Hiking Saddleback Mountain takes you to the highest point in Orange County, Santiago Peak. It’s also the highest point in the Santa Ana mountains at 5,689 feet. This hike takes the scenic Holy Jim Trail, which is also the shortest route to the summit. This is a long and challenging hike. Don’t try this hike without a good level of fitness.
Saddleback Mountain is actually two peaks, Santiago Peak and the lower Modjeska Peak. Saddleback Mountain can be seen from most of Orange County and dominates the skyline. It’s called Saddleback Mountain because the two peaks look like a saddle from most of Orange County. This hike goes to the higher Santiago Peak, but you can also hike to the lower Modjeska Peak.
Santiago Peak is named after Santiago Creek, which starts on the upper slopes of the mountains and then flows into the Santa Ana River, eventually joining the ocean at Huntingdon Beach.
Getting to the Holy Jim trailhead is half the fun. It’s a dirt road for about 6 miles, and is best done in 4×4. You can do it in a car, but some sections are very rutted and require a careful (and slow) drive.
You need a parking pass for the Cleveland National Forest. I use the affordable National Parks Pass, which gets me in every national park, national monument, and national forest. You can also use an (Southern California only) Adventure Pass, or buy a $5 day permit from the ranger’s office.
Gear for the Hike
This is a tough hike and you need to be well prepared with layers, water, and food. The upper slopes are generally free of snow, making it a good mountain hike for the winter. It does snow on Saddleback Mountain occasionally, so check the weather.
If there’s been rain, there are some small streams at the beginning of the hike. Trekking poles help you navigate them.
If you want hiking gear recommendations, check out my full gear list. I only recommend and review gear that I actually use. No company pays me to push their product. Everything on my gear list is battle tested on the trails, and should work well for you too.