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The Ortega Highway (Route 74) is an elegant serpentine single lane road that weaves its way through a vast swath of the Cleveland National Forest which separates Southern Orange County from Lake Elsinore and the desert beyond.
This is your opportunity to witness southern California as it once looked before "civilization" migrated northward from Mexico and westward from the thirteen colonies. It is filled with blue skies, broad grassy fields, tumbling chaparral, live oak and coastal pines at the upper most ridges.
And - I have to brag - this was the first place I saw a mountain lion loping along a side road. Rangers do recommend that people keep young children close, although the lions' presence have not proven to be fatal to full grown adults.
Welcome to the wild wild West!
Easing through the foothills out of San Juan Capistrano, the highway slides through grass lands, purple and swaying in the springtime. The road cuts through red sedimentary rock, thick and red with copper. This is a perfect road for driving enthusiasts, whether you own a sports car or a motorcycle - or just want to pretend you do!
On the weekends the traffic is relatively light, climbing past Casper Wilderness Park bathed in gentle coastal sunshine at the edge of the San Juan Creek. This is an ideal place for a day amongst the live oak, manzanita, lithe reeds and grasses, and - in the wetter months - an abundance of native California flowers that change as you rise through the Santa Ana Mountains.
Higher up, the Ortega climbs into more jagged peaks, which host Ortega Falls rushing with clear mountain water through square cleaved boulders during the rainy season. One can discover other tributaries throughout the range when the rain is good.
A few quaint old-fashioned "grocery stores," spot the road for those of you who come here on a whim and grow an appetite. Hell's Kitchen restaurant is popular amongst the motorcyclist who frequent the pass.
A small handful of camping areas dot the weaving road where you can enjoy your picnic lunch and imbibe the vast soundlessness of a world free of white noise. There are plenty of turnouts along the way where you can invent your own adventure.
The road, if taken from the coast, ends with breathtaking panoramic views of the entire range of mountains cutting their way to Mexico, launching across the desert to Palm Springs, Idyllwild and Temecula vineyards. Lake Elsinore appears like a turquoise gem below. Here you will find your final restaurant called The Lookout, where you can enjoy breakfast, lunch and cold beer either inside or out on the patio overlooking the lake.
Like other national forests, this national forest is excellent for camping, hiking, mountain-biking, picnicking, bird-watching, etc.