A Guide to Hiking Orange County's Highest Peak, Saddleback Mountain

I'm always amused with the surprise of out-of-towners and locals who never knew that a mile high mountain exists in Orange County. Indeed, the Santa Ana Mountains of Orange County are a rugged and wild range which destroy the stereotype that the O.C. is just a bunch of celebrities and beaches. I love telling the story of how I got caught in an Orange County blizzard on the slopes of Santiago peak, just thirty miles from the ocean!

Having said that, I'd like to provide you with a guide on climbing this rugged mountain!
Santiago Mountain, more commonly referred to as Saddleback Mountian, sits at 5,689ft and is the high point of the Santa Ana Mountains. It is preserved by Cleavland National Forest and there are probably a hundred different ways to get to the summit. I've lost track of how many times I've climbed this mountain and I get requests for information all the time. Despite its prominence, it still remains difficult to get to and relatively uncrowded. The Holy Jim Trail is the most hiked trail up the mountain and even this requires a 5 mile drive down a rough dirt road!

Directions to Santiago Peak Trailhead (Holy Jim Trail)

As mentioned earlier, this is actually a difficult trailhead to access. I'd recommend having 4-wheel drive, but its possible to reach it in a sedan (might take you a while). The trailhead is located in the rural community of Trabuco Canyon California which is out in the sticks. So, from wherever you are, head to Laguna Hills, CA.
Saddleback Mountain, Orange County
From the 5 freeway in Laguna Hills
  • Take the exit for El Toro Rd and head north (towards the mountains)
  • Take El Toro Rd for about 7.0 miles to "Cooks Corner". This is a very conspicuous Biker Bar, you'll see a thousand harleys parked out front
  • Make a right at Cook's Corner for Live Oak Canyon Rd
  • Take Live Oak Canyon Rd for 2.0 miles until you see "Trabuco General Store" Pick up your national forest pass here! You WILL be ticketed without it!
  • Take a Left on the unmarked dirt road just past the general store. This is Trabuco Creek Rd. and it can be rough and washed out in the spring. Drive carefully
  • Drive 4.7 miles on Trabuco Creek Rd until you see the trailhead. The trailhead is just past the unmanned fire lookout.
  • Park in the dirt parking lot.
There should be signs for the Holy Jim Trail at the trailhead. Don't drive any further or the residents will yell at you!

Information about the Holy Jim Trail

This is the standard route up Saddleback Mountain and although you might see people of every shape and size on the trail, it is still a serious mountain. There are two reasons why you should take the Holy Jim Trail seriously. First of all, Santiago Peak is just 30 miles from the ocean making it the first target for any weather systems. Indeed, I have been snowed on while climbing Santiago peak. Snow in orange county?! It sounds crazy but it snows at least once a year on this Orange County mountain. Secondly, this trail climbs over 4,000ft and is 16 miles long. Many a hiker has set off to conquer this peak and been turned around by the trail's endless climbing. Start early in the summer, it can also get hot in the afternoon!
Snow in Orange County on the Holy Jim Trail
As far as trail directions go, the trail is generally well marked and easy to follow. I've been partial to the Franko Map's version of the area- easy to follow and pretty accurate. You can pick up a map of the Santa Ana Mountains and the Holy Jim Trail at that same gas station just before the trail turn-off. You can also follow the descriptive guide on summitpost.

Generally speaking, shade parts on the trail are few and far between. Don't forget your hat and sunscreen.

Mountain Biking Santiago Peak (Saddleback Peak)

If you're really up for a challenge, you can take this mountain on fat tires. Again, there are a hundred different ways to make it up the mountain and I've done several different variations. The Holy Jim Trail can be mountain biked but I would give it a moderate to difficult technicality rating. On a bike, we're talking lots of switchbacks, very steep sections and a very narrow single-track. Other trails up the mountain are poorly maintained and difficult to negotiate on a bike.
Mountain Biking Santiago Canyon Trail
Santiago Canyon Trail (Sometimes referred to as the Joplin Trail on some Maps)

This is another trail up Saddleback Peak that is used by Mountain Bikers. The advantage of this trail is that it is much less crowded and traveled. The first 8 miles of the trail is a well marked, dirt single track which will take you to "Old Camp". From here the trail gets rough with loose rocks and dirt. The last 2 miles up to the Main Divide Trail will probably take you as long as the first 8. Once on the Main Divide Trail, you can go left to climb Modjeska Peak (Second highest in Orange County) or right to climb Santiago Mountain. There are no reliable water sources on this trail, bring plenty!
The summit of Saddleback Mountain!
To get to the trailhead for the Santiago Canyon Trailhead, follow the directions to Cook's Corner and veer left. In about a mile, you'll come to the top of a hill and notice a little dirt turnout.

If you have a good area map of the Santa Ana Mountains, you can see that the possibilities are endless in getting up the mountain. There are several peaks that are also worth climbing in this small range. Modjeska Peak is a close second to Santiago Peak's height and its the other part of the "Saddleback".

Orange County is a county full of crazy adventures! Check out some of my other guides-

Crystal Cove State Park, Laguna Beach- Wildlife Viewing, Mountain Biking and Day Hiking
Aliso Woods Wilderness- One of Orange County's Premiere Mountain Biking Destinations!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!