Text and photography copyright 2010 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. The author does not take any responsibility for injuries sustained during hikes or walks on the routes described here. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.
Santiago Peak from the Holy Jim Trail
- Location: Trabuco Canyon, eastern Orange County. From I-5 in south Orange County, take El Toro Road northeast for 6 miles. At Cook’s Corner, take a hard right onto Live Oak and drive four miles. Shortly past O’Neill Park, right after Rose Canyon Road, take a left on Trabuco Creek Road, an unmarked dirt road. Note that 4-wheel drive vehicles with high clearances are recommended. Drive for 5 miles on this rough dirt road and arrive at the Holy Jim parking lot just past the volunteer fire station. A United States Forest Service adventure pass ($5 per day or $30 per year) is required. Click here to purchase.
- Agency: Cleveland National Forest, Trabuco Ranger District
- Distance: 16 miles
- Elevation gain: 3,900 feet
- Suggested time: 9 hours
- Difficulty rating: R (Distance, elevation gain)
- Best season: October – May
- USGS topo map: “Santiago Peak”
- Recommended gear: Sunblock; Sun Hat; Insect Repellent
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Orange County
- More information: here
- Rating: 9
Santiago Peak is the taller, rounder of the two summits comprising Old Saddleback. Just as Mt. Baldy is visible throughout L.A. and recognizable even to those who don’t know it by name, Santiago Peak, and its northern neighbor Modjeska, can be seen from Malibu to Big Bear to San Diego on clear days. Old Saddleback gives its name to the famous church in Foothill Ranch, a community college, a local school district and much more.
Although they are less than a mile apart as the crow flies, Modjeska and Santiago present very different hiking experiences. (Santiago can be reached from the north as well, as an extension of the hike to Modjeska Peak from Maple Springs Road, but the route described here is the more common approach). I found that while I preferred the view from Modjeska better, the climb to Santiago was more enjoyable. Santiago’s numbers may seem a little intimidating, but most of the climbing is pretty easy, so it’s more of an endurance test than anything else. That being said, make sure you allow enough time if you plan on making a day trip of it, and remember that the summit can be twenty degrees cooler than the trail head, so pack extra clothes if need be.
The hike shares the first mile-plus with the trip to Holy Jim Falls. At the spur to the waterfall, you continue on the main trail to Santiago, making a hard left and beginning to switchback out of the canyon. As you rise, the views get better and better. You get an aerial perspective on Holy Jim Canyon and to the south, you can see Los Pinos Peak and the other southern summits of the Santa Anas.
After five miles, the Holy Jim Trail ends at Main Divide Road. The last stretch is through a wooded canyon that reminds me a little of Icehouse. The final few yards before Main Divide ascend surprisingly steeply.
Once on Main Divide Road, take a left and start heading northeast toward the summit. As you climb, the terrain becomes more exposed. San Jacinto can be seen to the east; San Gorgonio to the northeast and Baldy to the north. A few pines near the summit provide welcome shade, and before long, you’re making the final switchbacks to the summit.
The antennas on the summit make it hard to fully enjoy the view, but on a clear day, you can still see a lot: the ocean, the Santa Monica mountains, the San Gabriels, the San Bernardinos and more. As with Mt. Baldy, after climbing this summit, you can enjoy your bragging rights every time you see it from lower (or higher) elevations.