If Ortega Highway had an official theme song, it’d have to be The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues”—kicking off with the lyric “Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel.”
Infamous for its steep grades and hairpin turns, the two-lane blacktop snaking through the chaparral-covered Santa Ana Mountains opened in 1933 as a shortcut linking arid Riverside County and the wave-splashed beaches of Orange County. Today, Ortega is its own attraction, luring drivers and motorcyclists out for a weekend joy ride.
Along the way: Several trails on the route can turn this drive into a Sunday drive ’n’ hike. Just beyond Orange County’s stucco-housing sprawl, shady oak and sycamore groves dot the unspoiled, chaparral-carpeted hills of Caspers Wilderness Park—an 8,000-acre parcel laced with more than 35 miles of hiking trails. The easiest is the roughly 1-mile Nature Trail Loop, which begins at the Old Corral Picnic Area. Day-use fee, $3 (weekdays); $5 (weekends).
In the Cleveland National Forest, the popular 2.1-mile San Juan Loop Trail travels through a cool thicket of California live oaks to a cascading San Juan River waterfall. Trailhead parking lot is across from Ortega Oaks Candy Store and Goods, which sells the U.S. Forest Service daily pass ($5) required for trailhead parking.
Pilot into the parking lot of the Lookout Roadhouse for a bird’s-eye view of Lake Elsinore shimmering some 1,000-feet below. Hungry? The roadside restaurant has a takeout window (weekends only)—grab the must-try filet mignon sandwich and chow down in your car.
Picnic pointers: Old-timey Ortega Oaks Candy Store and Goods makes to-go sandwiches and the cookies-and-cream brownies of your dreams. About 3 miles north, Hafey Farms Mountain Market also has takeout deli sandwiches.
Side trip: Break from busy Ortega Highway for a jaunt up lightly trafficked South Main Divide Road. Motoring the road’s first 3 miles along a high ridge in the Elsinore Mountains, you’ll pass a handful of turnouts with outstanding views of Lake Elsinore. From Ortega Highway, turn south on South Main Divide Road. The signed junction is just east of the El Cariso Fire Station and the El Cariso Visitors Center at 32353 Ortega Highway. —Eli Ellison