On a whim, we decided to drive up the Ortega Highway from a starting point at Lake Elsinore on a warm spring day. I had been on this road before and I knew that the first part would take you high above the lake while twisting through hairpin turns on your way back down to San Juan Capistrano in Orange County. It is not relaxing for the driver during the highest portion; you really have to keep your eyes on the road especially since it has been dubbed one of the most dangerous roads in California. However, there were plenty of vista points that allowed you to pull over to enjoy the scene below.
On one of the viewpoints it was exactly as I remembered with its breath-taking 180 degree views of the lake and the snow capped mountains far in the distance. I decided that I was just going to enjoy the day and keep the images in my head instead of the camera. So I hope my words do this beautiful drive justice.
SR 74 travels 29 miles along the San Juan Creek and through the Cleveland National Forest. Each weekday about 7,000 cars travel back and forth between Lake Elsinore and Orange County and a good portion of those are commuters.
This area was picturesque because of the rain drenched meadows and hills that were unusually green this time of year. The vibrant colors made it even more spectacular and even though it may be more brown and dryer in summer months, I still think it will be impressive. Once you pass through the winding road and S-turns of the higher altitude, it is smooth sailing. Now you can relax and enjoy the country side.
The road was built in 1929 and you could tell in certain parts by the old cement walls and bridges. They looked weathered; however, to me that just added to the history and charm. The highway is an especially popular road for motorcyclists because of the scenery and the road itself is a fun challenge.
So it is of no surprise as you come into the little village of El Cariso that the local restaurant had dozens of motorcycles parked out front. El Cariso with its small population of a little over 200 also features a general store and a candy shop a little bit away. Since we were just driving through, we didn’t get out of the car to explore the village but we figured by the amount of visitors that this was a popular place to stop and have lunch. With further research I found out that the Hell’s Kitchen restaurant is indeed a popular place for the biker crowd and also features a bar plus an outdoor patio that overlooks the road.
Across the street sits Patty’s Place Country Store which has some of the best beef jerky that you will find and a fact that I wish I had known at the time instead of learning about later. The candy shop also serves as a general store with half its contents being candy and the other half being toiletries, camping gear, etc.