7 Best Places To Explore In The Santa Ana Mountains (2021)
A magnificently diverse range, the Santa Ana Mountains stretches from Los Angeles and goes till San Diego with the Pacific Ocean below. They are the short peninsular mountain range covering an area of roughly 61 miles and housing about 41 named peaks along with some rough and unnamed ones as well. Though entire Southern California boasts beautifully in nature and if we talk about the Orange County, the Santa Ana mountains are any day the leading spots to capture splendours and splendid all around.
The external glimpse of the Santa Ana mountains might feel less appealing and pleasing to your eyes, but as and when you get inside those canyons, it is where you will find the best of serenity at. From huge mountain peaks to some of the best hiking trails, from mankind’s history to Flora and Fauna, there is an abundance of options that these 61 miles of mountains offers to the visitors. Of all that is counted as great here, here is the list of the 7 best places to explore in the Santa Ana mountains. Have a look:
7 Best Places To Explore In The Santa Ana Mountains
1. Santiago Peak
The highest summit in the Santa Ana Mountains range, Santiago Peak, is noted as one of the most prominent locations in Santa Ana, Riverside County, and Orange county. It is well known for the hiking trails and the radio communication facilities, which are providing coverage to most of the major SoCal cities. Though there are several trails that lead to the Santiago Peak, the popular amongst them is the Holy Jim trail and the Main Divide Road. The trail is accessible all year round and stays highly trafficked with both locals and visitors.
The Holy Jim trail marks an elevation of 4,000 feet, offers about a 16 miles round trip to Santiago Peak and is noted as moderate to strenuous. The hiking experience here is more pleasant during winters and springs due to the weather and boost of nature all around. After reaching the peak, one can get a clearer view of San Jacinto Peak, Mount San Antonio, and Mount San Gorgonio, the highest peak in the entire SoCal.
2. San Mateo Canyon Wilderness
Not every visitor is a seeker for peaks and hights but there are also a lot that crave for lush canyons and valleys. The San Mateo Canyon covers 38,484 acres of wilderness covering chaparral landscape, vegetation, and two named mountains. It is indeed one of the most famous spots in the Santa Ana mountain range and is filled with nature enthusiast all year around.
The Tenaja Falls Trails and San Mateo Canyon Trail are counted amongst the two main trails of the area, boosting hiking opportunities all-round the year. The entire canyon is a spread of thick oak woodlands with lower elevation, deep drainages, a wealth of wildflower blooms, and small pools that are specifically helpful for summer hikers and local wildlife. San Mateo Canyon is also home to 37 mammal species, 139 bird species, 7 fish species, and 46 amphibian and reptile species. If lucky enough, one can even get a view of beautiful and huge mountain lions here, though it is the rarest sight. While you explore the wilderness of San Mateo Canyon, consider carrying plenty of water and be extra cautious from poisons oak and reptiles.
3. Harding Falls
Harding falls gain 1,500 feet of elevation and is noted as a sylvan gem of the mountains. The fall is located in the pristine depths of Harding Canyon inside a tranquil riparian wonderland that makes it one of the best places to visit in the Santa Ana mountains. A hike towards the Harding falls is about 8 miles of round trip and is counted as really strenuous.
On your way to the Harding falls, you won’t find must companions as it is noted as one of the hidden wonders in Santa Ana, and not many people know about it. For your way up to the sight, be prepared for climbing over larger boulder sets, crossing the extensively spread poison oaks, hopping over boulders, and losing your way in between as there’s no marked trail there. Your way up to the Harding falls begins at the Harding Truck Trail, and if you fail to find the route to the fall, the canyon is immensely beautiful anyway. To get the best view of the falls, winters, springs, and the lush rainy season is the best time to head here.
4. Upper Hot Spring Canyon
One of the most amazing canyons in Santa Ana mountain that features several seasonal waterfalls, hiking trails, and amazing adventure that any seasoned hiker would wish for. The Upper Hot Spring Canyon Falls gains an elevation of 700 feet with remarkably beautiful and surprisingly large depth that makes it quite a popular spot to explore in the Santa Ana Mountains.
The hike towards the upper hot springs begins from the Falcon Campground, offering you a 4 miles round trip full of ease which further transforms into adventure, danger, and difficulties. In the beginning, you would come across several 10 to 20 feet waterfalls, but once you cross the 40 feet waterfall, which is named the Upper Hot Spring Canyon Falls, it begins the real strenuous and challenging hike. Further closely lies 60 feet and then even more tall waterfalls, but only hikers with years of experience and great fitness are advised to move forward. On your way, along with waterfalls, you would also find a number of spectacular pools, lush canyons, and the beauty and tranquillity of nature that is enough to rejuvenate one from the hustle of life.
5. Weir Canyon Trail
Towards the Anaheim hill, below the Santa Ana Mountains, lies the Weir Canyon Trail, an unspoiled gem near Santa Ana. It has a very low elevation of about 350 feet and a trail marking for a 3.5 miles long trip that is relatively easy even for the first-time hikers. The Weir Canyon Trail is mainly uncrowded and offers some surprisingly scenic views, which other ways are totally unexpected when overlooked from afar. All the way along the trail constitutes of tranquil wooded canyon bottoms covered with gently rolling chaparral hills. For an abundance of natural views, serene surroundings, and best of experience, it is advisable to plan a trip here amidst the rainy season, after rainfall, or during the springs when the entire location blooms with lush greenery and beautiful wildflowers flourishing specifically in a dark yellow shade. However, avoid summers as the land here is mainly dry and drought, and there is almost nothing to enjoy and admire.
6. El Cariso Campground
Near the main divide road right in the mid of Orange County and Riverside County lies the El Cariso Campground, a great place to spend a weekend at. El Cariso gains an elevation of 2,600 feet above sea level and is a 24-site campground that can be easily reached from San Juan Capistrano to the west or via Lake Elsinore to the east. The campground is in close proximity to the El Cariso Visitor Centre and can be reached with a small yet scenic trail.
El Cariso Campground is one great location for small recreational vehicles and tents and is available at a minimal charge of $15 per night for up to 8 people. Though there isn’t any online booking available and it works on a first-come, first grab basis. Plenty of drinking water, vault toilets, fire rings, charcoal grills, and picnic tables are provided at the campsite at no extra cost. The campground is near Ortega Highway; thus, you might hear noises all throughout the weekend. However, if you are looking for peace and tranquillity, plan your visit during weekends or holiday time and if possible, choose a campsite that is a little distance from the highway.
7. Modjeska Peak
The second highest peak in the Santa Ana mountains, the Modjeska Peak, lies in the range of Cleveland National Forest and is named after Helena Modjeska, the famous Shakespearean actress. The total hiking distance up to the peak is nearly about 15 miles, with moderate to strenuous pathways requiring a total of about 8 hours to complete. The hike to Modjeska Peak is full of loops, steeps and is not ideal for beginners or one-time hikers.
To begin with, get started from the 2WD parking area and then hike east up the ridge to the summit. Or drive from Silverado Canyon Road until the end of the Forest Service gate and then begin the hike for the peak. A GPS map might not work the best here; thus, it is advisable to carry along a paper map to not lose your way. The summit of Modjeska, though, is underdeveloped than the nearby Santiago peak; however, it is said that if you are looking for an unexploited, raw and nicer gain, then choose Modjeska over Santiago always. Being a part of the Cleveland National Forest range, a National Forest Adventure Pass/ permit is required in order to explore the trail of Modjeska Peak along with an additional parking charge.
Best Times To Explore The Santa Ana Mountains:
Springs, winters, and the first season after rains are marked as the best time to explore the Santa Ana mountains. During these time frames, the entire region is on its best beauty, and you might also find some snow on the highest peak.
Avoid summers at all, as neither would you find many waterfalls nor will most of the valley location would have even an inch of greenery.
Monsoons are best if you are a waterfall seeker, but mark it that the pathways will also become slippery and dangerous during this time frame.