The Road Less Traveled: Ortega Highway

State Route 74 began construction in 1929 and was finished in 1934.  SR 74 begins at an interchange with I-5 in the city of San Juan Capistrano and heads east as the Ortega Highway, loosely paralleling San Juan Creek. The highway leaves the San Juan Capistrano city limits and turns northeast, winding through the Santa Ana Mountains, into the Cleveland National Forest. 


The highway continues winding through the Santa Ana Mountains and passes through the community of El Cariso before entering the city of Lake Elsinore.  The Highway travels along side Lake Elsinore before heading east into Perris, CA. East of Perris, SR 74 continues into the San Jacinto Mountains and turns into the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway. 

We begin our trip with with a group of friends from Just Drive SoCal in the Los Rios Historic District. Settled in the late 1700s during the construction of the Mission San Juan Capistrano, Los Rios is the oldest neighborhood in California. The district is located near the corner of Ortega Hwy and Camino Capistrano.

Ortega Highway originally began as a Native American trail and is named after the Spanish explorer José Francisco Ortega who led the Portola expedition in 1769. The expedition was the first group of non-natives to ever see the area.

About 10 miles in, you come to the Ortega Hot Springs and the abandoned San Juan Hot Springs Resort. The hot springs are located just off the Ortega Highway as it enters the Cleveland National Forest. There are only three buildings of the old San Juan Hot Springs resort remain standing, every thing else has been destroyed by vandals or the elements. You can explore the ruins and the nearby San Juan creek here, but be careful.

Further up the highway brings us to Ortega Oaks Candy Store and Ortega Oaks Campground. Full of snack and treats, the shop has been here for almost 40 years. Be sure to bring your wallet, as you won’t be able to go inside and leave without buying something delicious. 

The village of El Cariso is about 4 miles up the highway, at the crest of the Santa Ana Mountains. El Cariso was once the hideout for an outlaw gang of horse rustlers called the Flores Daniel Gang back in the 1800’s. A large posse from Los Angeles and Temecula found the hideout in 1857 that ended with a shootout, killing or capturing most of the gang. Today El Cariso is home to a different kind of outlaw. Hell’s Kitchen is a restaurant and bar that is popular with both bikers and auto enthusiast. You can dine indoors or outdoors and they have a great selection of beer and pretty good food. They even use a casket as their condiment bar. 

Our final stop before Lake Elsinore is Lookout Road House. If Hell’s Kitchen wasn’t your taste, you can dine inside or outside on the patio, which offers a spectacular view of Lake Elsinore. Lookout Rouadhouse serves a country style meal, but only for breakfast and lunch, so make sure you plan accordingly. The view from the patio and turnout is spectacular and you can come up any time.  Lake Elsinore is the largest natural freshwater lake in Southern California with over 14 miles of shoreline.

From here you can return back down Ortega Highway to San Juan Capistrano or head down to Lake Elsinore.

Once in Lake Elsinore, you will discover plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation, along side of shopping outlets, antique shops, and fine restaurants. So the next time you’re looking for that perfect day trip, load up the family, fill up the gas tank and head down Ortega Highway, for a good old-fashioned American road trip.


22 thoughts on “The Road Less Traveled: Ortega Highway

  1. Ha ha ha – I love the condiment bar! I actually really do love the candy store . I love roadtrips where you stumble upon the small independent store selling sweet treats you haven’t seen in ages.


    1. Those are the best right? They’re even better because you weren’t expecting them! When I first saw the condiment bar, I knew I had to put it in the post. It’s just too interesting not to haha!


  2. It is either your stunning photography, or the Ortega Highway itself, or, rather, both, that just make me want to take this road trip so badly!!
    Very cool to read about the history of the road, too. Such knowledge adds so much value to the whole experience!


  3. Love a good patio! I would definitely choose Hell’s Kitchen and the restaurant with a patio (I’m a sucker for the outdoors). Would love to take a road trip down this highway!


  4. What a fun road trip! I love road trips that get you away from the big cities and through little towns you wouldn’t normally stumble across. The abandoned resort sounds quite intriguing!


    1. Thank you Arnie! I really don’t have a secret. I just see what I want to take a picture of, take a bunch of pictures of what I’m looking at, then choose between them. I also leave the aperture open longer when shooting in low light situations. Other than that, I really don’t have much of a process. I wish I could be of more help.


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