Orange County High Point Trip Report

Santiago Peak on Santiago Peak USGS 7.5 minute quadrangle (5,687 ft)

Date: May 9, 2003
Author: Dan Baxter

I rate Santiago as one of the least inspiring climbs I've done. This is in part because of the lack of views (the summit was fogged in above 5,000 feet) and the rushed manner in which I made this a drive-up (I was playing hooky from a business meeting and from my kids at Disneyland), hence it may be a better climb for others. It is still, however, a summit over-laden with a morass of communication towers, stuck amid one of the largest, smoggiest urban sprawls in the country, and those factors are unalterable. Further, should you opt for the trail hike, you will climb a south-slope facing trail in the hot southern California climate, only to find that at the top of the trail you have no option but to share another couple of miles of dirt road with crazed motor-maniacs such as myself. The part-trail, part-walkup approach is well described in Gary Suttle's book, a must-have for anybody serious about California county highpointing. This involves a 16 mile round trip walk, of which about half is on the Holy Jim Canyon Trail (labeled forest roads 6S14 and 6W03 on the official Cleveland National Forest map), and half on dirt roads briefly near the trail head, and for the last 3 miles on the road labeled the Main Divide Road and as 3S04 on the forest map. This trail begins at a trail head in Trabuco Canyon, northeast and uphill from the Trabuco Fire station. I, however, left a medical conference at 9 am, and had to return by three or four pm. A drive-up was the only option.

There are 3 basic road approaches to Santiago Peak. In the preceding week I plotted my course - looking at the maps, the most logical approach was from the northwest. This approach begins at the Silverado Fire Station, and goes on Maple Springs Road up Silverado Canyon on a road which is paved (at least on the NFS map) to just shy of 3,000 foot elevation. A dirt road then winds up to the first National forest gate at a 4523 benchmark (NFS gates are especially important in early spring, as the gate may be locked because of snow, wet conditions, spring road erosion, etc.). If the gate were locked, it would only be an approximate 2 and a half mile 1100-foot elevation gain walk up a road. Furthermore, this approach was the closest to the Orange and Los Angeles County metropolis from which I would be stationed. Why, then, were all the preceding CoHP reports from the much longer and less convenient approach from the northeast? I called the Trabuco Ranger District station to confirm road conditions. Their number is 909-736-1811, fax 909-736-3002. The employee I talked to was friendly, unrushed and informative. Maple Springs Road was seasonally closed, through September, in order to protect an endangered species of toad which apparently likes to walk on the roadways of Silverado Canyon! So THATS why all the reports were from other approaches. She told me that I could drive up via the Indian Truck Trail route from the northeast (described in all preceding reports), or via another approach which she thought may be subtly easier, from the southeast starting at El Cariso, then via road 3S04 (the Main Divide Road) direct to the summit. I elected to take the northeast drive-up approach, via the Indian Truck Trail route, in part because it was so well described in the preceding CoHP reports, but mainly because the route begins at the Corona Freeway, a much quicker "trail head" than the windy road to El Cariso Village.

A National Forest Adventure Pass is required for any car which parks in Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres or San Bernadino National Forests. Last year I summited Ventura and Kern Counties without this pass, after unsuccessfully attempting to buy one at 4 pm at the nearest ranger station (closed at that hour). Back then, however, I heard that the fine of being caught without one was the price of a pass. Lately, however, I've heard rumor of $150 fines. Hence, I stopped at the Trabuco Ranger Station and bought a one year pass for $30 ( I still have Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Bernadino Counties to complete; all in these national forests). This office is in Corona, a 5 minute drive from the I-91/I-15 interchange. From I-91 take the first exit south on I-15 (Magnolia), immediate right, couple minutes north, left at the light (E 6th Street), then at 1147 E 6th Street on the right. Call 909-736-1811 for hours.

Once on I-15 go 10.5 miles to the Indian Truck Trail exit. At the end of the off ramp set your odometer at the stop sign, and turn right (west). At 0.1 mile the pavement ends. Here is a minimally confusing construction project. The desired road veers left around it. At 0.3 mile is the fork with the Korean sign where you turn left. At 1.2 miles you turn right at the fork at the Korean Grace Retreat Center. Scott Surgent (7/00), Hans Haustein (2/02) and "Hang Dog Ted" (3/02) have reports describing a road much easier than the one I encountered. Last year was a drought year (with many southern California forest closings secondary to fire hazard). This season looked like another dry year, until major storms came in the past month or so. They have had their effect on this road, which was decidedly more difficult than my San Diego or Imperial County drives two months ago. There is severe rutting which begins just past the Korean retreat. A 4WD is an absolute necessity (unless you are a vigorous mountain biker or road hiker). I would not even attempt this road if there is any rain in the preceding week. You must be experienced at straddling deep ruts rather than attempting to go around them. A few of these ruts are deep enough and the wheel placement area angled enough, that you must be mentally prepared to side-slip into them, which would be unrecoverable for any non-4WD. Thrice there were transverse ridges which caused the middle of my high riding vehicle to bottom out and scrape, one with some difficulty. A few wash-outs erode about halfway across the narrow roadway, with precipitous drops. On very narrow roads where I am unsure of my ability to pass ahead, I tend to record mileage where a turnabout is possible. I recorded only 19 such locales between mile 1.8 and the summit. In other words, if you get into more than you're willing to take, just backing up to the last turnabout may be an impossible option. I was thankful that I did this drive on a weekday; I saw no other vehicles, and only one lone hiker the whole way.

At 1.8 miles is the NFS gate, near BM 1783, on this road called 5S01 and Indian Road on the NFS map. There were a few puddles around mid-way: two worried me about hidden ruts in their depths, but I passed unhindered. (No snow seen anywhere, by the way). At 7.7 miles I reached the "T" and left 5S01 to turn right on the Main Divide Road, with signs as 3S04. At 9.2 miles was the signed Holy Jim Trail junction, with a water tank on the right (no visible water in the area). Hikers coming up this trail would now hike the remainder of the way on 3S04. There is a large clearing at 10.8 miles. At 12.2 miles you enter the summit complex. I parked here, to walk up and explore the remaining 5 minutes (need SOME hike up, after all!). This drive took me 1 hour 24 minutes, and I tend to drive faster on back roads than most. The summit was lost in the clouds; the view was non-existent. I initially thought the true-summit was to the right, but when I climbed this hill it was evident that the summit was up the roadway to the left.

At 11:35 am I stood at the summit benchmark, blissfully in a rare but very small natural area, a few feet from the "American Tower". There is a rusting can there, with an inner can which holds a very soaked and unreadable register. I left a new piece of paper with my name on it, and headed back. The summit is heavily developed and covered with communication towers, much more so than even Solano County. I saw no point in tarrying (especially as I was more than a little concerned about two road ruts on the return). The view, again, was non-existent. The only forest consisted of towers. The drive back down was quicker and thankfully, uneventful. There were a few moments below cloud cover that I could see down into the Lake Elsinore Valley, something I was too preoccupied on the drive up to notice.

In Cleveland National Forest - DeLorme S Calif atlas map 104 (5th edition, 2000).
GPS coordinates zone 11 (450819 E, 3729645 N)
topo chart