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Our Own Private Everest

Conquering Orange County's Highest Point Isn't Easy


The sunrise was stupendous, Old Saddleback's vaunted outline boldly silhouetted against the dazzling dawn, merest whispers of slate-gray clouds under-lit a brilliant yellow . . . And that was just getting on the freeway in Costa Mesa.

Fact is, you can see Saddleback from most of Orange County. From atop Santiago Peak--its real name--you can theoretically see not only Orange and Riverside counties, but Los Angeles skyscrapers, the curve of the Pacific horizon and glimmers of Baja California.

For Orange County hikers, Santiago is the apex. At 5,687 feet, it's our Everest; a 16-mile round trip, hiking guides rate it as "strenuous" and "a butt-kicker."

Greg Silver of Garden Grove, 46, a volunteer ranger in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, has been hiking on Santiago Peak since he was a Boy Scout in the 1960s. He's got loftier goals in the '90s:

"In California, there are 15 peaks over 14,000 feet," Silver explained. "Two friends and I plan to bag all of those this year and next." To build up endurance, he bags more modest peaks whenever he can.

With some Santiago summit experience myself, I hooked up with Silver for a jaunt up the peak from the Trabuco Canyon side, via Holy Jim Falls.

My impression is that it's a tad surreal. Figs incongruously grow near the base. Century plants and orange-colored grass--actually a parasite called witches' hairdot the trail. I've seen what appears to be a grave along the switchbacks. The antenna-spangled summit is like a set from a '50s space movie.

Site names pay homage to a beekeeper named Cussin' Jim Smith; prudish government map-makers re-christened him Holy Jim.

To get to Holy Jim Road, take Interstate 5 to the El Toro Road exit and head east. Turn right on Live Oak Canyon Road. Just past O'Neill Regional Park and Rose Canyon Road, turn left onto unmarked, unpaved Trabuco Canyon Road. Allow at least a half hour for the 4.7-mile rocky ride to Holy Jim Trailhead; park in the clearing 100 yards past the Holy Jim fire station, and head past a few quirky cabins up the stream's east side.

Santiago in summer can be unforgiving, so start early. Being bleary-eyed, however, can have its consequences. Despite oodles of experience, Silver and I set out from the wrong parking area entirely, adding four miles to the considerable trek.

By the time we backtracked and reached picture-perfect Holy Jim Falls, we'd covered 0.7 miles of our planned itinerary in three hours. The whole trip should take eight or nine.

The falls, as refreshing as they are scenic, are worth the quarter-mile side-trip upstream, coming or going or both. The Holy Jim Trail itself heads up the west side of the canyon via switchbacks, then levels off, somewhat, as it approaches Main Divide Truck Trail.

Gary Suttle, author of "California County Summits" and an amateur botanist, raves about the Holy Jim Trail.

He went in spring, he recalled. "The flowers were out, an incredible array--golden poppy, Indian paint brush, white forget-me-nots. You see unusual botanical happenings. In Northern California, the California bay, also called Oregon myrtle, reaches stately proportions of 90 feet or more. Here, at the extreme south of its range, it's a shrub rather than a tree, a curiosity with thick, leathery leaves.

"By the way, did you know the last grizzly bear in the Santa Ana Mountains was killed in 1908?"

The Holy Jim Trail and Main Divide Truck Trail meet at Bear Springs. At that point, sun blazing and birds of prey circling buzzard-like overhead, the most encouraging thing was that many of them were actually circling below.

Silver, fighting a cold, settled for the round trip to Bear Springs. Having yet to see those L.A. skyscrapers and Pacific vistas on two previous trips to the top, I pressed on. My first time up I'd seen fog, the second time bugs, this time bugs and . . . smaze pall?

"Smaze is the combination portmanteau [word for] smog and haze," Suttle explained, "pall is the vast over-clouding darkness." Swarms of bugs, like a cross between ladybugs and June bugs, made it difficult to breath. Perhaps they're attracted to the heat generated by the metallic towers of the antenna farm; they're like that nowhere else on the mountain.

What I could see between my waving arms were some receding ranges; an expanse of land beyond them toward San Diego; virtually nothing toward Riverside due to smog; trails wending away below on the Orange County side, but certainly no Pacific horizon, curving or otherwise.

Suttle, who has visited all 58 California county summits, had a better experience.

"That's such a fantastic high point," he said, "less than 15 air miles as the crow flies from the ocean . . . I was so taken by the ocean panorama. There are [no other county summits] that high that close to the coast, it's peerless in that regard. So often there's that low blanket of marine clouds. You get the feeling of being up in a plane, above the clouds.

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