Santiago Peak – The One That Got Away

My incomplete hike to Santiago Peak was not the most pleasant and rewarding hike I’ve ever done. I chalk it up to a good learning, and hiking experience.

It’s more commonly referred to as Santiago Peak. I’ve recently discovered that it’s also called Saddleback Mountain. I refer to it as one helluva hike. I have had the good fortune so far to summit every peak that I’ve set out to do, except for Santiago Peak. I missed it by about one mile. Maybe it just wasn’t my day, or perhaps I wasn’t physically capable of making it to the top. Maybe both? Whatever the case, it’s a tough 16-mile hike with about 3,900 feet of elevation gain. It’s also the highest point in Orange County at 5,687 feet, and located in the Trabuco Canyon area of the Cleveland National Forest.

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Hike Information
Total Length: 16 Miles
Trailhead Elevation: 1144 ft
Peak Elevation: 5687 ft
Elevation Gain: 3900 ft (1189 m)
Time: 8 hrs, 43 min
Temperatures: Begin – 66 degrees, Turnaround – 88 degrees, End – 80 degrees
Best season: October – May
Difficulty: Hard – Level 5
Trail Condition: Marked trails, dirt roads
Recommended gear: Sunblock; Sun Hat; Insect Repellent
Agency: Cleveland National Forest, Trabuco Ranger District
USGS topo map: “Santiago Peak”
Challenges: Climbing, distance
People: Some other hikers, but not crowded.
Known For: Views, Highest point in Orange County
Best Time To Start: Early morning
Bathrooms: Yes
Parking: Fee
Trailhead: Main Parking for Holy Jim Falls and Trail, Corona, CA, 92883, USA
Park Website: Cleveland National Forest
Phone: 951-736-1811
Hike Weather: Corona, CA

About the Route
The most common hiking route to Santiago Peak is via the Holy Jim Trail, which makes up the first 4.5 mile ascent. This section is beautiful, with about six stream crossings which weren’t too bad to get across. With each crossing there were either some decent logs to ‘wire walk’ across, or there was a good supply of rocks to carefully walk on. The Holy Jim Trail is also a good workout with a decent amount of elevation gain, but it’s definitely attainable. The ‘lower’ Holy Jim Trail (more on upper and lower later) ends at the Main Divide Road, in a nice shady area called Bear Springs. It makes for a perfect spot to take a break. Also note that this is a very rough and rocky (but wide) fire road. On this road you can expect to share it with a lot of four wheel drive vehicles, motorcycles, and mountain bikes. It seems to be a busy recreational road on the weekends. Once you reach the Main Divide Road, you have the option of heading left and up (and up, and up) on the road and will eventually reach Santiago Peak in another four miles. Or you can go right on the Main Divide Road for about a half mile, and continue on the Upper Holy Jim Trail. This upper section, not really a shortcut, also ends at the Main Divide Road, only at another location further up. The Upper Holy Jim Trail is steep and about two miles long. And on a warm day it can take its toll on you. It’s entirely exposed.

Navigating a stream crossing on the Lower Holy Jim Trail.

Upper Holy Jim or Main Divide
Why take the Upper Holy Jim route instead of taking the Main Divide all the way to the summit? Well, I guess one of the reasons is that it’s the ‘rite of passage’ route. It’s much steeper, more challenging, and has some incredible views. As I mentioned before, the Main Divide Road is rough and rocky, and it can get kind of annoying hiking on this kind of terrain if your legs start getting tired. The Upper Holy Jim Trail, like it’s lower brother, is a single track trail. Due to the recent rains, there was a fairly deep trench running down the middle of a lot of sections of this trail, so you need to hike along either side of the trench. A lot of hikers form a loop and take the Upper Holy Jim on the way up and come back down the Main Divide Road to Bear Springs, and back down the Lower Holy Jim Trail. I also did this hike as a loop and I can tell you that the Main Divide Road is also pretty steep going down, so going up wouldn’t be much of a picnic over the Upper Holy Jim Trail. Also, both routes have their own scenic beauty, and the views are also different, so the loop lets you experience everything that this hike has to offer.

The Upper Holy Jim Trail


The Main Divide Road at Bear Springs
(the Lower Holy Jim Trail meets here)

The Elusive Trailhead and Missing Sign
I also need to advise you to keep an eye out for the trailhead of the Upper Holy Jim Trail. There’s no sign for it anymore (some Internet write-ups have photos showing the sign, but as of April 2017, it’s no longer there). Even after doing some research online, I still missed the trailhead and went about 3/4 of a mile out of my way down the Main Divide Road. So did the friends I was hiking with who were way ahead of me. Once you’ve reached the Main Divide Road via the Lower Holy Jim Trail, go right for about a half mile and start looking to the left. Eventually, you should see the beginning of a single track trail heading up (and up, and up). Also, be careful when you start looking. As I previously mentioned, the Main Divide is a rough and rocky road and you definitely don’t want to roll an ankle out here.

Upper Holy Jim Trailhead (photo courtesy
Note the sign. It is no longer there.

Oh the Agony!
I did this hike in April. It was a warm day and the afternoon temps were hitting about 85 degrees as I got closer to the summit. There were a LOT of flies and gnats on this trail as you went further up. Looking back, I think this was also part of the reason why I turned around with only a mile left to reach the summit. I can handle a lot, but when your body is tired, it’s 85 degrees, you’re hiking in direct sunlight, and your legs are running out of ‘up’, having literally 50 to 100 flies and gnats, at times, swarming around your face can really break you down even more. Another bit of advice would be to bring a mosquito veil with you. I saw quite a few hikers on the trail wearing them, and wished I’d done the same.

Taking a breather on the Upper Holy Jim Trail. About 85 degrees.

Must Be Something In The Water
I hike with a CamelBak Fourteener 24 hydration backpack, which has a 3-liter bladder. It has provided me with a sufficient supply of water on all of my hikes. However, before doing this hike I took into consideration that it was going to be a warm day, and this was also going to be one of the more challenging hikes, based on everything I’ve read. So, I wound up packing a couple of one-liter bottles into the side pockets, which gave me another two liters of water for the trip. Once I reached the Main Divide Road via the Lower Holy Jim Trail, I took a break and dropped a couple of FIZZ Electrolyte tablets into one of the bottles. I drank half of that and also ate a GU packet before heading out. This recharged the batteries and that helped get me through the Upper Holy Jim portion of the hike. I consumed the rest of the electrolytes when I reconnected with the upper section of the Main Divide Road. When I got back down to the parking area, I had drank both of the liter bottles and had about a half liter of water left in the bladder. I try to hydrate well before a hike, but I find that I can still consume a lot of water depending on the weather, mileage, elevation gain, etc. Your mileage may vary, but please be sure to take enough water with you. There’s nothing worse than running out of water before getting back to the trailhead, and you’re thirsty.

The creek on the Lower Holy Jim Trail.

What’s the Frequency Kenneth?
My incomplete hike to Santiago Peak was not the most pleasant and rewarding hike I’ve ever done. I chalk it up to a good learning, and hiking experience. Having done the hike, I can now share my experiences with you and give you an idea of what to expect. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what the last mile is like, and what the views are like once you get to the summit. My hiking friends, who did summit, told me that the fly and gnat situation was even worse when they reached the summit. Other hikers I talked to also mentioned this as well. So there’s that. Still, I would like to do this hike again and summit Santiago Peak aka Saddleback Mountain. I will definitely bring a mosquito veil, and hopefully my legs will have 16+ miles worth of hiking power to get me up and back. On a final note, as another option, you can also just do an out and back hike on the Lower Holy Jim Trail to Bear Springs / Main Divide Road. At least for me, and a few of my friends, this was the most scenic and pleasant part of the hike. The round trip mileage for this option is about 9 miles, which still makes for a good day of hiking.

Loving life on the Upper Holy Jim Trail.

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