- Location: Modjeska Grade Road, Orange County. Modjeska Grade Road is located off of Santiago Canyon Road, 8.8 miles north of I-5 (via El Toro Road) and 15 miles southeast of the 55 Freeway (via Chapman Ave.) Make a hairpin left turn if you’re coming from the north; right if from the south. Modjeska Grade is a steep, narrow winding road so exercise caution (the author has witnessed a car crash on this road due to excessive speed.) Note that parking is not allowed in the immediate vicinity of the trail head. The closest easily accessible spot is about 0.3 mile north, and this write-up assumes a start from that point. There is a dirt turnout on the east side of the road that can accommodate several cars. The approximate coordinates are N 33.7066,-117.6392.
- Agency: Orange County Parks & Recreation; Cleveland National Forest (Trabuco Ranger District)
- Distance: 16.4 miles
- Elevation gain: 2,550 feet
- Difficulty Rating: R (Distance, elevation gain)
- Suggested time: 7 hours
- Best season: November – April
- Dogs: Allowed but not recommended due to the exposed terrain, length of the hike and its popularity with mountain bikers
- Cell phone reception: Good through Vulture Crags; weak to none for the rest of the route
- Water: none
- Restrooms: none
- Camping/backpacking: Old Camp is a viable campsite, however overnight parking on Modjeska Grade Road is at your own risk.
- Recommended gear: sunblock; sun hat; insect repellent; hiking poles
- More information: Trip descriptions (to Vulture Crags) here and here; article about the trail here; Map My Hike report here; MTB trail profile here
- Rating: 7
Updated January 2019
This hike might seem a little long for an out-and-back trip that doesn’t pay off with a major summit, but the trek to Old Camp is still a worthwhile adventure for Orange County hikers. In addition to its peaceful destination, the hike showcases views of the higher Santa Ana summits, the Orange County coastal plain and some of the area’s characteristic sedimentary geology, notably Vulture Crags. The hike’s distance and significant elevation gain make it a good choice for training. Though there are a few steep stretches, for the most part the grade is moderate so the miles seem to go by quickly.
After carefully walking along the narrow shoulder of Modjeska Grade Road from your starting point, begin hiking on the Santiago Trail, which leaves from the east side of the street. The trail ascends, following the ridge, with views of Santiago Canyon on the left and Live Oak Canyon on the right. Half a mile from the road, keep an eye out for a large rock with several marine fossils embedded into it.
After a mile, the trail follows the north side of a ridge and the terrain becomes greener. After a vigorous ascent, the trail levels out briefly before climbing to a vista point (about 2.7 miles from the start). Here you can rest and enjoy a 180-degree view to the south and east. The trail then reaches a high point and drops to a saddle on the back side of Vulture Crags, once a nesting site for California condors. At about 3.7 miles from the start, you get your best view of the crags. Two flags (US and Marine Corps) have been placed on a bump east of the formation. A popular mountain bike trail, the Luge, descends toward Live Oak Canyon Road from this spot (because there is no parking at the bottom of the Luge, it is impractical for hikers to explore, but many bikers opt to make a loop using the streets).
Past the junction, the trail continues its ascent, crossing from one side of the ridge to the other. To the north (left) and far below is shaded Santiago Canyon with Santiago Peak towering almost three thousand feet above. On the right are some pink, orange and brown sedimentary formations. Farther, amid the suburbs, are Upper Oso Reservoir, Lake Mission Viejo and the trails of Bell Peak and Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park.
The Santiago Trail reaches the top of the ridge (about 6 miles from the start) and passes two side trails on the right. A final ascent brings you to a Y-junction about 7.8 miles from the start. Head left (downhill) for 0.4 mile to Old Camp. Here you can enjoy a break beneath the shade of some large oak trees. The Joplin Trail continues past Old Camp, ascending 2,000 feet in 2.3 miles to reach Main Divide Road at the “saddle” of Old Saddleback. Hikers who still have gas in the tank can continue onto either Modjeska or Santiago. However, most will probably be content to rest up for the long return – which includes 550 feet of uphill.
Text and photography copyright 2019 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.