. The falls are located at mile 21 from San Juan Capistrano. There is a small parking lot off the highway. Unfortunately being so close to the road the falls suffer from graffiti and litter that spoil the beauty of the region.
Visitors to Lake Elsinore will discover plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation, top-notch shopping outlets, antique shops, fine restaurants, and even a professional baseball stadium.
So the next time you’re looking for that perfect day trip, load up the family, fill up the gas tank and head down Ortega Highway, for a good old-fashioned American road trip.