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View of Santiago Peak from the Santiago Truck Trail, Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

View of Santiago Peak from the Santiago Truck Trail

View of southeastern Orange County from the Santiago Truck Trail, Cleveland National Forest, CA

Southeast view from the Santiago Truck Trail

Vulture Crags

      • 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.) Turn left 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.) Parking is not available in the immediate vicinity of the trail head. Signs are posted along both sides indicating where parking is legal; the closest to the trail head is about 0.1 miles north of it (0.6 miles from Santiago Canyon Road). If parking is unavailable there, park below the trail head, possibly on Santiago Canyon Road itself in a small dirt turnout.
      • Agency: Orange County Parks & Recreation; Cleveland National Forest (Trabuco Ranger District)
      • Distance: 7 miles (round trip distance assuming closest possible starting point)
      • Elevation gain: 1,100 feet (assuming closest possible starting point)
      • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (distance, elevation gain)
      • Suggested time: 2 hours
      • Best season: November – April
      • USGS topo maps: “Santiago Peak”
      • Recommended gear: sunblock; sun hat;
      • Recommended guidebook: Day Hikes Around Orange County
      • More information: Trip descriptions here, here and here; Everytrail report here
      • Rating: 7
0:00 - View from the start of legal parking on Modjeska Grade Road, north of the trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – View from the start of legal parking on Modjeska Grade Road, north of the trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

The Santiago Truck Trail climbs from Santiago Canyon all the way to Main Divide Road. The moderately graded 10-plus mile route is popular with mountain bikers for day hikers, Vulture Crags makes a good destination for a moderate trip. Highlights include up-close views of Modjeska and Santiago Peaks, panoramic vistas of the Orange County coastal plains and foothills and Vulture Crags, once a roosting spot for condors. Keep in mind that the trail is entirely exposed, although if you get off to an early or late start, the ridges may block out some of the sun.

Marine fossils on the Santiago Truck Trail, Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

0:16 – Fossils in a rock (times are approximate)

After carefully walking along the narrow shoulder of Modjeska Grade Road from your starting point, begin hiking on the Santiago Truck 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.

Greenery on the Santiago Truck Trail, Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

0:30 – Greenery on the Santiago Truck Trail

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 (2.5 miles from the start). Here you can rest and enjoy a 180-degree view to the south and east.

Panoramic view of the Santa Ana foothills from the Santiago Truck Trail, Orange County, CA

1:10 – Southwest view from the vista point about 2.5 miles from the start

Following the vista point, the trail climbs to the highest point on this hike, about 2,300 feet. If it is spring, you may notice the pleasant scent of wild flowers. You soon see the backside of Vulture Crags; keep an eye out too for a large sandstone outcrop on the left side of the trail, resembling the geology of the Santa Monica Mountains. The trail descends to a saddle where a short spur leads to a mini-summit, marked by U.S. and Marine Corps flags. Here you can sit and get a great view of Vulture Crags. Below the formation are layers of multicolored marine sediment. You also get a nice aerial view of Live Oak Canyon Road, about a mile away. The Morrow Trail (aka the Luge) leads down to the road and is popular with mountain bikers but not very practical for hikers, with no parking access at the lower end.

Geology on the Santiago Truck Trail, Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

1:30 – Geology near Vulture Crags

If you still have time and energy, you can head up farther on the Santiago Truck Trail or explore the Morrow Trail, keeping in mind that the latter will require you to ascend after descending. Otherwise retrace your steps back to Modjeska Grade.

Text and photography copyright 2015 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.

Vulture Crags, Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

1:40 – Vulture Crags as seen from the turnaround point

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