Sunny Southern California used to have a well-kept secret: a waterfall right in the middle of Orange County. Chiquito Falls, named after former ranger Kenneth Munhall’s horse, was an ideal opportunity to see a seasonal waterfall, however in recent years the falls have all but dried up. Now what remains is the opportunity to rock climb and see plenty of Great Basin Fence Lizards along the way. Despite the water shortage, the 9-mile out and back hike to Chiquito Falls is still worth exploring for its beautiful scenery and grueling workout.
Chiquito Falls is located in the expansive Cleveland National Forest near Lake Elsinore. The trailhead picks up across the street from the Ortega Oaks Candy Store. You’ll need an adventure pass for this hike, which can be purchased at the candy store. Park in the large parking lot across the street from the candy store and clearly display your adventure pass. There are a few trailheads here but the one you’ll want to take is the San Juan Loop Trail in the northeast corner of the parking lot. I returned via the south entrance which takes you along the Ortega Highway.
The trail begins with an initial climb, getting you prepared for the steep ascent to come. The trail soon bends around the ridge and takes you to San Juan Falls, which are also dried up during the drought. This used to be a popular spot for beginner hikers to hike to to see this seasonal fall. Next you’ll descend into the canyon below, where oak trees will shade you.
At 1.1 miles you’ll follow the trail to your right (marked with an official trail marker). At 2 miles is where the challenge begins. The climb up the ridge is a nearly vertical ascent and can be difficult for even the most seasoned hikers. However, the breathtaking views make this uphill climb not as difficult as it could be.
At the top of the ridge you’ll see a spur trail to your left. This will take you to the top of the falls. The mail trail continues onward through lush vegetation. If you want to extend your hike you could continue along the main trail for another 3 miles. If a 15-mile hike isn’t on your agenda, re-trace your steps back to the trailhead.
Chiquito Falls Trail Tips
Tip #1: Remember to pick up a National Forest Adventure Pass prior to hiking. At the time of this publication they are only $5.
Tip #2: Wear layers and appropriate sun protection as the climb up the ridge is completely unshaded.
Tip #3: Forget food? The candy store is stocked with the essentials for a hike.
Tip #4: Because of the difficulty and length of this hike, it is important to have proper footwear. Hiking boots are highly recommended.
Tip #5: Mileage markers are rare and few and far between on this hike. Bring a Garmin watch or pedometer to keep track of your progress.
Take I-5 North to the Ortega Hwy exit (Hwy 74) at San Juan Capistrano. Drive 19 miles on Ortega Highway 74 until you reach the Ortega Oaks Candy store on your right. The trailhead for Chiquito falls will be directly across from the candy store.
Elevation Gain: 2,900 feet
Trail Difficulty: Stenuous
Total Distance: 9.6 miles
Trailhead Address: 34040 Ortega Hwy , Lake Elsinore, CA 92530