Holy Jim Trail to Santiago Peak

Santiago Peak

Trail Details
Distance: ~15 miles
Time: ~6 hours
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation gain: 4,469 ft
Dogs: OK
When to go: Fall–Spring
At 5,689 feet, Santiago Peak — often referred to locally as Saddleback Mountain — is the tallest peak in Orange County. And one of the best routes up to the summit is the Holy Jim Trail. This strenuous, 15 mile out-and-back hike climbs over 4,000 feet through beautiful mountain terrain not usually associated with Orange County.

From the summit, you have views to Catalina island, over most of Orange County and east to Mt. San Antonio, San Gorgonio and San Jacinto. Unfortunately due to the array of telecommunications equipment at the top, you won’t find a 360 degree view; you’ll have to walk around the perimeter of the antennae to see it all.

Sign to Holy Jim Trailhead

Holy Jim Canyon is dotted with private residences. Be respectful and quiet as you pass by their homes, and park in the designated areas for the forest. Follow the signs to the trailhead.

Creek crossing

You will criss-cross the creek in Holy Jim Canyon several times. After heavy rains, this can be quite a thrill! Rocks and logs can be slippery, and trekking poles can make navigation creek crossings much easier and safer.

As you make you’re way up the canyon, watch for the fork in the trail. You can continue on another 1/4 mile to the Holy Jim Falls, or bear left toward the Main Divide Road and Santiago Peak.

I usually recommend hitting the peak first, then stopping by the falls on the way back to the car — time permitting.

These falls are beautiful, but usually dry to no more than a trickle in the summer.

As you head towards the Main Divide Road, you’ll first ascend miles of single track trail that wind continuously higher and higher.

You quickly catch glimpses out across the canyon and beyond, and find yourself among more and more trees.

It begins to feel like a long, long way from Orange County (although you’re actually still in OC).

Green and damp after winter rains

When you first reach the Main Divide Road, you’ll see some concrete artifacts from the past. This makes a good place to break and regroup if you’re hiking with others.

A break at the top of the single track

From this point, continue to the right, following the Main Divide road as it winds up and around the contours of the mountain. As you make your way around the eastern slope, you’ll catch glimpses of the Inland Empire.

Corona Panorama

At about the 5 mile mark, watch for the Upper Holy Jim Trail, heading sharply left off of the gravel road. There is a sign, but it can be easily overlooked if you aren’t careful. This single track trail takes up more directly toward the summit.

Take a hard left here (an easy to miss turn)

The trail winds further up the mountain, eventually rejoining the road near the summit. As you catch glimpses of the antennae, you know you are near the summit.

Speaking of which, the “summit” of Santiago Peak is profoundly anticlimactic. There is no clear “peak” to stake claim to or even a clear 360 degree view of the surrounding area. Santiago “Peak” has been leveled off to make room for the telecom equipment, and that has been surrounded by secure fencing.

You can walk all the way around the fence and (on a clear day) get views in all directions.

Be forewarned. Conditions at the summit can vary widely. It can be hot, sunny and clear. It can just as easily be cold and even snowy.

When we hiked this last January, the summit was covered by clouds. It was extremely windy and bitter cold. And there were long stretches of snow on the trail. Yes, snow in Orange County! Don’t take the conditions for granted, or assume that because it’s “nice” down in the ‘burbs it will be the same on Santiago. Weather conditions on Santiago Peak can be very different.

We found snow!

I usually stop at the summit for lunch, then turn around and retrace my steps to the car. On your way back, take a few extra minutes to stop at Holy Jim Falls.

Holy Jim Falls

Trail Map and Elevation Profile

Note that this shows one way for this out-and-back.

Getting to the Trailhead

Getting to the Holy Jim trailhead can be an adventure in itself! A high-clearance vehicle is highly recommended. I have taken my 2WD Xterra back there during the rainy season with no problems, but when the creek is running high, 4WD is recommended.

The "road" to Holy Jim Canyon. A high clearance vehicle is recommended.

The gravel road to the trailhead is about 5 miles long and crosses the creek several times. After heavy rains, this road can become impassible.

Tips for Hiking up Saddleback Mountain via Holy Jim

  • When the creek has water –usually in the winter and spring — it’s worth taking the brief detour to Holy Jim Falls.
  • A National Forest Adventure Pass is required to park at the trailhead.
  • There is no water available on this trail, so bring plenty.
  • These trails are popular with mountain bikers, so keep an eye out for them.
  • In the winter, there can be snow at the top. Be prepared!

Photo Gallery

Click any photo for a larger version.

Special Thanks

Thanks to Jim, Joan, John and all my J (and non-J) friends from Hiking OC for joining me on this trek up Santiago Peak.

Comments

  1. John Malloy says

    Finally found the perfect website for So Cal hiking. We’re training for Mt. Whitney and your site is a great resource for our warm up hikes. Thanks again.

  2. John Malloy says

    Trabuco Creek Road to Holy Jim is currently impassible by car due to high water level. Creek is very tough to cross, had to turn back just past Holy Jim cabin.

  3. says

    Yes, the road out to the trailhead can become impassable by a sedan. A high clearance vehicle is recommended even when it is dry, but after rain, it becomes essential.

  4. Julio C. says

    Im glad I found this site cuz it helped me to prepare my hike to Santiago Peak on 02/05/2011. We missed the summit by 1mile cuz of cramps but overall things went well. Thank you for the information (Elevation Profile).

    Happy hikin’,

    jc

  5. says

    Julio, I know those cramps, and in fact, I had almost the same experience. I was hiking this same trail when I was about 26 years old. I hadn’t been hiking or even exercising regularly, but was young(er) and cocky(er) than I am now. I started cramping up severely just before reaching the fire road. Once on the road, I was able to stretch out my stride a bit and I the cramping mostly subsided. Going down was a breeze, mainly because it used different muscles and it took less oxygen.

    I learned a valuable lesson that day: Preparation pays big dividends.

  6. William says

    Great website. Would you rank Cucamonga Peak and Baldy higher in difficulty than Santiago Peak? I climbed Cucamonga with no problems, but had quite a bit of trouble with Santiago.

    I am wondering if it is due to part of the dirt road being closed. Is it typically open all the way to the Holy Jim trailhead? I walked about an hour from where I parked just to reach the trailhead, and I am wondering if I can expect the same if I try to hike Holy Jim again in the future.

  7. says

    Both Cucamonga and Baldy are higher elevation, so you have that factor. But Santiago has lots of mileage and significant elevation gain (4,000 ft). In my opinion, Santiago, Cucamonga and Baldy are roughly on par as far as difficulty.

    The trailhead for Holy Jim should not be miles. I didn’t know the road was partially closed, but that certainly makes a big difference! Normally you can park about 1/4-1/2 from the gate at the trailhead.

  8. says

    Is there any way to get to these falls without having to drive out the long dirt road? We don’t have a high clearance vehicle, but we would like to hike it.

  9. javed says

    you can hike or bike the 4 mile dirt road if you dont want to drive. Some vehicles may pass you, so just stay on the side of the road. By the way, i’ve done the road without a high clearance so its passable.

  10. says

    That’s a great point, Javed. You can hike or bike it, but it adds 8 miles round-trip to your total. Might be okay if you’re just hiking to the Holy Jim Falls, but if you’re bagging Santiago Peak, that turns a 16 mile RT into a whopping 24-miler! Not that it can’t be done, but I probably won’t do it.

    And yes, it can be passable with a regular car, but I personally recommend a high clearance vehicle. Put it this way, given the choice between driving that road in my Xterra or a Honda Civic, I’d pick the Xterra every time. ;)

  11. DavidR says

    Just finished this one. Parked a little bit before the end of the gravel road where it turns into dirt due to my car :) So I guess somewhere around 23-24 miles if you add in that dirt road. Finished last 2 1/2 hours or so in darkness but I came prepared. Sore but totally worth it. I didn’t realize upper holy jim trail also reaches the summit where the towers are so I just took the main divide road all the way up. I kept thinking ‘ugh shouldn’t I have reached those towers by now, they looked so close before…” haha. I started about 1:00pm (too late in my opinion – but I underestimated the time) and then got back into my car at about 8:40pm.

  12. Dana Paul says

    DavidR, How were the falls right now? Was It pretty dry?
    Jeff, Great website. I’ve hiked in big bear several times about 4 years ago… I miss it and now that I reside in OC it’s sometime hard to get back out to Bear… What kind of wildlife have you seen up here? I have a friend that swears he saw wild boar. Is this possible should I be on the look out?

  13. says

    DavidR said: “… I guess somewhere around 23-24 miles if you add in that dirt road…”

    Wow! That’s a long day! Good for you.

    Dana Paul said: “What kind of wildlife have you seen up here?”

    Do you mean up Santiago Peak? I’ve seen deer back there, and a bobcat (once), but nothing more. There are mountain lions. There used to be bears, but those were hunted out decades ago. But wild boar? Not that I’ve heard. Supposedly there are wild boar on Catalina Island, but I haven’t seen any there, either.

  14. John says

    Jeff, I am planning a group of 6 to go up to this peak on Saturday, but looking for good info on how to actually get to the trailhead. Like which road do you drive in from. I am assuming somewhere in Rancho Santa Margarita….Lets say I have my group meet at Starbucks in RSM, from there, how do we get/navigate in our high profile vehicle to Holy Jim trailhead, the starting point…..

  15. SKIP WATSON says

    HIHI

    HY JEFF I INJOYED YOUR HIKE WRITE UP ON HOLY JIM TO SADDLEBACK. WE DID IT THREE DIFERENT TIMES..BACK IN 1998..AS A CLUB ADVENT. WE SPENT ALL DAY .GOT TO THE TOWERES SPENT AN HOUR..GOT BACK TO THE TRUCKS AT SUNDOWN. ABOUT 18 MILES..ROUND TRIP. BEAUTIFUL SCENERY GRATE HIKE. I FOUNDED THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ADVENTURES MOUNTAIN CLUB.NO LONGER AROUND. AT ONE TIME ABOUT 50 HIKERS.MAIL AN FEMALE. AGE 18 TO 65. IN OUR TIME WE CLIMBED..OVER 100 DIFERENT MOUNTAINS AN PEAKS IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. WE ALSO DID MT WHITNEY AN IN AN OUT OF THE GRAND CANYON. THE EAST FORK OF THE SAN GRABEL’S AN BALDY AN THE THREE T’S WAS MY PLAYGROUND. IN MY PERSONAL OPPION..ANY HIKER WHO CAN CLIMB IRON MOUNTAIN FROM HEATION FLATS TRAIL. OR CLIMB IN AN OUT OF ALISON MINE ON IRON MOUNTAIN. HAS JUST DONE THE HARDEST HIKING IN LA COUNTY.IN OUR TIME WITH THE ADVENTURES CLUB. WE HAD T-SHIRTS..HATS..JACKETS..WEB SITE..LOGO..MIMBERSHIP..WITH OFFICERS..WE HAD TRIPS AN WE DID PARTYS. AFTER HIKES AT WRIGHTWOOD..OR IDLYWILD..WE HIT THE BARS AN RESTURANTS..AS A CLUB. WE HAD ALOT OF FUN HIKING. WE WENT EVERY SATURDAY..SOMEWHERE IN ALL KINDS OF WEATHER. NOW IM IN LAKE HAVASU..RETIRED. BUT I STILL LIKE TO HERE ABOUT THE HIKES. I ALWAYS WANTED TO GO FROM THE TOP OF BALDY DOWN AN ACROSE THE SAN ANTONIO RIDGE..UP IRON MOUNTAIN..AND DOWN TO HEATION FLATS..CAR SHUTLE BACK TO BALDY VILLAGE. NEVER GOT ER DONE! HOPE SOME OF YOU GUYS CAN DO IT FOR ME.

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