At first glimpse of these mountains, one gets the feeling that they are very unapealing. I fell prey to this first instinct. However, the beauty of the Santa Ana Mountains does not lie on the outside, but in it's deep canyons, ridgelines, history and its one of a kind landscape.
The Santa Ana Mountains are a peninsular mountain range in Southern California. The range is a key topographical landmark. The range forms much of the boundary between Orange and Riverside County. It is approximately 35 miles long. The highest peak within the range is Santiago Peak.
The Santa Ana Mountains are not rugged mountains geographically speaking. However, they are rugged in the sense of it's landscape. The majority of its slopes are covered with chaparral, a type of landscape native to Southern California. Chaparral is extremely thick and almost impenetrable. Oak Trees, sage brush, poison oak and brush weed grass interlock to form a seemingly unbreakable wall. It was only with slow progress that early pioneers could access certain areas. Luckily, the whole range is not like this. But, if one was to cross the range like early pioneers might have done, you for sure encounter chaparral. Also, any off trail/road adventure will most likely end up with you coming face to face with chaparral.
For most that live in Orange County, this range provides their taste of the outdoors. Many hikers come to experience different canyons such as Trabucco Canyon and Silverado Canyon.
The majority of the range is run by the Cleveland National Forest. Because of this, there are many National Forest maintained roads the cut through many parts of the range. Many roads are off limits to motorized vehicles, but still make for great hiking. Check the Forest Service page for details.
Geology and Geography
The range forms a natural barrier between Orange County and Riverside County. The county line runs along the entire range. In only one spot does a decent road cross the range. Above Lake Elsinore, the famous Ortega Highway crosses the Santa Ana Mountains. This range has always gotten in the way of transportation in Southern California.
As far as geological structure goes, the Santa Ana Mountains consist mainly off Jurassic marine classic sedimentary, Jurassic volcanic, and Mesozoic granitic rocks. There is some mafic plutonic rock and small areas of Pleistocene basalt. The Puente and Chino Hills consist of Miocene marine sedimentary rocks. The nature of the range is steep to very steep with narrow to rounded summits and narrow canyons.
There are some rolling plateau surfaces, also the hills northwest of the Santa Ana River are also very steep. These hills and the Santa Ana Mountains trend northwest. The Santa Ana Mountains are bounded on the northeast by a steep escarpment along the Elsinore Fault Zone, and the Puente and Chino Hills are bounded on the south-southwest by the Whittier Fault Zone. The subsection elevation range is from about 300 feet along the Santa Ana River up to 5687 feet on Santiago Peak. Mass wasting and fluvial erosion are the main geomorphic processes.
Los Pinos Peak (4,510ft)
"Horsetheif Peak (4,313ft)
Pleasents Peak (4,007ft)
Bald Peak (3,947ft)
Bedford Peak (3,800ft)
Elsinore Peak (3,575ft)
Sitton Peak (3,273ft)
Margarita Peak (3 189ft)
Miller Mountain (2,945ft)
Rocky Mountain (2,360ft)
Squaw Mountain (2,680ft)
Monument Hill- 2,050ft
Gavilan Mountain (1,830ft)
Gilman Peak (1,670ft)
Yaeger Mesa- (3,035ft)
Redonda Mesa- (2,833ft)
Avenaloca Mesa- (2,544ft)
Mesa De Colorado- (2,170ft)
Mesa De Buro- (2,026ft)
Mesa De La Punta- (1,972ft)
Tenaja Falls- A five tiered waterfall that drops nearly 150ft. This is a popular attraction for most and offers easy hiking on a well maintained trail. Be sure to go in the spring! It is dry most of the yearClick HERE for an interesting article about the falls.
Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve- Is a reserve that features miles and miles of well maintained trails and many vernal pools. Also, it boasts a premier example of pristine Southern California Landscape.
Santiago and Modjeska Peaks- The highest points of the range and offers amazing hiking and views of Southern California.
Silverado Canyon- Is a canyon offering nice hiking and many trails. The canyon splits into two different canyons: Modjeska and Santiago Canyons. Many utilize this area to escape the urbanized life of the surrounding Orange County communities. Its name is due to the fact that silver was once mined further up in the canyon. Also, this was an area devastated by the Santiago Fire of 2007.
Trabucco Canyon- This canyon offers a wide assortment of recreational opportunities. This is where the Holy Jim Trail begins also. This canyon was partially burnt by the Santiago Fire in 2007 and then saw lots of damage in the 2008 Modjeska Fire.
San Mateo Wilderness Area- A 38,484 acres wilderness area that offers lots of hiking through chaparral laden hillsides.
Temecula Canyon This is a little know feature of the Santa Ana Mountains. It is located at the southern most end of the range. The Santa Margarita cuts and winds its way through this amazing canyon. Granite cliffs tower over the canyon. Also, this canyon is home to some of the best (and only) whitewater rafting in Southern California (only during the rainy seasons. The river has a grade of IV. Also, a one hundred and two hundred foot waterfall cascade into this canyon.
Chino Hills State Park- This designated open-space area provides excellent hiking over gently rolling hills. It encompasses stands of oaks, sycamores and rolling, grassy hills that stretch nearly 31 miles, from the Santa Ana Mountains to the Whittier Hills.
When to go- Generally, the best times to hike or engage in any activities in the Santa Ana Mountains is late Fall, Winter or Spring. Hiking in the summer is possible, but make sure you get an early start or just pick a cool day.
Blue Jay Campground- Car camping with 55 sites. It located off the Ortega Hwy (on the Riverside County side). It has hiking and 4 wheel drive roads. Click HERE for additional information.
Oneil Regional Park- Located in Trabucco Canyon and offers many hiking and off road trails. Tent, RV and car camping. Click HERE for additional information.
Caspar Regional Park- Located off the Ortega Hwy (on the Orange County side). This campground offers many hiking and mountain biking trails. Click HERE for additional information.
Chino Hills State Park- Located off the 91 fwy in Chino Hills. This campground offers tent camping with plenty of hiking trails. Click HERE additional information.
As far as natural lakes go, there are none. However, there are an assorted amount of vernal pools located thought the range. These pools mainly form on the numerous mesas, which are some of the only ones in Southern California.
Water outside of vernal pools can be found in the hundreds of watersheds and canyons found throughout the range. The bigger the canyon, the greater chance that you will find water. Most of these streams and springs found in many of the canyons are seasonal. Spring and winter are the best time to hike if you are concerned about water. The majority of the water sources are ephemeral.
Water on the west side drains directly into the Pacific Ocean. Water on the north either drains into the Santa Ana River, Lake Elsinore, or Santa Margarita River. However, in the long run, all of these eventually lead to the Pacific Ocean.
Snow?- Yes, the range does have snowfall. Modjeska and Santiago Peaks generally receive snow whenever a winter storm hits Southern California. However, the snowfall is generally not very significant and does not last long. On average, temperature plummet at least once every year or so and snow falls on the entire range. However, this is rare.
The main red tape concern is that many different parts are on private land. Also, different areas like the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve and the Santa Margarita Ecological Reservehave strict rules regarding their area. Be aware of that and check their websites for more information.
Also, the San Mateo Wilderness Area only allows hiking, no mountain bikes or any mechanical equipment.
The many Forest Service access roads that cut through the area are closed periodically. Also, due to different projects, fires, or other weather conditions, other areas are also closed sometimes. Check THIS link for more information about the current conditions of the Santa Ana Mountains.
To park within the Cleveland National Forest, an Adventure Pass is needed. They can be purchased for day use ($5) or for a yearly pass ($30) at most sporting good stores and at shops in and around the National Forest.
This range is extremely prone to fires. The chaparral landscape is very very dry and will ignite with just about any fire source. In Santiago Canyon, there had never been a wildfire recorded in the canyon (where since records had been kept. Because of this, it was named one of the most high risk fire areas in Southern California.
However, in October 2007, the Santiago Fire broke in just outside the canyon and soon ended that streak. Whipped by Santa Ana Winds [winds that blow in from the desert towards the ocean (East to West)], this fire burned almost 30,000 acres. The fire burned practically right up to Santiago Peak. The Santiago Fire was started by arsonists. This a a recurring problem throughout this range and is the source of many many fires throughout the area. ClickHERE for more information about the Santiago Fire. The Rice Fire was another recent fire that devastated a large area at the southern end of the range. Click HERE for more information about the Rice Fire.
In November, 2009, the Freeway Compex fire devestated much of Santa Ana Canyon and Chino Hills State Park. This fire, like the Santiago Fire, was spurred on with strong Santa Ana Winds. This fire burned for four days and charred hundreds of homes. For more information, click HERE.
WarningsIn the Santa Mountains, you must always be on guard for these two things; rattlesnakes and poison oak. One can kill and the other can just be real annoying.
Rattlesnakes- In the summer, they are not active during the heat of the day, however, in the morning and evening you see them. In a summer day, you may find the out and about all day long. In the fall and spring, expect to see them all the time, except when it is extremely hot or cold. Also, I have seen some as early as February. So always be aware of rattlesnakes. Never reach where you can't see. Never put your foot where you can't see. Don't go walking through thick brush unless you have first made sure its safe. Rattlesnakes sense vibrations, so if your going into a place where you think you might see a snake, bang and stick around or throw some rocks around to make sure its safe.
Poison Oak- This is my personal weakness. I have had it around one hundred times and in every spot possible (don't ask). Poison oak generally grows in dark and damp places. It likes to grow beneath oak trees because water from fog catches on the oak trees and then drips below to the poison oak. The majority of north faces slopes have it as well. Also, around creek beds or in any place that looks overgrown will often support poison oak. What to look for- Leaves of three, leave it be (old Boy Scout saying). Look for a plant that has leaf formations in groupings of three. Its a tall slender plant and often has a red/reddish leaves depending on the time of year.
Plants and Animals
AnimalsA surprising wide array of wildlife can be found. Wildlife such as Mountain Lion, Mule Deer,Bobcat, Coyote, Gray Fox, Badger, Ringtail, Spotted Skunk, Western Gray Squirrel, Woodrat, Kangaroo Rat, Bats, Spotted Owl, Western Pond Turtle, Southern Steelhead Trout, Coast Horned Lizard, Least Bell's Vireo, Golden Eagle, Mountain Quail, Canyon Wren, Arroyo Toad, Western Spadefoot Toad, California Treefrog, California Sister Butterfly, Tarantula, Rattlesakes (Western Diamondback (this fact is up for debate) and Southern Pacific), turkey vultures and many more. The ones in italics are the one more often seen.
PlantsThe Santa Ana Mountains hosts a diverse array of plant species. Oak Trees are a key tree that clings to the hills of these mountains. There are two types: Coast Live Oak and Englemen Oak. Many different but distinct plant communities flourish such as coastal sage scrub, chaparral, riparian woodland, southern oak woodland, Rocky Outcrop, Vernal Pool, Valley Grassland, and Montane Coniferous forest. Interestingly, one of the southernmost stands of Madrones can be found in Trabuco Canyon. Groves of Knobcone Pine can be found around Pleasants Peak. Big-cone Douglas Fir and Coulter Pine can be found at the higher elevations around Santiago and Modjeska Peak. Rare flowers like the Intermediate Mariposa Lily, Heart-leaved Pitcher Sage, and Chocolate Lily are difficult to find, but breathtaking to observe. Fragrant sages, evergreen shrubs and trees, perennial bunch grasses, strange succulents, and fire-following flowers adorn the rugged terrain. Unfortunately, poison oak is far too common in this range as well.
At the time of the first Spanish exploration, the Santa Ana Mountains were settled by two main groups of indigenous peoples, the Tongva in the north, and the Acjachemen and Payomkowishum in the south.
A handful of historic sites remain in the range today. Registered California Historical Landmarks include an Indian Village Site in Black Star Canyon, Flores Peak, the mining boom town sites of Carbondale and Silverado, and Helena Modjeska's home. Cowboys used to occupy the "Adobes", found in the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve. These are the oldest structures in Riverside County
Gray Wolf, pronghorn antelope, and California condor also occupied the Santa Ana Mountains.
Also, the Santa Ana Mountains have had some mining use. Silver, lead tin and zinc were found around the Bedford Canyon area. However, limited quantities of ore have been recovered since 1870. Mining however had little success due to the fact that the ore was very hard to trace.
The majority of the range was once owned by the Irvine and the Yorba families. Over the years, much of the land has been sold. However, portions of the range is still owned by them.
In the early pioneer days, believe or not, the Santa Ana Mountains were feared because of grizzly bears. This is hard for me to fathom, but it is true. The Santa Ana Mountains had the densest grizzly bear population in the state of California. According to historians, on the California Flag, the grizzly bear seen walking is walking on bunchgrass- a grass native to the Santa Ana Mountains. Unfortunately (of fortunately, I'll let you decide), the grizzly bears became all but extinct in the Santa Ana Mountains. However, there was one more grizzly bear in the Santa Ana Mountains, a female misnamed Little Black Bear, who was shot and killed in January 1908 on the San Diego side of the county line in Trabuco Canyon. Little Black Bear was the last wild California grizzly in all of Southern California and one of the last of her kind anywhere. It's her hide (skinned, but not stuffed) in the Smithsonian Institute. Little Black Bear also achieved in death the melancholy distinction of being the only Santa Ana grizzly ever photographed. Of the last grizzly killed in Orange County–believed to have been Little Black Bear's mate–nothing remains: no photographs, no hide, nothing but memories, and very few of those.
To the native peoples of California, the grizzly was a powerful and respected presence. Tribes throughout the state had grizzly shaman, who tried to channel the seemingly indestructible power of the bear (grizzlies were remarkable for being able to survive injuries that would have killed any other animal) in healing and other rituals. But the grizzly also played other roles in belief systems of the California Indians. In Chiningchinich, an Historical Account of the Beliefs, Usages, Customs and Extravagancies of the Indians of This Mission of San Juan Capistrano Called the Acagchemem Tribe, written by the missionary Geronimo Boscano in the early 1820s, the grizzly is depicted as an enforcer of the divine order. A severe transgression against the just order of things would result in the grizzly coming to punish the transgressors. The grizzly was essential in maintaining the stability of the world.
To European settlers, however, the grizzly was a menace. The first recorded killing of a grizzly occurred in 1769, the same year Spanish colonists arrived in California. The grizzly was seen as a threat to people, a belief driven by fear of such massive animals rather than any real evidence. Grizzlies, as California writers from the end of the 18th century into the 20th century agreed, tried to avoid people and rarely attacked unless already wounded by a hunter or if a mother bear perceived a danger to her cubs. More realistically, grizzlies were considered a threat to livestock.
Spectacular stories of grizzlies attacking pigs, sheep and cattle are plentiful–though most are second-hand and almost all have a tinge of hyperbole. Grizzlies, whose diet largely consisted of acorns and roots, certainly did attack livestock, but for the most part, they probably settled for eating the carcasses of animals killed by predators who preferred live prey, such as wolves. The grizzly, paradoxically, occupied both the top and the bottom of the food chain: it was the apex predator, but it was also a scavenger, devouring the leftovers from the kills of others. And it was this scavenger nature that ranchers counted on in their battle against the bears.
The methods used on Don Jose Sepulveda's Rancho San Joaquin, one of the largest ranchos in what would become Orange County, were typical of Spanish grizzly management. Vaqueros would slaughter a cow and leave the remains in area known to be frequented by grizzlies–Santiago and Limestone canyons were considered prime grizzly territory. The vaqueros would withdraw to a safe distance and wait. Eventually, a bear would appear, and after it had begun eating, the mounted vaqueros would swoop down on the bear and lasso its feet with riatas. Rendered immobile, the bear would then either be stabbed to death with lances or torn apart as the vaqueros holding the riatas galloped off in opposite directions.
As the grizzlies declined in number and the surviving bears moved farther from human settlement, this sort of hunting continued, but with one notable change: bears were more frequently taken alive to be used in such entertainments as bear and bull fights. The grizzly had gone from menace to source of amusement.
The Englishman Frank Marryat, who wrote one of the most accurate descriptions of these fights, found nothing amusing about them, calling them "the most cruel and senseless" thing he had seen in California. (Marryat was by no means a green in the current sense of the word. In his 1855 book, Mountains and Molehills, he recounts with pride killing a grizzly cub he happened across while hunting, even though he says he found the cub to be perfectly harmless and extremely cute.)
The bear, cramped in his limbs by the strict confinement that his strength and ferocity have rendered necessary, is placed in the arena; and attached to him by a rope is a bull, generally of fine shape and courage and fresh from the mountains. Neither animal has fair play, and, indeed, in most instances, each one avoids the other. The bull's power of attack is weakened by the shortness of the tether, while the bear, as above mentioned, has scarcely the free use of his muscles. . . . The fight generally ends without much damage on either side, for the simple reason that neither of the combatants means mischief. Bear and bull fights were popular throughout the 19th century in California, but they became less frequent as grizzlies became rarer. The arrival of Anglo-Americans at the end of the 1840s accelerated the bear's decline. The Americans brought improved technology with them: the repeating rifle, the steel trap and strychnine. Each would play an