A scenic road winding through mountains, pine forests and pastoral valleys, connecting South County and Lake Elsinore, is a crucial link for commuters, and a weekend thrill ride for motorcyclists, and also a dumping ground used by criminals who wait for the cover of night. It is the stuff of mystery novels, a place where people with secrets push them over steep cliffs or bury them under a thick layer of brush.
The 44-mile Ortega Highway is a twisting two-lane stretch that connects Riverside and Orange counties via the Cleveland National Forest — and it has a killer reputation.
I did a search for waterfalls in Orange County. A few came up, but one in particular caught my eye. Chiquito Falls near Lake Elsinore. For me to get to the falls I would have to drive the infamous Ortega Highway, or Hwy 74. Known for its beautiful views, dangerous curves and haunted history, it didn’t take much more convincing. I was on my way to Chiquito Falls.
Winding through the Santa Ana Mountains and a wilderness park, the highway remains largely undeveloped, with a few shops and cabins scattered along it.
Those who drive the road at night have reported seeing a clown on the side of the road. He’s said to always disappear like a mirage, as you get closer. The clown never did anything malignant, but nevertheless strikes fear into the hearts of those passing by. I know it would me if I happened to see it, but no luck this time.
Hwy 74 has a lot of dark history. It’s eerie driving the 44 miles after reading about everything that has happened over the years. People have found busted-open safes, incriminating evidence, and more bodies than anyone has cared to count.
In the late 1980s when serial killer Randy Kraft walked into the El Cariso Mountain Restaurant and ordered an avocado sandwich and Coke, he complimented the cook and left a $2 tip.
On May 13, 1989, Kraft’s picture was splashed across newspapers, a day after he was convicted of torturing and murdering 16 young men. Kraft’s first suspected victim: Wayne Joseph Dukette, 30, a bartender from Long Beach, whose body was found at the bottom of a ravine off Ortega Highway in 1971.
Patrick Kearney, the “Trash Bag Killer” who terrorized Southern California in the 1970s, stuffed one of his earliest victims in an industrial-sized plastic bag and dumped him along the highway in 1977.
Milepost 16.50, is where William Bonin, the infamous “Freeway Killer,” dumped 14-year-old Glen Norman Barker of Huntington Beach in 1980 after molesting and strangling him. Bonin dumped at least four of his 21 victims along Ortega Highway between 1979 and 1980.
Unlucky call box 74-88 is where Kenneth Stahl and Carolyn Oppy-Stahl were found shot to death in their car in 1999 and a CHP officer was beaten by a pair of motorcyclists two years later.
At milepost 14, is where two men disposed of their headless, handless mother in 2003.
A medium in the area that gives psychic readings online, studied under a yogi in Peru, to learn how to interact with spirits. She later learned she had the gift to interact with the spirits. During an interview about Ortega Highway she had some scary things to say.
“You think that clown on the side of the road is bad – and you’re right; he’s evil, and would kill if he could. But the thing that climbs up that pole every night and looks down on the people who drive by…it’s like a skeleton, only it’s not. It’s more like a moving carcass, but made up of some things that just don’t exist in this world. That one…I do believe that thing would do a great deal more than just kill you. I think it would take your soul.”
I’m sad to say I didn’t see anything unusual during my drive on the highway, but I did see some seriously amazing views of Lake Elsinore and the snow-capped mountains.
Originally known as Laguna Grande by early Spanish explorers, Lake Elsinore has a rich history in the region, used as a rest stop to camp and water animals for trappers, prospectors of the Gold Rush, and for the great explorer of the Wild West, John Charles Frémont.
Lake Elsinore also has a history of strangeness, and over the years has accrued a reputation for being the home of some strange beast lurking within its depths. The Native Americans of the region long spoke of monstrous serpent-like beasts. They first circulated stories of strange creatures in the lake.
One early account from 1884 describes an enormous scaled creature with a long neck, which was called a “sea serpent.
Another sighting came in 1934 by a rancher named C.B. Greenstreet, who claimed that he had been out on the lake with his wife and daughter when they saw a huge water monster measuring 100 feet long and with a 30-foot tail, which was swimming lazily near the surface. The encounter was apparently so upsetting that Greenstreet’s wife and daughter refused to go back to the lack from that day on.
In 1967, a family boating on the lake reported sighting the beast, which they described as being a huge dark, slender shape that rolled as it swam and had humps that poked above the surface.
And again in 1970, one witness by the name of Bonne Play allegedly saw the creature not once, but twice. Play described the lake monster as being around 12 feet in length, with humps and a saurian appearance.
Sightings continued into the 1990s, with a string of reports made in 1992.
It wasn’t long before the lake monster was being called “Elsie,” a reference to the better known Nessie, as well as “Hamlet,” due to the fact that the name Elsinore is taken from the name of a city that appears in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Interestingly, far from some isolated lake in the middle of untamed wilderness, Lake Elsinore is well visited, and situated in a highly populated area.
The lake has dried up 3 times and there was never a sighting of a lake monster on the bottom. Most locals that believe in the legend say the monster left the dried lake and crawled into a nearby cave until the lake filled again. Whatever the case may be, it is certainly odd, considering that the lake is heavily frequented by people and is a popular recreation area, that a monster as big as Elsie is not sighted more regularly.
Chiquito Falls, named after former ranger Kenneth Munhall’s horse, was an ideal opportunity to see a seasonal waterfall, however in recent years the falls have all but dried up. Now what remains is the opportunity to rock climb and see plenty of Great Basin Fence Lizards along the way. Despite the water shortage, the 9-mile out and back hike to Chiquito Falls is still worth exploring for its beautiful scenery and grueling workout.
The Chiquito Falls trail is located in the expansive Cleveland National Forest near Lake Elsinore. Near the road’s summit lies the Ortega Country Cottage Candy Store, where over the years sightseers have breathlessly burst in to report accidents and sightings from the highway. The trailhead picks up across the street from the candy store.
Park in the large parking lot across the street from the candy store.
There are a few trailheads here, but the one you’ll want to take is the San Juan Loop Trail in the northeast corner of the parking lot. This hike is a 9 mile out-and-back route with nearly 3,000′ of vertical elevation gain. And it’s a waterfall two-fer. You not only get the beautiful serenity of Chiquito Falls at the turnaround point, but you’ll also soak in San Juan Falls en route.
The hike begins by paralleling the highway until you come to the San Juan Falls, which is more than likely, the only waterfall that will be flowing. This gorge is dramatic and a short distance from the trailhead, which is a great way to start. From here, it follows the river down a significant amount of elevation for about a mile. This part is shady and has chaparral and Coastal Oaks with some hints of the inland desert.
Make sure to take enough water as most of this hike is in the direct sun.