**UPDATE** As of 3/15/15 Maple Springs is still closed due to the Silverado fire last year. Check with US Forest Service for re-opening of the road.
There are two things that make this ride special. First, the challenge of tackling the tallest peak in the Santa Ana Mountains. And second, the descent into Holy Jim Canyon. Either one of these things might end up being the reason you CAN'T complete this ride, because they both are HUGE.
The easiest way UP Santiago is Maple Springs Rd, which starts in Silverado Canyon. However, the best way DOWN Santiago is Holy Jim Canyon.
Everyone meet in the dirt lot where Trabuco Canyon Rd
crosses Trabuco Creek. Oneill Park lies immediately west and south of the area. Leave half of the vehicles there and the rest will shuttle everyone to Silverado Canyon. Take Trabuco Canyon Rd
/Live Oak Canyon Rd 3.3 miles west and north, then turn right at Cook's Corner onto Santiago Canyon Rd. Drive 5.8 miles and turn right on Silverado canyon Rd. Stay right and drive another 5.6 miles to a ranger station with a few parking spots (you'll need a $5 Daily Pass from the National Forest service). Otherwise, there may be legal parking along the road approaching the station, although I've never tried looking.
The climb to the peak, although technically easy, is steep and unrelenting. Start up Maple Springs Rd (paved section)
and within half a mile you'll be pulling a steady 7%, working up a good sweat. The first three miles cut through a beautiful green, shaded valley. The next 4.5 miles on Maple Springs Rd (dirt section)
are just as steep, but they cut up the sides of the mountain, have much less tree shade, and are wide, fire road. Except for an occasional rock or boulder to steer around, the footing is clear and easy.
At the 7.5 mile mark, after a wide left switchback, there will be a clearing surrounded by low, rusted metal-tube fencing. This is called Four Corners... original, I know. Uphill and to the left through this clearing is the way to Main Divide Rd (do not go downhill to the right... bad). After the short climb look for a swinging gate on the right and ride around it, this is Main Divide Rd - Maple Springs to Santiago Peak
From the gate to the peak is 4.6 miles of wide fire road. However, a large portion of this stretch is covered by loose, fist-sized rocks that almost never allow a clean line through them. You'll spin your wheels on them, you'll worry about the way they claw and poke at your tires, you'll get tired of the constant bumping. It's a very strong test of your will to reach the top, but don't give up, you've come too far!
There will be a plateau part-way through the climb which sits directly below Modjeska Peak, the smaller peak of the two that form Saddleback Mountain. The road runs almost even for about a mile between the peaks and is a welcome break before the rock-strewn climb begins again, this time not letting up until you reach the top.
From the top, beneath the communication towers, head northeast and downhill on Main Divide Rd - Santiago Peak to Upper Holy Jim Trail
for 1.5 miles. Be careful, this stretch is covered with those same loose rocks. Look for a clearing after an easy, wide right-hand switchback, and along the left edge you should see a gap in the foliage. It might have hand-placed rocks, in the shape of a runway, showing the way. This is the beginning of Upper Holy Jim, a very challenging advanced singletrack that will have you walking a few of its sections. After less than a mile of Upper HJ, you'll be dumped east-facing onto Main Divide Rd - short segment between Upper and Lower Holy Jim Trail
. Make a hard right and turn back to the west for .4 miles.
Look for a small brown trail marker on your left beneath a large tree, this is the beginning of Lower Holy Jim, an incredibly long and beautiful trail that will take you on a 4.8 mile journey to the bottom of the canyon. A short climb, then nearly 2300 vertical feet of downhill singletrack will have your hands and arms screaming to stop pulling the brakes. Your feet and calves will beg you to stop and get off the pedals. The bottom of Holy Jim follows and crosses a creek until you get to Trabuco Canyon Rd
. Follow this easy dirt road west for 4.6 miles back to the cars and shuttle back to Silverado Canyon.