Holy Jim Trail - Santa Ana Mountains - California
February 12th, 2009
I wish the header of this entry could have been Santiago Peak as opposed to Holy Jim Trail, but once again the forces of nature foiled our attempt to bag this 1733 meter peak and so I've been reduced to writing about the trail itself. Not that I'm complaining, as this was still another beautiful and challenging hike in a location I had never explored.
So why Santiago Peak? Simply because it's the highest point in the Santa Ana Mountains, which were near to where I was staying on my vacation (Anaheim). With 184 meters less elevation than Mount Washington I figured (wrongly again) that it wouldn't be too big a deal. However, an unseasonably rainy SoCal 2009 winter got us off to a bad start. I know I had read that the road to the trailhead (Trabuco Creek Rd) was rough and could require a high clearance vehicle, but just how necessary it would be after all the heavy rains would soon become clear. The first thought at finding Trabuco Creek Road was, we're screwed. The size of the pools of water, ruts and pot holes all but guaranteed we'd have a hell of a time getting our rented compact to the trailhead parking area. And so it was. At about 3km in we came to a large and deep pool of water with no way around it. According to my map and GPS, we were close to the boundary of the Cleveland National Forest. As fate would have it, a friendly ranger was driving in at that moment and stopped to give us some details. We were about 2 or 3 miles away from the parking area and that we shouldn't try and take our car any further. It was close to 11am at this point so it was high time to make a decision... leave the car and walk the rest of the way or give up and do some hiking somewhere more accessible. Though we knew we were already late and the extra miles would make us that much later, we decided to try and see how far we could get. And so we began...
Being a Canadian boy, my sense of distance when expressed in miles is a bit skewed since I'm used to kilometers... and so the walk to the parking area took longer than I had imagined it would (about an hour and 15 minutes). It was a nice walk which required a few crossings of Trabuco Creek. Examining the conditions of the road along the way reassured me we had made the right decision to leave the car behind. I wouldn't say this road cannot be accessed with a regular car during ideal conditions though, it's just bumpy as hell.
I don't like not knowing how far or how long I need to go to reach a specific point when I'm on a tight schedule, so I was a bit impatient and in a rush to get to the trailhead. It was a relief to finally reach the local fire station and meet up with some other rangers. They wanted reassurance that we weren't camping overnight, as it's not permitted in this national forest, and they explained we had about 8 miles of hiking to get to the top of Santiago peak (about 6 miles on Holy Jim trail and 2 miles on an access road).
From the fire station it's just a little ways more to the main parking area for Holy Jim trail. Here you need a parking permit (Adventure Pass day permit) which can be bought at local sporting good stores (i.e.; Big 5 Sporting Goods or REI) for $5. I wouldn't risk trying to get away without one because those rangers were out there even on a national holiday! The first rangers we saw at our car were waiting for us at the main parking area and greeted us nicely. The told us we had another 3/4 of mile to go before we reached the trailhead, which was a bit frustrating to hear since it was already passed noon and the 8 mile journey to the top would only begin at that point. So as we continued on I was pretty much resigned to the fact that we weren't going to get to the top. It was hard not to feel a bit disappointed since this vacation was supposed to include a trip to the Grand Canyon and a climb to the top of this peak, both of which were now clearly not going to happen (The Grand Canyon because of all the bad weather). I didn't let those feelings linger though. How can one feel disappointed while walking through such beautiful and majestic surroundings? Would I rather be at work sitting in front of a computer back in snowy and cold Canada?? I think not. That's one of the things I love about being in nature... it's so easy to get in the moment and appreciate what is there before you. It becomes a meditation on natures beauty. I find the repetitive physical movement in combination with the focused will to push on becomes something of spiritual experience. It brings me to a place of peace and belonging.
I'm always curious and a bit envious of people that manage to live out in remote, beautiful areas such as this. Along the way up to the trailhead there are a series of cottages and houses that beg the questions "Who lives here?" and "How can I?". I'm not sure if anyone was actually occupying any of these places though. We didn't see a single person hanging around any of them. In fact, keeping with the tendency of most of our hikes, we saw only 3 people during the entire hike and only at the beginning of the trail. It was another quiet and private trip, just the way I love it!
Once on the actual Holy Jim trail there are some interesting markers along the way giving a bit of background information about Cussin' Jim (who the trail is named after) and Santiago Peak, the most interesting of which is that the Luiseno Indians called the peak Kalawpa and believed it was the home of a powerful spirit. Interesting how most large mountains have an association with spirits of one sort or another. Goes well with my tendency to believe mountains have a divine quality to them.
Even though I had pretty much accepted the fact that we weren't going to make it to the top, the moment the peak came in to view, my typical thoughts occured... it doesn't look THAT far! Maybe we can do this after all. A sudden flush of motivation charged me up for the climb ahead. Don't get me wrong though, I'm no fool anymore. Past climbs have taught me a good lesson on how distances on those scales are incredibly deceiving. I knew the chances of getting to the top in time were slim, but why not try?
And so it went for the next few hours. As I said, we only came across a couple heading to the Holy Jim Falls and a single mountain biker heading up the trail (amazes me that people have the athleticism to bike up a mountain!) while the rest of the hike was a completely solitary experience. With little time on our hands, we skipped the view of the falls and just chugged our way up the main trail. When we passed the first 1 mile marker point I was a bit discouraged at how long it had taken to get to it knowing we had so many more miles to go. Every mile forward meant a mile back on the return trip... but that certainly isn't the way to think to keep motivated! We continued on nonetheless.
About halfway through the hike my knee started to ache and Alice, being the strong willed and helpful girl that she is, took on the burden of the weighted backpack while I carried the hydration pack. Speaking of which, this along with some trekking poles were the two new pieces of equipment we brought for this hike and we both were very pleased with the results. The poles were a tad too short for my liking so Alice used them the whole way and found they made a difference on the impact of her knees. The hydration pack is convenient, quick and easy to use. It's the best way to hydrate on the fly that we've found so far. Both of these items will be part of our hikes from now on.
Just a quick word on the trail condition... it doesn't get any better maintained than this! Despite all the rain there were no washed sections and it was clear that an amazing job was done by the mountain bikers rehabilitation project. I don't know what the trail looked like before, but it was clearly in great shape now and made for an "even" and "gentle" hike. Good job guys!
Continuing on... I seem to recall at the 3 or 4 mile marker my knee was starting to concern me. It was slowing me down quite a bit and I was losing motivation to continue since our goal was unattainable. Alice was much more determined to push on even though we both knew we'd have to turn around within the next hour to avoid hiking in the dark. I kept focusing on just reaching the end of Holy Jim trail where it meets up with the access road. If I could accomplish that then at least I could say I hiked the whole trail and put that in as a web site entry. Well, things wouldn't turn out exactly as planned.
By about 2:15pm, we had a view of what appears in the above left image. By the looks of it the trail we were on seemed to be heading towards the path in the distance to the right, but what you can't see in the photo is that this path extended far out in the opposite direction of the peak, but seemed to slowly wind it's way up the mountain. I couldn't figure out if this would be a part of the Holy Jim trail and therefore to reach the end of it would mean hiking for many miles more. At the same time it looked like it cut too much in to the side of the mountain and therefore must be an access road. Whatever it ended up being, all I knew is we'd have to turn around by 3pm.
A little further more and we were walking on snow through a forest and heading downhill. It suddenly felt a lot colder and darker at this point as the sun was now behind clouds and we were in the shade of the trees. By 2:30 we headed up another little hill and sure enough we came to an access road. This road went in either direction and I assume if you continue on it to the left it would take you up to the peak. But there was no time left for us... only time for lunch. This was the end of our hike whether we liked it or not. Looking around we soon spotted a sign for "Upper Holy Jim Trail". Clearly, we had not actually finished the whole trail after all! At the time I had no idea which would be the easier or more direct route to the top from there (taking Upper Holy or walking the road), but for us it didn't matter anymore. In actuality, based on the view from Google Earth, it looks like Upper Holy Jim is the most direct route to the top access road.
By 3pm we had finished eating and felt pretty cold in the dark and wet forest. We accepted our fate and started back down the trail. It would be another 4 hours or so before we'd reach the car. The walk from the trail parking area to our car felt long and a bit disorienting as it was in the dark and hard to recognize the landmarks from the way in. We managed to find our car safe and intact at around 7:30pm (worried a bit about the teenage boys racing their trucks through the puddles on the way out). All in all, a special hike in a special place. I will go back again to finish this hike one day (could be as soon as summer 2010)!
Download my Google Earth holy-jim-hike.kmz file [10 KB] to see my route and descriptive placemarks of the Holy Jim hike. To use this file, download and install the free Google Earth software, then once it's up and running, choose File --> Open... and select the "holy-jim-hike.kmz" file that you downloaded from here. A folder called "Santiago Peak, CA" should now be in the Places tab. Expanding this folder you will find all my placemarks and routes for the hike. Clicking on any of these placemarks will bring you to the exact spot on Earth.
Distance: Round trip from where we parked was about 24km. From what's on the map, it says it's about a 16 mile trip from trailhead to peak and back. Plus add on another 1.5 miles round trip from the parking area to trailhead and you're talking 17.5 miles (28km). Not sure how accurate that is, it may be a bit overestimated.
Time: Took us about 8 hours.
Trailhead Elevation: 528 meters (parking area)
Elevation Gain: 1,205 meters (from parking area to Peak). We gained 830 meters (from where we parked to where we stopped)
Santiago Peak elevation: 1733 meters (5,687 feet, highest point in Santa Ana Mountains). We reached an elevation of 1,215 meters.
Santiago Peak: 33º 42' 42" N; 117º 32' 00" W (NAD83/WGS84)
Trabuco Creek Rd entrance (from Trabuco Canyon Rd.): 33º 39' 32.9" N; 117º 35' 7.9" W (NAD83/WGS84)
A good topo map listing the hiking and biking trails in the Santa Ana Mountains (as well as Chino Hills) can be purchased from Franko's maps web site.