Hike to Santiago Peak via Holy Jim

15 miles 4500 ft gain  - Out-and-Back Trail

Added by Andrew Saavedra

This a long day hike of 15 miles roundtrip, so it's best to get an early start (before sunrise). Get amazing views of Mt. San Antonio, San Jacinto, and San Gorgonio, and Catalina. 

When you think of Orange County, you think of beaches, boardwalks, but what you may not know is that there are some great hikes in our very own backyard! My favorite is a fairly strenuous day hiking adventure that only the strong survive. Not to dissuade any interested parties, since this is a worthwhile adventure—but please be prepared!

Unfortunately unprepared parties have required search and rescue teams, so inexperienced adventurers definitely should read the following in order to have a great adventure and return home to tell the tale! Hopefully some of the following missteps and helpful hints will provide for a safe and great day…

Mistake # 1: Make sure you start early enough

This hike is around 8 mi and 4,000 ft ONE-WAY from the main parking lot up Holy Jim Trail to Santiago Peak. So, the up-and-back round trip is going to take a while. I find it best to leave early in the day (before sunrise) to avoid being caught at the peak (the most exposed part of the trail) during the high noon hours.

Luckily, Orange County has good weather most of the year, making it easy to enjoy the outdoors. As always—use your judgment (if it's too hot, or too cold for what your body, equipment and training can handle—don’t go!). I recommend the spring to see the wildflowers blooming.

Mistake #2: Running out of provisions!

This is a long and strenuous hike. I recommend bringing at least 2-3 liters of water (more if you like to drink and can handle the extra weight). Also, since this is most likely going to take a full day, you might want to pack some snacks and/or lunch for the top.

**Side note: You may want to make it light, since there is some heavy dining (think biker bar food) available at the famous Cook’s Corner just on your way out the canyon on the corner of Live Oak and Santiago Canyon Roads. It’s become almost a ritual for us to stop by here for a beer and burger at the end of our day!

Mistake #3: Don’t depend on your cell reception

This is as close to the real wilderness as you can get in Orange County, so your cell phone is not going to get service. Don't forget to download all your maps/directions in advance and put your phone on airplane mode once you lose reception (usually right around the time you start down Trabuco Creek Rd), so you can save the battery for pictures and to let your loved ones know you made it out later!

Mistake #4: Don't forget to bring your headlamp!

We came across this couple that was unfortunately lost without headlamps, shelter or fire and ended up alone in the wilderness at night. If you make an unexpectedly wrong turn, leave the trail or simply get a late start you could get caught on the trail in the dark. Hey, this may be Orange County but it still can get dark, windy and cold up at 5,689 ft. Be sure to toss a headlamp in your pack for the day. Might also be a good idea to bring a windproof jacket for the summit and check the weather reports before heading out!

Mistake #5: Know where you’re going

If you really want to feel comfortable in the wilderness here, make sure to bring a compass and map and know how to use it—the Santiago Peak USGS 7.5 minute topo map is the one you’d need. Otherwise, just follow the Holy Jim Trail north up the mountain until you hit the Main Divide truck trail, then follow that up west along the ridge on the Upper Holy Jim Trail until it wraps around and leaves you standing near the top of Santiago Peak (where you will see communications towers).

Now for a few tips on how to make the day even more enjoyable:

Tip #1: Get a National Forest Adventure Pass.

They are $5 for the day or $30 for the year and you can get a second annual pass for only $5 at the time of purchase—if you want to get two and split the cost! The pass is required to park at the main parking area for Holy Jim Falls and Trail.

Tip #2. Bring sunglasses, a hat and sunscreen.

The early parts of the trail are beautifully shaded, but most of the upper part of the trail is completely exposed. You’ll be sorry (and likely reddened) if you forget your sun protection.

Tip #3. Take photos along the way.

The first half mile takes you through a rural residential village—with opportunities for beautiful photos here. Another mile later is a sign for the trail leading up to Holy Jim Falls. This is worth the detour if there is water flowing. Being in a canyon, the sunlight changes quickly and that shot you saw on the way up may not be the same later, so don’t miss out! The summit is known to be cloudy/foggy, so some of the best views may be found along the ridge on the Upper Holy Jim Trail where you can see for miles across Orange, LA, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.

So now that you know some do’s and don’t, go out and explore the hidden wilderness of Orange County!

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Incredible And Challenging

Did this hike a few years ago. I'll admit that I probably wasn't ready for it. We did the hike when all the ceanothus was in bloom, incredible! The view from the peak was 360 degrees and amazing. My biggest recommendations are being plenty of water. It's a long hike and I actually ran out on the way down. Also wearing good over the ankle boots I felt this helped a lot. The trail is not level for a large portion of the hike so it put strain on my ankles (and knees). Like any good hike, bring the essentials and you will be rewarded.

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