Irvine to Santiago Loop
The network of trails linking adjacent Irvine and Santiago Oaks Regional Parks allow for many possible fun, moderate hikes. One doesn’t have to have a specific plan to enjoy these two parks, but for those who prefer a set route, consider the loop described here, taken from “Afoot and Afield: Orange County.” It starts at Irvine, heads north up Barham Ridge, down into Santiago Oaks Regional Park and back again. Clear day vistas include the ocean and Catalina Island; the hike also provides views of Old Saddleback, the San Gabriel Mountains and much of the Orange County coastal plain.
From the parking area, pick up the signed Roadrunner Loop Trail on the north side of the paved road. Turn right at the first junction and follow it across a stream bed to another intersection. Both paths are part of the loop but the left fork is more scenic. It drops into a grove of oaks and eucalyptus trees, passes three other minor unsigned trails before reaching a Y-junction (0.6 miles.) Turn right to meet the other leg of the trail. Bear left to continue north, passing an information board.
This is the start of both the Chutes Trail and the steeper Chutes Ridgeline Trail. The two climb steadily up the exposed south side of Barham Ridge, taking in excellent views of Weir Canyon on the right and Santiago Creek’s flood plain on the left.
At about 1.8 miles, after crossing a few times, the trails meet at the top of Barham Ridge. Turn left and pass the Mountain Goat Trail, continuing onto a vista point; the highest elevation on the hike.
After enjoying the view, retrace your steps to the Mountain Goat Trail and make your descent into Santiago Oaks Regional Park. Once again you have a choice between a longer, more moderate grade and a steeper route; the former favored by equestrians and the latter by mountain bikers. At the bottom of the hill, bear right onto the Santiago Creek Trail and follow it into a pleasant oak and eucalyptus woodland with a picnic table. (The Bobcat Meadow Trail, which eventually rejoins the Santiago Creek Trail, is also an option).
Follow the Santiago Creek Trail to a junction with the Pony Trail, where you’ll take a hard left, soon arriving at a dirt staging area near the base of the Villa Park Dam. The trail continues on the opposite side of the clearing, making a short but steep climb to the top of the dam and briefly joining a paved road. The signed Santiago Creek Trail soon splits off to the left, dropping back toward Irvine Regional Park.
From here, several different trails head back to your starting point. Since the Santiago Creek Trail is now adjacent to a residential area, you may find the Egret Trail more enjoyable. Follow it to a junction by a picnic table and bear left on the unsigned Willow Trail, which passes by several burned (and a few living) willow and sycamore trees on its way south back toward the Irvine Park Entrance. At a junction with the Horseshoe Loop Trail, turn left and follow it back to your starting point. Alternately, you can exit through a grassy picnic area and turn left on the paved road, which also takes you back to your starting point.
Despite a few confusing spots, park signage is pretty good and maps of both parks are available online and at the information booths. Whether you follow the exact route or not a visit to these neighboring parks is bound to be an enjoyable experience.
Text and photography copyright 2016 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. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.