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Holy Jim Trail to Santiago Peak

Trail Details
Distance: ~15 miles
Time: ~6 hours
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation gain: 4,469 ft
Dogs: OK
When to go: Fall-Spring
Download GPX
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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

At about the 5 mile mark, watch for the Upper Holy Jim Trail, heading sharply left off of the gravel road. Note that there u to be a sign as shown in the photo below, but SoCal hiker Denis G. reports that the sign is no longer there, making this trail even easier to overlook if you aren’t careful. From here, the single track trail takes up more directly toward the summit.

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.

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.

Trail Map and Elevation Profile

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

Download file: holy-jim-to-santiago.gpx

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 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.

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