San Juan Loop Trail Guide Ca

San Juan Loop Trail Guide (CA)

In This Guide
  • Video and Turn by Turn Directions for the San Juan Loop Trail
  • How to Get to the San Juan Loop Trail
  • Insider Hike Tips and What to Look For
Total Distance (?)2.1 miles (3.4 km)
Hike Time1-2 Hours (Total)
Difficulty (?)Easy
Total Ascent (?)440 feet (134m)
Highest Elevation2,000 feet (610m)
Fees & PermitsParking Pass
Dogs AllowedLeashed
Alerts & Closures (?)Cleveland National Forest
Park Phone951-736-1811

The San Juan Loop Trail by Lake Elsinore is a fun hike that offers an easy glimpse into the Cleveland National Forest’s rugged beauty. You’ll hike to Ortega Falls, a 35-foot waterfall in a steep ravine, and then you’ll meander through lush canyons rich with wildflowers in the spring. The trail also follows San Juan Creek, which usually has water in the spring and early summer, and eventually drains out to the ocean. Overall the San Juan Loop Trail is a great family or beginners hike that packs a lot of scenery into a short distance.

How to Get to San Juan Loop Trail

The San Juan Loop Trail’s start is off of Rt-74, aka the Ortega Highway, which traverses the mountains of Cleveland National Forest. This hike starts roughly in the middle of the highway, in a large parking lot for hikers across from the Candy Store, a landmark on the road.

Use this address for the San Juan Loop Trail parking:
34950 Ortega Hwy, Lake Elsinore, CA, 92530

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The parking lot is large but does get full. This is a popular trailhead for several hikes. Get here early to ensure a spot.

You need to display a National Parks Pass or Adventure Pass to park here. I highly recommend investing in the National Parks Pass, which allows you free entry at all federal lands and attractions, of which this is one.

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There are bathrooms in the parking lot.
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There’s also a pump where you can fill you water bottles.

When to Visit

The best time to hike the San Juan Loop Trail is when there’s water flowing in the mountains, which usually means spring into early summer. The area becomes a rich green and is often a great place to spot wildflowers. Later in the year, and into winter, the falls and creek are often dry. It’s still a nice hike without water though, don’t let that stop you if you’re considering a visit.

Gear for the Hike

This is a light and easy hike, and you really don’t need anything special to do it, but hiking gear or fitness clothing will serve you best. There are rocky sections on the hike, and good footwear like trail runners or hiking shoes, will give you the best experience. Bring 1L of water to make sure that you stay hydrated.

In the summer it can be hot and buggy. Having insect repellant ready will be a smart move.

Lone Peak 5

Altra Lone Peak 5
For most people, the Altra Lone Peak is a solid choice that will leave your feet feeling great at the end of any hike. The feel is cushy and light, and if it had a car equivalent, this would be a Cadillac or Mercedes Sedan. The grip is great and they’re reasonably durable for this type of trail runner, which I think is better in most conditions than a hiking boot, and here’s why. The downside of this shoe is that it won’t last as long as something like the Moab 2 (see alternate footwear choices at the bottom of my gear page). I’ve been using mine for many miles and my feet always feel great. Watch my video explaining why they are a great shoe here.

Latest Price on Women’s ShoeREI | Amazon
Latest Price on Men’s ShoeREI | Amazon

Garmin Inreach Mini Beacon

Stay Safe Out of Cell Phone Range
If you’re not familiar with the Garmin InReach technology, it allows you to send and receive text messages where you don’t have cell phone signals. You can also get weather reports and trigger an SOS to emergency responders. Even if you don’t have an emergency, sending a quick message telling a loved one that you’re okay or are running late is well worth the cost. The Garmin InReach Mini (REI | Amazon | My Review) fits in your palm and weighs next to nothing.


Gaia GPS Mapping App
Smartphones are not backcountry instruments, but almost everyone has one today. And they all have GPS onboard. So I recommend getting a good GPS hiking app like Gaia GPS that supports offline maps. Just make sure to put your phone in airplane mode so the battery doesn’t drain. GaiaGPS not only has smartphone and tablet apps, but also an online planning tool. You can drag the GPX hike tracks from my (or any) guides into the online map and they will sync to your phone. You can also check for wildfires, weather, snow, and choose from dozens of map types with a premium membership (HikingGuy readers get up to 40% off here). Note that I also carry a paper map with me in case the phone dies or gets smashed.

Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated July 2021.

My July 2021 Top Gear Picks

No company pays me to promote or push a product, all the gear you see here is gear I use and recommend. If you click an a link and buy gear, I get a small commission that helps keep the website ad and promotion free. There is no cost to you.

San Juan Loop Trail Maps

The trail is very easy to follow and there aren’t really any tricky sections. Where there are small or old trails, there’s generally a “stay on the trail’ marker to help you out.

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Keep your eyes open for these “stay on the trail’ signs which help you along the way.
Click Here To View

Explore Map on CalTopoView a Printable PDF Hike MapDownload the Hike GPX File

If you try to download the GPX file and your browser adds a “.txt” or “.xml” extension to it, simply rename it as a “.gpx” file.

Fenix 6 Pro

How are you going to navigate this hike?
To start, you should always have a paper map and compass. And it helps to print this guide out or save it on your phone. I highly recommend a GPS as well. I use the Garmin Fenix 6 Smart GPS watch ( REI | Amazon | My Review) with maps (or the more affordable Garmin Instinct). The GPS smartwatch is nice because it’s rugged, works if your phone dies, and also has a billion other features like sleep tracking, workout recording, etc.

Elevation Profile

San Juan Loop Trail Guide Ca Elevation
Since the hike is so short, the ups and downs are exaggerated here, but the general idea is that you go down into the canyon on the first mile, and then climb back out at the end. There are a few small steep sections, but overall the climbing is gradual.

3d Map

San Juan Loop Trail Guide Ca 3d Map
Here you can see better how the trail descends from the start into the canyon, which is carved by San Juan Creek, and then back out.

San Juan Loop Trail Hike Directions

It’s easy to say thank you for this guide!

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Video Directions

Watch This Video In 360/VR Why 360/VR Is Great

Turn by Turn Directions

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Find the trail board in the corner of the parking lot marked “San Juan Loop Trail” and start the hike there.
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Right away the trail is a nice single-track through the forest.
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You’ll climb a little and then have a nice view up Decker Canyon.
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Some sections of the loop trail are rocky like this, but there is not any technical scrambling or rock climbing.
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The trail keeps looping around to the left as you approach Long Canyon. Down to your right is the gorge with Morrell Creek running through it.
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Keep left at the junction. If you want to go down to the falls, you can make the right here. There are several smaller use trails in this section that access various parts of the falls.
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And soon you’ll arrive at the viewing area for the falls.
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Take a look down into the gorge and enjoy the natural beauty.

Here’s what Ortega Falls looks like when there’s a good amount of water in them.

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From the falls, continue on the trail along the canyon.
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The trail will turn left and then start to zig-zag downhill on switchbacks.
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There are some rocky sections on this stretch, but again, nothing technical or crazy.
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Soon you’ll be at the bottom of the canyon, and San Juan Creek will be on your right.
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When the trail reaches the creek, stay to the left along the side. When the creek is dry, it can look like the trail continues in the sandy creek bed.
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You’ll come to an intersection with the Chiquito Trail on the right. Stay left to continue on the San Juan Loop Trail.
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Here’s a closeup of the sign at that last junction.
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Once past the junction the trail is easy to follow.
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And then is followed by another junction for the old Chiquito Trail. Again, keep to the left to stay on the loop.
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From here on out, you’ll gradually be going uphill back to the start. There’s no real steep sections, but it is uphill. You’ll also pass through some beautiful old-growth oak forest, with lots of shade.
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When you get to the lightly used Upper San Juan Campground, keep to the left and follow the trail around the camping area.
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At the end of the camping area go straight, avoiding the trail to the right into the campground.
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The rest of the hike is uphill and exposed over rock and sand.
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And soon you’ll reach the other side of the parking lot. That’s the San Juan Trail Loop!

This guide last updated on July 14, 2021. Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.

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