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.
Continuing down the road minus some yummy beef jerky, we got out of the car a few times to peek at the creek and admire the surroundings. Far below, you could barely hear the stream as it was making its way in the same direction we were traveling. We couldn’t see a spot where you could hike down to the creek but that was o.k. since we wouldn’t have done it anyway; it was a steep drop! However, farther down the road you can hike from the Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park or take a guided tour on dozens of trails that range from short jaunts to lengths up to ten miles.
Continuing on, we passed by enormous hills that sat a little ways away from the road. I had never seen hills this tall. It was as if we were in the valley of the Jolly Green Giant, minus the giant. It was yet another impressive sight that we saw along the way!
Almost every turn brought something new to see. We passed through meadows and fields that made you feel like you were way off of on a country road instead of on an artery to one of the busiest freeways in California, Interstate 5. As soon as we started seeing more and more homes we knew the scenic drive was almost over and eventually we would be back to the frenzied car infested freeway.
The road ended at San Juan Capistrano and in true fashion the Interstate WAS packed with cars. We would soon be one of them.
Taking this hour or so trip will make you feel like you are out in the country or that you got away for awhile. I still can’t believe it has a dangerous road status but I am sure as a commuter road, it has its fair share of accidents. Plus there is that steep incline at the beginning, or descent at the end depending on which way you start. Either way it is not for the faint of heart.
Along with the beef jerky, I learned later of a great t-shirt that I would have bought at Patty’s Place Country Store that read, “I survived Ortega Highway.”
I am happy to say I survived and would go again. It is an enjoyable ride that you can milk for hours if you stop and eat lunch, browse around the village, or stop at the panoramic vistas.
We just have one suggestion to the driver… please keep your eyes on the road!!!!!