Tranquil places, wild places and the trails that lead to them each year become more rare in Orange County. Huge housing developments--whole suburbs, in fact--are advancing up the slopes of the Santa Ana Mountains toward the borders of Cleveland National Forest.
And yet some undeveloped places remain.
One of these places is Holy Jim Canyon. A slow, bumpy drive along a dirt road and a short walk beside a trickling stream bring the city-dweller relief from the noise and confusion of everyday life.
Holy Jim Trail, Creek and Canyon take their names from Cussin' Jim Smith, an early Santa Ana Mountains settler who would unleash a string of unholy epithets when displeased. Turn-of-the-century map makers were unwilling to geographically honor such a blasphemer, so they changed his name to Holy.
The trail is one of the most popular in the Santa Anas, although most hikers venture only as far as the falls. The trail is something of a Santa Ana Mountains sampler; it offers a creek, a lush canyon, a waterfall, an oak woodland and chaparral-smothered slopes. All this and a view, too.
Getting to the Holy Jim Trailhead is half the fun, because you'll drive through storied Trabuco Canyon. Trabuco is a name left behind by the 1769 Portola Expedition. It means blunderbuss and refers to the loss of such a weapon by one of Portola's foot soldiers in the surrounding Santa Ana Mountains.
The Santa Ana Mountains came under federal protection in 1893 when the Trabuco Canyon Forest Reserve was formed. The Trabuco Canyon area was assigned to the Cleveland National Forest in 1908.
Today, the Trabuco District of the Cleveland National Forest includes 136,500 acres of the Santa Ana Mountains. For more information about the district's back roads and trails, call: (714) 736-1811. For a trails brochure, write to the Trabuco Ranger District, 1147 E. 6th St., Corona, Calif. 91720. Enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
Directions to trailhead: Take Interstate 5 to the El Toro Road exit (S-18); go east through Mission Viejo. Turn right on Live Oak Canyon Road (S-19). After passing O'Neill Park, the road continues as Trabuco Canyon Road.
Immediately after crossing a bridge over Trabuco Creek, turn left onto the unsigned, dirt Forest Service road that leads up Trabuco Canyon. The road is suitable for most passenger cars with good ground clearance. Drive slowly and use caution at the stream crossings.
In 5 miles, you'll reach an unsigned fork in the road. Bear left and park near this fork.
The hike: Walk up the dirt road, which takes you past a number of summer homes on Forest Service land. Beyond the last home, you'll reach a locked gate. Holy Jim Trail begins on the other side of the gate and heads up vine- and oak-filled lower Holy Jim Canyon. The trail stays near Holy Jim Creek for the first mile, crossing and recrossing the bubbling waters near some stone fish dams.
A mile from the gate, the trail crosses the creek one last time. At this creek crossing, an unsigned, but well used, side trail heads upstream to Holy Jim Waterfall. It's a quarter-mile to the waterfall and well worth a visit. The side trail winds through wild grape and woodwardia ferns to a cool grotto. The waterfall is no Niagara, but the 20-foot cascade is pretty and has a moderate flow this winter.
Option: To Bear Spring. From back at the junction with the side trail to the waterfall, Holy Jim Trail turns downstream for a few hundred yards. You're treated to a good view of the northern Santa Ana Mountains country. Soon the trail begins a steep climb up the west side of Holy Jim Canyon. After some hearty switchbacking through stiff brush, the trail begins a long contour along the canyon wall.
As the trail nears Bear Spring, there's less brush, and you can look up to shady oaks and an occasional spruce or Coulter pine.
Santiago Peak (Old Saddleback) comes into view. The northern Santa Ana Mountains were once known as Sierra de Santiago for this dominant peak. You can't miss Santiago Peak; it's the only mountain around crowned with a forest of antennae.
Bear Spring is at the intersection of the Holy Jim Trail and the Main Divide Truck Trail. An enclosed concrete water tank is at the intersection, but, alas, it does not dispense water to thirsty hikers. The shady area around the spring is cool and pleasant, a nice lunch stop.
Option: To Santiago Peak. If you're feeling rambunctious, continue another 3 miles (gaining 1,800 feet) on the Main Divide Truck Trail to Santiago Peak, highest summit in the Santa Anas. Last month the peak was dusted with snow. On a clear day, you can see a hundred miles from the 5,687-foot peak.
Holy Jim Trail
Holy Jim Creek to falls; 2 1/2 miles round trip; 200-foot elevation gain.
Holy Jim Creek to Bear Spring; 10 miles round trip; 2,200-foot elevation gain.
Holy Jim Creek to Santiago Peak; 16 miles round trip; 4,000-foot elevation gain.