Hitting the Dusty Trail

[Summer Guide] Get your stomp on over hill, dale and canyon with these highly recommended hikes

Caspers Wilderness Park: Bell Canyon
First used by Juaneño Indians for the acorns dropped from the oak trees, this is as good a place to spot wildlife such as deer and coyote as any trail in the county. It’s also prime bird-watching territory. “It’s a basic, 7-mile hike along some ridges, and if you go out at the beginning or end of the day, you’re going to see wildlife,” McKinney says. “I really love how the red-tailed hawks float on top of the hilltops and seem to accompany you on your journey.” 33401 Ortega Hwy., San Juan Capistrano, (949) 923-2210; www.ocparks.com/caspers.

Santiago Peak via Holy Jim Trail
You want history? You want views? You want to get your ass kicked? This trail’s got it all. While most of us know Santiago Peak as the highest peak in Orange County—the one with the plethora of communication towers on top—and, along with the slightly smaller Modjeska Peak, half of Old Saddleback, it’s also the one trek you absolutely must make to be “a true Orange County hiker,” McKinney declares. “It will get your heart beating. The peak is 5,689 feet high, but more important for a hiker is it’s a 4,000-foot gain. You want to give yourself a lot of time, maybe as much as eight hours up and down.”

The first documented ascent of Santiago Peak came in 1853, when a group of lawmen pursuing horse thieves wound up clambering to the top. Though the landscape has obviously changed, the views haven’t: On a really clear day (good luck with that), you get a spectacular view of everything from Santa Catalina to the towering mountain ranges that ring the Los Angeles Basin.

John McKinney's path to happiness
John Gilhooley
John McKinney's path to happiness

There are a number of trails and access roads that lead to Santiago, but if you’re thinking of making the trek this summer, consider the Holy Jim Trail—but not the whole thing. Why? Because you don’t want to do the actual Holy Jim Trail in the summer: You’ll probably die. You could push it, but better to leave the ascent for a cooler time of year and instead stop at Holy Jim Waterfall, which is only about 1.5 miles in, with a 200-foot elevation gain and a quarter-mile jaunt across boulders and a creek to the 20-foot cascade itself. The trail and the falls are named after the foul-mouthed Jim Smith, a beekeeper notorious for haranguing government surveyors who mapped the canyon in the early 20th Century. Smith’s hives also factor into another piece of Orange County history: They were among those that tempted a grizzly bear named “Honey Thief,” who, in 1907, was shot at the mouth of Trabuco Canyon, the last time a wild grizzly was ever glimpsed in California. From Interstate 5, exit El Toro Road, drive east 7 miles; turn right on Live Oak Canyon Road and drive 4.2 miles to Trabuco Creek Road; turn left and follow the rough dirt road 4.6 miles to the trailhead parking.

For detailed information on these hikes and many more, check out www.thetrailmaster.com, where you can also get information on books written by John McKinney, including his latest, The Hiker’s Way.

This article appeared in print as "The Dusty Trail: Get your stomp on over hill, dale and canyon with these highly recommended hikes."

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