Santiago is the highpoint of Orange County in Southern California. It lies along the crest of the Santa Ana Mountains, a coastal chain located southeast of the greater Los Angeles area. It is often referred to as Saddleback which refers to the skyline profile formed between it and nearby Modjeska Peak. There are various fire roads that approach the peak from all directions, and some more inviting trails that make it nearly to the summit as well. The Holy Jim Trail is probably the most scenic route to the top. The terrain is mostly chaparral, typical of the southern California mountain landscape, with stands of oaks and sycamores found in the deeper canyons with seasonal water flow.
The top of the peak is crowned with one of the densest arrays of telecommunications equipment found anywhere in the state - there is no single location for sweeping 360 views. By walking around the various installations in about a quarter mile radius, one can see views in all directions covering five counties and a large portion of the southern California area - from Catalina and San Clemente Islands out in the Pacific Ocean, south to Mt. Palomar, east to San Jacinto Peak and the desert environ, north to the San Bernadino Mountains and San Gorgonio, and of course the ever-popular hundreds upon hundreds of square miles of urban sprawl all around.
USGS 7.5 series topo - Santiago Peak.
See each route for specific directions to trailheads. Thomas Guide references listed by page and grid for the west side approaches in Orange County are as follows:
Holy Jim Trail - Thomas Guide page 864, grid A4. The turnoff from Trabuco Canyon Rd. (S19) to Trabuco Creek Rd., which is easily missed, is TG page 863, grid B7. Note: Trabuco Creek Rd. is a rough dirt road and high ground clearance is recommended. There are several stream crossing along the way so exercise caution after rains. 4WD is not normally required. A passenger car can make the trip in dry weather at a slow pace.
Maple Springs - Thomas Guide page 802, grid B2 (Riverside 1/2 of page).
Harding Truck Trail - Thomas Guide page 832, grid G7.
An Adventure Pass is required to park for all trailheads except the Harding Truck Trail route. The pass ($5.00/day or $30.00/annual) is available at stores near the trailheads and various outdoor shops such as Adventure 16 and REI.
According to Dave Rhodes there is now a self-issue Adventure Pass station located near the parking area at the start of the Holy Jim Trail. It is a rust colored pipe. Simply include $5.00 payment with the information listed on the envelope and drop into the "box". Be sure to remove the detachable form from the envelope and place it in plain view in your car with pertinent information listed.
And now (2/18/2008) Alex McConahay reports the box to pay for a one day pass at the trailhead is gone. Better pick one up ahead of time or buy the annual pass.
This peak can be climbed year round with the proper planning. Since the routes are long and mostly without water most people will enjoy these trips on cooler days. Temperatures can vary from freezing to 90 degrees F depending on the time of year. Snow falls on the peak once or twice annually. The Holy Jim route provides the most shade. Early starts are recommended during hotter seasons. The Maple Springs route is closed for species protection during part of the year. Contact the Cleveland National Forest offices for current closures. Two annual events may have a minor impact on your trip. The Saddleback Marathon uses the Holy Jim Trail as part of the course in mid November. The Vision Quest Mountain Bike event takes place in the spring. This event is put on by the Warrior's Society and uses parts of the Main Divide Truck Trail, Holy Jim Trail, and Maple Springs Truck Trail.
The nearest camping, in an organized campground, is at O'Neill Regional Park in Trabuco Canyon adjacent to the turn off for the Holy Jim trailhead. O'Neill is operated by the County of Orange and has sites for tents and RVs in an inviting oak woodland setting. Just so potential users know, camping at O'Neill is $15/night, plus a one-time (i.e. just for the first night, if you're staying multiple nights) $12 "processing" fee.
Thanks to Bob Burd for submitting this.
"The name of St. James the Apostle was frequently used in Spanish times for place names (Santiago from Latin Sanctus Jacobus); but except for the names in Orange Co., it seems to have survived only in Santiago Creek [Kern Co.]. Point Bonita appears as Punta de Santiago on Ayala's map (1775); and Poso Creek [Kern Co.] was named Rio de Santiago by Garces in 1776. Creek, Hills, Peak, and Reservoir [Orange Co.]: The creek was named by the Portola expedition on July 27, 1769, two days after the feast day of St. James (Crespi, p. 140). Arroyo de Santiago is mentioned in a petition for a grant, Dec. 8, 1801 (Bowman). Santiago de Santa Ana was the name of a land grant dated July 1, 1810; and the name Lomas de Santiago or Lomerias de Santiago was given to another grant on May 26, 1846. The mountain known locally as Old Saddleback was labeled Santiago Peak when the USGS mapped the Corona quadrangle in 1894."
- Erwin Gudde, California Place Names
William H. Brewer chronicled his party's activities during a survey of California's resources between 1860 and 1864 in a book called "Up and Down California". On 1/26/1861 he and Professor Josiah Whitney, of Mt. Whitney fame, climbed Santiago Peak from the north by starting up what is now know as Coldwater Canyon. They carried a barometer to measure the elevation and along the way the almost impenetrable chaparral shredded their clothing. After almost six hours of vigorous climbing they reached the summit.
"But the views more than repaid us for all we had endured. It was one of the grandest I ever saw. No less than ten or twelve thousand square miles were spread out in the field of vision; or, if we take the territory embraced within the extreme points - land and sea - more than twice that amount."
They placed the summit at 5,675 feet only 12 feet lower than what is accepted as correct today. On their way down they observed signs of what they believed to be grizzly bears. They gave the mountain the name of Mount Downey in honor of the then governor of the state of California. Obviously, the name did not persist.
It is reported that the first trail toward the top was built in 1890 by Andrew Joplin. A remnant of the Joplin Trail still exists connecting Old Camp at the end of the Santiago Truck Trail to the Main Divide Truck Trail. It is steep and sometimes overgrown but, paired with the two dirt roads, does provide another alternate route to the top.
The first written account of an ascent of Santiago Peak is that of the Major Horace Bell party in 1850. They climbed via Coldwater Canyon using horses much of the way (Source: Santa Ana Mountains Trail Guide by Kenneth S. Croker). SP member Gimpilator adds that author Jerry Schad makes refernce to another early ascent in 1853 in his book Afoot and Afield in Orange County. Schad reports that lawmen pursued horse thieves up Coldwater Canyon and continued to the top of what was then locally known as Temescal Mountain.
These routes are popular with hikers, runners, and mountain bikers. Several organized events for runners and mountain bike riders are staged during the year. In most cases these events should not impact your trip.
Motorized vehicles also have access to some of the road sections of these routes. Most drivers are polite. Stay aware if you are on these sections.
Most of the trail maintenance on these routes (especially the Holy Jim Trail) is performed by members of the Warrior's Society made up of local mountain bike enthusiasts.
Click this link to go to a forecast for Trabuco Canyon located near to the western access entry points of Santiago Peak.