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Hikes In and Around Orange County

San Juan Loop Trail Guide (CA)

  • 2.1 miles - Easy Effort
  • 1-2 Hours (Total)
  • 440 Total Feet of Climbing
  • Max Elevation of 2,000 feet
  • Leashed Dogs Allowed

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.

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

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.

Gear That I Love Right Now

Nothing is sponsored or promoted, just the actual gear that I use.

Gear Inreach Mini 2
Garmin InReach Mini 2If you are out of cellphone range the Mini 2 will reliably allow you to hit SOS via satellite. You can see my review here.
Gear Hoka Speedgoat 5
HOKA Speedgoat 5These are a great balance of comfort and performance. The high stack height leaves my feet feeling great after a hike.

Check out the complete list here.

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

Use This Map:
View in CalTopo | PDF Map | GPX File

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

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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!

Need More Info?

  • Have a question about the guide or want to see what other people are saying/asking? View the Youtube comments for this video. Leave a comment and I will do my best to respond.
  • When planning, always check the park website and social media to make sure the trails are open. Similarly, check the weather and road conditions.

This Guide Was Written by Cris Hazzard

Cris Hazzard 4 Mile Trail Yosemite
Hi, I'm Cris Hazzard, aka Hiking Guy, a professional outdoors guide, hiking expert, and author based in Southern California. I created this website to share all the great hikes I do with everyone else out there. This site is different because it gives detailed directions that even the beginning hiker can follow. I also share what hiking gear works and doesn't so you don't waste money. I don't do sponsored or promoted content; I share only the gear recommendations, hikes, and tips that I would with my family and friends. If you like the website and YouTube channel, please support these free guides (I couldn't do it without folks like you!). You can stay up to date with my new guides by following me on YouTube, Instagram, or by subscribing to my monthly newsletter.