West Horsethief/Trabuco Canyon Loop
- 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 vehicles with high clearances are recommended. Drive for 5.7 miles to the end of this rough dirt road, about a mile past the Holy Jim Trailhead. Before the gate that ends the road, there is a small parking area with room for about six cars. 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: 10 miles
- Elevation gain: 2,600 feet
- Suggested time: 5.5 hours
- Difficulty rating: R (Distance, elevation gain, steepness)
- Best season: November – April
- USGS topo map: “Santiago Peak”; “Alberhill”
- Recommended gear: Sunblock; Sun Hat; Insect Repellent; hiking poles
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Orange County
- More information: Trip descriptions here and here; Meetup description here; Everytrail report here
- Rating: 9
This challenging hike is one of the most scenic and varied in Orange County, if not all of So Cal. Highlights include panoramic views (pending good visibility) of San Jacinto, San Gorgonio, Baldy, Catalina and more; shaded canyons filled with oaks and sycamores, pine groves, geology and more.
The trail starts at the end of Trabuco Canyon Road, almost a mile past the Holy Jim trailhead. Cross the gate and begin hiking on the Trabuco Canyon Trail which makes its way gradually uphill through towering oaks and sycamores. The trail goes in and out of a meadow, crosses the stream bed twice and follows the north side of the canyon. Keep an eye out for pine trees on the opposite ridge as you ascend. At 1.4 miles, stay left as a false trail branches off to the right.
About a quarter mile later you reach a junction with the West Horsethief Trail. If it’s late in the day you might want to ascend on the more gradual Trabuco Canyon Trail (right), but if it’s early and you want to get the most labor-intensive climbing out of the way, head left on the Horsethief Trail. The distance from the junction to Main Divide Road is about the same as from the trailhead to the junction – but it gains almost twice as much elevation. The good news is that the trail is primarily on western-facing slopes, so with an early start, you won’t have to deal with the sun. The higher you climb, the better the views are; the slice of Trabuco Canyon below you is particularly striking. That being said, however, the intensity of the ascent is likely to test the morale of even experienced hikers.
After climbing over a thousand feet in about a mile and a quarter, the trail starts leveling out. You may be encouraged to see Main Divide Road on your left, and the remainder of the climb to it is more gentle, traveling through an attractive grove of pines. At 3.2 miles from the start you reach Main Divide Road where you’ll turn right and head east. Through a “window” in the pines, you get a good look at San Gorgonio Mountain and a little bit later, after passing by the turnoff for the East Horsethief Trail (“landlocked” by private property at the lower end), you get as good a look at Lake Elsinore as you’re likely to ever see.
You continue following Main Divide for a total of 2.6 fairly easy miles (watch out for dirt bikes) to Munhall Saddle, 5.9 miles from the start and at 4,194 feet, the highest point in the loop. From the saddle you can enjoy a nice view to the south before beginning the next leg of the hike, the upper end of the Trabuco Canyon Trail.
Take a hard right and begin your descent, traveling through a thick grove of pines and black oaks. There may be parts of Orange County that feel more remote, but it’s hard to imagine where; this is truly a place to get away from it all.
At 6.6 miles, the trail makes a switchback, briefly leaving the woods and providing a nice view of Santiago Peak. You continue down through more woods before emerging at a tree which (as of this writing) is seasonally decorated. Ignore the spur leading to the right and make a hairpin left turn, continuing your descent. The next stretch of Trabuco Canyon closely hugs the wall, providing dramatic views below.
At 8.4 miles, you reach the bottom of Trabuco Canyon and return to the junction. Turn left and retrace your steps back down the lower end of the Trabuco Trail, 1.6 miles to the parking area.
Text and photography copyright 2013 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.
Difficulty R Distance 5.1 to 10 miles Dogs allowed Orange County - Santa Ana Mountains & Foothills Rating: 9 Season: Fall/Early Winter Season: Late Winter/Spring cleveland national forest Main Divide Road Orange County Hiking outdoors Recreational Hike Santa Ana Mountains Southern California Trails Trabuco Canyon West Horsethief Trail