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Saddleback Stories: Up Close and Personal With Orange County's Tallest Mountain

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By David Lockeretz of Nobody Hikes in L.A. / Special to LAist

If you live in Orange County, odds are good that you, or someone you know, are somehow connected with Saddleback College, Saddleback Hospital, the Saddleback Universal School District or the Saddleback Church. There are many things throughout Orange County that are named after the twin peaks that dominate the landscape and can be seen, on clear days, from Malibu, the San Gabriel Mountains, Idyllwild and San Diego County. The distinctive saddle shape that gives the mountain its name is as recognizable as the impressive profile of Mt. Baldy.

Both halves of “Old Saddleback” - the pointy, shorter summit of Modjeska Peak and the rounder, antenna-covered Santiago Peak - have distinctive characters and histories. It’s possible to climb both in the same day, although just doing one of the peaks is quite an achievement.

Santiago (elevation 5,687) is the highest point in Orange County. Local Native American tribes called it “Kalawpa”, and it was also known as Downey, Trabuco and Temescal before its current name was picked. Upon reaching the summit, Josiah Whitney (after whom Mt. Whitney is named) said, “The view more than repaid us for all we had endured.”

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The most common approach is a 16-mile round trip from Holy Jim Canyon. When the trail to the waterfall splits off, the Holy Jim trail continues, making some switchbacks up the side of the canyon on the mountain’s southeast slope. At five miles, you reach Main Divide Road, where you continue for another three to the summit. The chaparral and oaks give way to pines near the top, and as you approach the peak, you get great views of all of Orange County, and east to San Gorgonio and San Jacinto Peaks. While the antennas on the summit prevent it from being a true 360-degree view, you can still see almost all of Southern California from the top.

Modjeska (elevation 5,496) gets is name from a Shakespearean actress, Helena Modjeska, who lived in the area until 1909. The quickest route to the summit starts where Maple Springs Road changes from a one-lane paved street to dirt. Four miles of walking on a fire road brings you to Main Divide, where a steep climb up a single-track trail and another half-mile on dirt takes you to the summit. Although the view is blocked by taller Santiago Peak a mile southeast, it is arguably more scenic, with no antennas to get in the way. If the air is clear, you can get a particularly good view of Baldy, almost directly to the north.

Plan a full day for either of these hikes. Sun hats, sunblock and bug spray are all recommended gear. You will also need a National Forest Service Adventure Pass to park at either the Maple Springs or Holy Jim trails. The hikes require endurance, but on both, navigation is easy, the terrain is smooth and the thin air of high altitude is not likely to be an issue. While neither are beginner hikes, they are both good goals for people who want to get exercise and explore the outdoors.

For more information on Modjeska Peak, click here. For more about Santiago Peak, click here.

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