San Juan Trail in Ortega Mountain and Lake Elsinore
Lake Elsinore. Los Pinos/San Juan Trail Loop hike off of Ortega Highway 74. That is what I had in mind for the last 3 weeks. Maddie, a good friend of mine, and I talked about doing some hiking in her neck of the woods Lake Elsinore, and we finally settled on a date, which was the Tuesday after the Christmas Day weekend. Especially, I had been focusing on my marathon training, hiking had sort of taken the backseat, so it was a great excuse to get myself out of the routine and put myself in the happiest place on earth again – wilderness.
I left my place around 3 pm, and because it was a weekday, Waze gave me a different route (I-405/SR-73/SR-74) to take than the usual I-10/SR-60/SR-71/SR91 to get to Lake Elsinore, to avoid the extreme heavy traffic. Although it was quite heavy on I-405 as well, it turned out that the arrival time at the destination by taking the Ortega Highway 74 (SR-74) over Ortega Mountain coincided with the magic hour. I had to pull over to enjoy the view of the sunset glow over Lake Elsinore. And actually I was able to see San Gorgonio and San Jacinto Peaks in the far distance as well.
Because we learned that rain was in the forecast a day early, so we had to change our plan. Instead of doing the Los Pinos/San Juan Trail Loop, which would have taken a longer time, since we didn’t know how bad the weather condition could get, we decided to do a shorter hike of 14 miles or so, starting from San Juan Loop Trailhead to Blue Jay Campground.
Next morning, on our way up the Ortega Highway 74, we caught the spectacular sunrise. We pulled over to the lookout point and enjoyed the view. It was rather mystical.
After driving further up the windy Ortega Highway, we arrived at the trailhead. We saw no single soul in sight. Of course, it was a weekday, especially, for many it was a workday anyway, so we did have the entire place just to ourselves. It was mostly overcast, with a vague presence of the sun, peeking through the clouds from time to time.
It was to get in and out as quickly as we could as an up and back hike since the weather could turn bad in a matter of seconds.
Our plan was to take the upper portion of the San Juan Loop Trail from the trailhead, then hop on Chiquito Trail, and then hike up the portion of San Juan Trail up to Blue Jay Campground, via a small portion of Viejo Tie Trail.
As we went up Chiquito Trail, we still had a little bit of the sun shining on us. And how the sun peeked through the clouds created surreal moments at some parts of the trail. As if they were lit inside a photo studio with a backdrop photo.
Compared to San Gorgonio and San Jacinto Mountains, which I am more used to hike nowadays, I noticed that this mountain showed significantly different characteristics. First, I thought it was perfect for trail running. Trail runners, hardcore or beginners alike, could benefit from its gradual elevation gains and/or losses. Especially, many parts of the trail are exposed, trail runners could appreciate the surroundings while running.
Also, due to its not too strenuous hiking level, it would be perfect for beginners who do not hike too fast as well as overnighters who just go up and spend a night and come down.
Which means it is also a great place for mountain bikers. As a matter of fact, we ran into two groups of bikers coming down our trails from Blue Jay Campground.
Although we didn’t plan it, it turned out that that we took the longer bottom portion of Viejo Tie Trail to get to San Juan Trail. Because this post shown in the photo above was not marked in my Gaia map, we were not sure where the other trail would lead us to. Thus we naturally decided to continue our hike following the left trail. Of course, later we realized that it was the longer portion of Viejo Tie Trail.
As we progressed, the rain fogs rolled in. It somewhat resembled the Great Smokies, which brought me back some fond memories of hiking in some portions of the Appalachian Trail when I stayed in North Carolina a few years ago. As the fogs started laying its veil over the taller peaks, we decided to hike faster before it rained.
When we arrived this junction shown in the photo above, we were not quite sure what the sign meant. Because the portion of the trail we took was still Viejo Tie Trail, so we were not sure where the other trail would take us to. The second group of mountain bikers happened to come by at this point, so we asked them, but they didn’t seem to know it either. Of course, when we returned to this junction from Blue Jay, we realized that it would actually take us onto the shorter potion of Viejo Tie Trail.
As the drizzles turned into bigger rain drops, it was about time to put on our rain gear. Because I didn’t expect any rain during our hike till the day before, I didn’t bring any rain gear with me. So, Maddie had got me a huge trash bag earlier in the morning, and it actually worked out perfectly.
We continued our hike on San Juan Trail as we knew we were not more than 1.5 miles away from Blue Jay. The rain drops were getting bigger at this point.
We arrived at the end of San Juan Trail. From this point on to Blue Jay and Falcon Campgrounds were all paved roads.
The rain came down harder by the time we reached the San Juan Trail post. We took a quick break and headed to Blue Jay Campground via Falcon Trail.
Once we walked through the short and easy Falcon Trail, we realized that we were actually further away from Blue Jay Campground. So, we referred to my Gaia map again. Eventually, we figured out where we were, and we came out of Falcon Campground and hiked up in the direction of Blue Jay Campground.
Once we reached Blue Jay Campground, it was rather chilly as the wind picked up. At one point, our hands with wet gloves on were so cold that Maddie couldn’t even buckle up the waist strap of her pack. After a quick restroom stop, with an extra layer on, it was time for us to return to the San Juan Trail post.
When we got back to the sign that was resting against the shrubs, we decided to take the shorter route of Viejo Tie Trail, which was part of our original plan, to get back on Chiquito Trail.
After coming down Chquito Trail, somehow we missed the junction and kept on walking and ended up hiking the bottom portion of San Juan Loop Trail to return to the trailhead.
In other words, we didn’t plan it at all, but we ended up covering every inch of all the trails we were on, which was tallied up at 20.4 miles. It was actually close to the distance of the Los Pinos/San Juan Trail Loop, estimated at about 22 miles. But considering the rain and short daylights, we believe that it was a right call.
When we got back to the trailhead, the rainbow greeted us. It was still lightly drizzling and our clothes were pretty much all wet, but I must admit that it was quite refreshing. And, since my Lost Coast Trail backpacking trip, I don’t really mind hiking in the rain any more. Of course, it could get cold, and in fact, it was quite chilly at and around Blue Jay Campground. But it was due to my ill-prepared rain gear. Even then, it was something that I was able to enjoy. And of course, the company of my friend also made it a very pleasant hike.
When I come back here again, the Los Pinos/San Juan Trail Loop will be next. Also, Santiago Peak via Holy Jim Trail seems interesting, combined with a camping night at Blue Jay Campground.
The temperature dropped quite a bit in the following night, and next day, Ortega Mountain was blanketed with snow, which is quite unheard of. It is very rare for this mountain with the highest altitude of 5,689′ (1,734 m) to be covered with snow. However, that is what happened in the last couple of days, which resulted in the closure of Ortega Highway 74. As I am writing this post, Lake Elsinore is in below freezing temperature.