Leaders: Alan Coles, Frank Goodykoontz
Every time that I have done these peaks it has been by a different route. This is due more to circumstance than design. On this trip we had planned to take the enchanting Holy Jim Trail from Trabuco Cyn which is the most popular way to hike up to these summits. However, heavy rain over the past several weeks made driving Trabuco Cyn Rd risky and crossing Holy Jim Creek difficult.
So I called "Mr. Santa Ana Mountains" himself (and HPS member) Ken Croker to discuss other possible routes from the west side of the range. He cautioned against using the Maple Cyn Rd out of Silverado Cyn because there are 8 stream crossings along the way. He advised using either the Harding Rd or the Santiago Rd/Joplin Tr although there would be one potentially difficult crossing on the Joplin Trail. Since the Harding and Santiago trailheads are reached by good paved roads and are located only 2 miles apart, it made sense to do it as a loop trip, albeit a long one of about 23 miles (the distance and gain, it turned out, was about the same if one went up and returned via the Harding Rd).
The trip was scheduled for Saturday Feb. 21 but there was a forecast of severe weather for that day. So we postponed the trip to Sunday and kept the same starting time and location of 6:30 am at the corner of El Toro Rd and Live Oak Cyn Rd (about 12 mi E of I-5). As it turned out, Saturday was beautiful. Still, we were grateful for an additional day to dry things out as we needed every advantage for the long hike.
Despite numerous phone calls, only 7 participants showed up: Martin Feather, Cristy Bird, Stephen Bache, Phil Reher, Helen Thompson and the 2 leaders. We drove north on El Toro (now Santiago Cyn Rd) for 1.3 miles then turned onto Modjeska Grade Rd for another 1.3 miles, then turned right onto Modjeska Cyn Rd to the end at the Tucker Wildlife Center where the Harding Rd starts. We left 2 cars there and consolidated into the other 2 for the short ride back up Modjeska Grade Rd to the high point where there is a gate blocking vehicle access to the Santiago Rd.
We began hiking around 7:10 under a sunny sky though the temperature was still quite cool. Doing the loop this way gives a psychological boost as one looks north deep into Modjeska Cyn where the ending point is located. It is almost immediately apparent that the Santiago Rd has become the Santiago Trail since there are few signs that vehicles have been up this route in years. Brush has grown back in places that narrow the path (and quite nicely) to a human width. Also, there are many slides and washouts that would be very difficult to repair but are easy for hikers to cross.
This trail nicely contours around the sides of the ridge that separates Modjeska and Trabuco Canyons. When the trail passes along the north side, one has excellent views into the deep canyon which was full of water. Numerous waterfalls could be spotted along the many tributaries. Behind us was a clear unobstructed view of metropolitan Orange County all the way to the ocean. To the south were the new housing tracts of Mission Viejo and Santa Margarita with their red tile roofs and concrete front yards. Apparently, the automobile has triumphed over man for the dominance of the home.
Hiking this trail with its relatively easy grade gives one a chance to take in the views. Just a few years ago, farms and ranches surrounded the Santa Ana Mountains. These mountains were primarily used for the development of water and mineral resources and for electronic sites. Recreation was limited to a few campsites along the Ortega Hwy. Now homes and businesses nearly encircle the range placing a greater emphasis on recreational uses, something the new leaders of the Cleveland National Forest are being forced to reckon with. The increased use of the forest and urbanization of adjacent lands has impacted wildlife as witnessed by the recent maulings of 2 children by mountain lions. Non-native plants and grasses can be seen throughout much of the area. The rare Tecate Cypress is nearly being forced into extinction. Ironically, it may be the increased use of this range that will bring enough attention to it in order to maintain wildlife corridors and environmentally sensitive lands needed to sustain a healthy ecosystem.
Clouds started to build above us as we neared the end of the Santiago Trail. After 8 relatively painless miles, it drops 200' down into the canyon bottom and ends at Old Camp, an old CCC site situated on a flat area under oak and alder trees. It is a very pretty spot and there is a fire ring with makeshift benches where we took a break with the roar of Santiago Creek providing a feeling of wilderness.
After stuffing ourselves with food and discussing the merits of drinking enough water, we took off up the Joplin Trail in a thick forest of bays, ferns, blackberries and alders. This is a very pretty trail and is in good shape except for ruts caused by bicycles. Shortly out of Old Camp we came to the stream crossing Ken warned about. It took a bit of time, but we were all able to jump over the clear, deep and cold stream without getting soaked. The trail wastes little time and goes steeply up the canyon following a smaller tributary with a number of splashing cascades. It occasionally traverses along a chaparral slope but generally stays in deeply wooded riparian areas with huge oak and spruce trees. Eventually it rejoins the main canyon, passes through a few meadows and then heads straight for the saddle in "Old Saddleback". Just shortly after noon at 10.5 miles into the hike, we reached the main divide road where we took a short break.
From the saddle, we left the road and took the trail to the south. We were in the clouds now and the breeze made it quite chilly. We were also walking on 2 inches of new snow with the familiar sound of crunching under our feet. Only 1 other set of footprints preceded us and we followed them all the way to the top of Santiago with its forest of antennae.
There was no register at the benchmark (and no view) so we found a spot next to a brick building that sheltered us from the wind. Not everyone was prepared for the cold weather as we pulled out every piece of warm clothing in our packs. There was no evidence that vehicles, not even bicycles, had been to the summit recently.
We left around 1:30 and followed our steps back to the saddle where we picked up the trail on the north side and followed it as it contours around the side of Modjeska. It is in good shape except for the last 1/4 mile to where it meets with the jeep road that leads to the summit. Ken had told me that his group was still working on this trail but that it was quite passable. There were no problems except for picking up a few ticks which we brushed off. The top of Modjeska was surmounted around 2:30 and the register was signed.
Twenty minutes later, as we left the summit, small frozen drops began to pelt us. The jeep road was taken back to where the trail crosses over it. We turned right onto it and followed it through a deep oak forest. I spotted a Buckthorn plant with a 6" diameter that resembled a birch tree trunk! Finally, the trail joins the Main Divide Rd where it also joins with the Maple Springs and Harding Roads at a very wide saddle. Groves of Coulter Pines grow amid the manzanita and ceanothus on the north side of the ridge here in an unusual setting compared to the rest of the range.
The Harding Road is well marked as it cuts back against the slope of Modjeska before emerging on the ridge between Modjeska and Harding Canyons. We had 9 more miles of walking to get back to our cars but at least this is a very easy road with few hills to climb on the way down. Our feet were on autopilot and few breaks were taken as we relentlessly marched on with the sun beginning its descent below the clouds. There were many picturesque waterfalls in Harding Cyn but most of us focused on getting down. The road was in good shape but a few slides and washouts made it impassable to vehicles as well.
As the sun set over the ocean and lights of Orange County came on we continued marching with the eerie orange glow that highlighted the contorted forms of weathered manzanitas and scrub oaks. As the last trace of daylight was extinguished, we crossed over the gate and came to rest at the cars. The sore and aching feet of a 23 mile hike done in just under 12 hours were glad it was over.
Many thanks to the participants and to Frank who just barely made it. Special thanks to Ken Croker for his years of effort to build and maintain the trails in these mountains. His book is an indispensable guide to the range and he even plugs the HPS in it! And please consider spending some time to do trail work with his group.