Orange County Highpoint Trip Report

Santiago Peak (5,687 ft)

Date: April 10, 2005
Author: Chad Thomas

This was an excellent trip that we completed as an all-day hike, as described in Gary Suttle's book, and is worth the hike even if you aren't into county highpointing.

This was a 16 mile round trip journey, involving 4000 feet of elevation gain, so we started bright and early to avoid the heat and to allow plenty of time. I had wisely called the Trabuco Range District (951-736-1811) two days prior to ask about road conditions to the trailhead. The ranger confidently advised that there was no way an average car could navigate the rough, unpaved Trabuco Canyon Road to the trailhead but that any two-wheel drive high clearance vehicle should do. Our heart set on this hike, we managed to reserve a Ford Escape at somewhat-nearby John Wayne airport in Irvine for only $33 with taxes. When we arrived to pick up the vehicle at 6:30 AM, the salesperson had attempted to "upgrade" us to a full size car since the Escape had supposedly been recalled. Long story short: with some smooth talking and not telling him exactly what we planned to do, we left with a Buick Rendezvous, which looks to me like more of a souped up minivan than an SUV but it suited our purpose so off we went.

From Irvine, we headed toward the 241 toll road and took the Santa Margarita Parkway exit (an alternative to Suttle's directions). Santa Margarita Parkway ended in front of a shopping center and we turned left. We had a printout of a map, which made it easy to spot the unmarked Trabuco Canyon Road. There was a large dirt parking area and the dirt road immediately crossed a creek and began the 4.7 mile journey to the trailhead. The drive here was not very difficult but definitely impossible for low clearance vehicles. There were several stream crossings and many rocky areas along the way, as well as a couple of large pools in the road. One appeared to be quite deep, at least 30 feet across, and ran the width of the road. As we crossed (we had a lot of fun with this rental) a solid wave of water rose well over the hood and up the windshield -- an exciting first for us. Luckily, we did not stall out and though the engine was soaked we were able to continue down the road, eventually passing the volunteer firehouse, immediately followed by a large clearing and the well marked trailhead (it was only on the return trip we noticed a short off-road detour several yards before the pool). We parked and deposited $5 in a cylinder to cover the cost of the National Forest Adventure Pass. I have been with a group in the past that got ticketed for not paying this when a deposit envelope was not present and it was inconvenient to get the pass in advance. The ticket was only an envelope that asked that we mail in the $5 fee, which we did of course.

We started hiking about 8:15 AM. The first 1.5 miles up the trail follows Holy Jim Creek at the base of the canyon and was my favorite part of the hike. It's not very steep and involves ten easy stream crossings, with many opportunities for wading or photo ops of cascades. There is tons of poison oak, however. Just after the 10th crossing is a well-marked quarter-mile side trip to a waterfall, which was worth the trip on the return. The trail then climbs for 3 miles, half of which is switchbacks, followed by a long traverse to the Main Divide Truck Trail. This portion is sun exposed but it was still early and heat was not an issue. There were many wildflowers present and views towards the summit drove us forward. We reached the truck trail for a final 3 miles to the summit and it quickly became apparent there'd be no 4x4s running us off the road (the road is no longer in use, completely washed out just past the trail junction - impassable to any vehicle, with several significant rockslides covering it further up). Just before the summit, another road joined from the northwest but the only people we saw all day were a solo hiker and two mountain bikers who followed our route and another pair on motorcycles who had come up the other road.

The view from the top was outstanding. The previous day had been very windy, so smog was at a minimum. San Jacinto, San Gorgonio, and Old Baldy were clearly visible top to bottom, as was a long stretch of ocean. We could just make out Catalina but it was difficult to see the downtown Los Angeles area. We walked around and found the benchmark on the farthest side of the lookout tower, just a couple of yards from the highpoint. We'd made the summit by noon and then ate, relaxed, and explored the top for almost two hours before heading down.