When you think of hiking in Orange County, you don’t usually envision dramatic waterfalls. But during the spring, there are a number of wonderful seasonal waterfalls that are just a hike away. One of my personal favorites is Chiquito Falls.
The trailhead parking is across the street from The Candy Store on Ortega Highway (Route 74). Being in the Cleveland National Forest, you’ll need to display an Adventure Pass to park. If you don’t have a pass, you can purchase one at The Candy Store. They also have a few free parking spaces behind the store.
At the northeast corner of the parking lot, you’ll see this sign marking the San Juan Loop trailhead.
There’s a map of the trails in the area as well as the usual warnings about rattlesnakes and wildlife. Note that dogs are permitted, but must be kept on a leash.
The trail climbs for a short distance, then bends around the ridge taking you by the San Juan Falls. These falls see a lot of visitors due to their close proximity to the parking lot. There are a lot of people who aren’t serious hikers. It’s also a great place to take kids to give them a taste of the wilderness.
I prefer to take a look from above, then leave the crowds behind and continue on to the more secluded and beautiful Chiquito Falls.
While you’re in the canyon, enjoy the shade of the oak trees. Most of the hike has full sun exposure.
Watch for the turn off to your right at about the 1.1 mile marker. Note that there is an unofficial turnoff before the official trail. Both cross the creek — an easy boulder hop usually — but only the second turn off has the official trail marker.
If you miss the turn and find yourself connecting back to Ortega Highway, you’ve gone too far.
Once you cross San Juan Creek, the trail parallels another tributary with good shade and a gentle climb. You’ll cross this tributary at about mile 2, and begin your ascent up the ridge.
The remaining 2+ miles to Chiquito Falls is exposed to the sun. As you climb up the ridge, you’ll be treated with some awesome panoramic views to the southeast, including Sitton Peak.
At 3.7 miles, you’ll reach the highest point on the trail — just shy of 2,700′ above sea level. Once you round the second bend, you’ll catch your first glimpse of Chiquito Falls.
As you near the falls, watch for the spur trail to the left. The main trail continues on connecting with the San Juan Trail.
The spur leads to the top of the falls, There are some great places to sit, enjoy the views and share lunch.
You can easily climb down to the base of the falls for a view from below. See the photo gallery below for more pics.
Trail Map and Elevation Profile
Getting to the Trailhead
The trailhead parking lot is directly across the street from The Candy Store on Ortega Highway 74, about 15 miles east of the 5 Freeway and San Juan Capistrano.
Chiquito Falls Trail Tips
- Remember you’ll need an National Forest Adventure Pass for parking
- Watch for rattlesnakes, particularly when the weather gets warmer
- Be sure to bring The Ten Essentials. This isn’t a walk through the ‘burbs!
- Watch for mountain bikers. This is a popular downhill route. If you see one, there are probably more following. Ask how many are behind them, and let them know how many hikers are behind you!
- The Candy Store now has a grill going on the weekends for a post-hike burger in addition to homemade fudge and cold drinks. Check their website for hours and details.
- Do you use the EveryTrail app on your smart phone? Download this guide and take it with you on the trail!
Special thanks to my girlfriend Joan for joining me on this hike, and for John from Hiking OC for introducing me to this trail.
3/26/18 Update: We’ve reduced the total vertical gain to 1,409′ thanks to SoCal hiker Paul Okada’s updated GPS data.