Ortega Highway – A Sweet Day Trip

Ortega Oaks Candy Store

Ortega Oaks Candy Store

By Julie Pendray

LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. –Many years ago, when I was still discovering California as a wet-behind-the-ears Kiwi, my husband surprised me with an impromptu drive to soak in a hot tub under the stars among trees somewhere off the beaten path off Ortega Highway. These heavenly hot springs are no longer available to the public, but there are still many reasons to take this wonderful drive over the mountains from Lake Elsinore in Riverside county to the beautiful coastline of San Juan Capistrano.

Ortega Highway is part of state Route 74, which goes from Palm Desert to the coast. On this leg of the journey, motorists pass through San Juan Hot Springs and Rancho Mission Viejo as well as Cleveland National Forest. The winding adventure is about 33 miles and will take you about 45  to 60 minutes. It is such a welcome respite from freeway traffic. However, before you set off, you should know that the Highway Patrol warns people that this is not the stretch of road to get cocky. As the song goes, “keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel”(or handle bars). In fact, ’70s music on satellite radio is the perfect accompaniment to this journey. Don’t be intimidated by this piece of highway, just hit the road, drive defensively and stay on your side of the center line when you round the corners. The view of the lake on the eastward stretch, from thousands of feet above the valley, is stunning and well worth the trip, especially at night when the lake appears midnight blue with a sparking town around it. The caveat is that this highway is considered more dangerous at night, so drive with care. Life is an adventure. Just be sensible.

Ortega Highway

Ortega Highway is a scenic route through Cleveland National Forest. Photo courtesy Shannon Rosenberg.

I’ve driven on the highway several times in recent years and I’ve wondered about the rustic little eatery called Ortega Oaks Candy Store but I’ve always been in a hurry so I’ve never stopped. Recently, on a westward drive, through my foggy windshield on a rainy day, I noticed a sign there announcing soup and sandwiches. Soup sounded like a good idea, since I had a cold, so I decided this would make a great spot to get out of the car and stretch my legs on the journey home.

I really love it when I’m not sure whether such an earthy little dining establishment will live up to its advertisement and then I find it’s better than I expected. Don’t let the humble exterior or its location fool you. There’s an amazing variety of offerings, and I was warmed not only by the simply presented homemade food but also the genuine friendliness of Shannon Rosenberg, the business owner. I chowed down a hot pastrami sandwich and the best chicken tortilla soup I think I’ve ever had. This place really hit the spot.

The candy store has expanded its offerings over time, Rosenberg said, because it’s the concession for the adjacent Ortega Oaks Campground. It’s even more than that. On the store’s web site, you’ll find news and events for the community, such as a call for Forest Service volunteers. Clearly, this spot is a hub for locals, some of whom wandered in and out while I was eating. Yet it was nice that I wasn’t treated like an outsider while I was eating on my own. I have found on my travels that if you are open enough to engage in warm conversation, an out-of-towner can be welcomed in, even with a foreign accent!

Nostalgic candy is traditional in this store, which opened in 1956 and was operated by a local ranch owner, Paul Anhalt. He also sold produce there, Rosenberg said.

Ortega Highway was completed in 1934 and is named after the Spanish soldier and explorer Sgt. José Francisco Ortega who founded Mission San Juan Capistrano. Ortega led the scouts of the 1769 Portola expedition to Monterey and later became commandante in San Diego. He founded the presidio of Santa Barbara, commanded the presidio at Monterey and was a scout of San Francisco Bay, according to the California State Military Museum. He is buried at Mission Santa Barbara.

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San Juan Loop Trail. Photo courtesy US Forest Service.

It might be nice to mention this history to your family as you drive over the highway or hike the forest trails, such as San Juan Loop Trail, an easy 2.1 mile walk, beginning across the highway from the candy store.  Yet, the candy itself is likely to be more engaging for young ones.

Rosenberg told me the selection of edibles changes from time to time. I was delighted to find huckleberry preserves, which are uncommonly seen in California stores. You might encounter chocolate chip bread pudding, espresso fudge, licorice Scotties or ginger roll. If you are on a special diet, you’re likely to find gluten-free, sugar-free and vegan options.

As if operating the store and creating the menu items and goodies isn’t enough to keep Rosenberg busy, she also makes cakes for all occasions and not just for the locals — some people drive up the highway to get them.

Ortega Oaks Candy Store is at Ortega Oaks RV Park & Campground, 34040 Ortega Hwy, Lake Elsinore.

© Copyright to Julie Pendray & SpecialsNotOnTheMenu.com

2 Comments on "Ortega Highway – A Sweet Day Trip"

  1. Love the post. I live about an hour away, and have never taken the time to drive along the Ortega Highway. It’s good to know such a “wilderness” sill exists in Southern California, a stone’s throw from busy Interstate 5.

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