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Halfway There: Hiking Barefoot to the top of Orange County’s Highest Peak

June 23, 2012

With a 5,687-foot summit, Santiago Peak may not seem like much of a mountain, but it is the tallest peak in Orange County, CA, and the southern half of Old Saddleback, or Kalawpa,  or just the place where the sun comes up every day when you’re a kid growing up in the 1960’s and taking these sorts of things for granted.

Even though our folks took our family (six older siblings + me) backpacking in the Sierra Nevada back in those good old days of not having to filter stream water, for some reason we never hiked up Saddleback. I finally made the pilgrimage almost 10 years ago with some co-workers, but my older brother Doug (who has taken his five kids backpacking in the Sierra Nevada many times), had never been to the top of Santiago Peak.

Recently retired, with a more flexible schedule these days, Doug was happy to join me this week on a first-day-of-summer trek via the Holy Jim Canyon trail–and I was happy to have company on the 16-mile, 4000-foot-elevation gain hike.

I’ve got it in mind to hike barefoot across the Grand Canyon later this fall, so hiking up Old Saddleback without shoes seemed like the next “logical” step in my quasi-training. (Last week’s shoeless 11-miler around Crystal Cove State Park’s back-country had gone well; how tough could five more miles be?)

Very tough.

Compared to the Holy Jim route, the trails at Crystal Cove had (except for one nasty eroded asphalt section) been smooth and soft  as butterfly kisses to my shoeless tootsies.

Who knew there was so much loose jagged rock set free from its crusty underpinnings on our lovely, chaparral-covered Santa Ana Mountains?

My toes know.

The trail meanders fabulously through tunnels of manzanita and avenues of wildflowers until, three miles from the summit, it intersects with Main Divide Road that roughly traverses the ridgetop of the Santa Ana Mountains. Roughly.

The road is one big gravel party, with rocks of all sizes and sharpness making for a challenging final few miles. By the time we reached the summit–a thick forest of humming metal towers, cell phone antennaes, and microwave relays–I was more than ready to follow my “barefootin’ motto”:

“If it ain’t fun, put some shoes on.”

And so I pulled my Merrell Pipidae minimalist sandals out of my pack, and we hustled the eight miles back down to the car in three hours (vs. four-and-a-half hours to climb the 4,000 feet to the top).

So, while I didn’t make it the whole 16 miles barefoot, I did survive eight miles of pretty rocky terrain without so much as a toe-stub. My soles survived with no pokes, punctures, or perforations.

My brother got to check “Hike Santiago Peak” off his bucket list.

And I got a reality check on what it might take to hike 22 miles from North Rim to South Rim across the Grand Canyon. (But, for the record: the seven miles of the North Kaibab Trail that I hiked barefoot last month were a lot easier on the feet than the crazy crack-up rock so generously strewn across the Holy Jim Trail and Main Divide Road . . . )

Before I get to the photo section, one recommendation: Karen Klein’s wonderfully descriptive book, 50 Hikes in Orange County, has a nice description of this, and 49 other, great hikes in our backyard, the wildlands of Orange County, CA.


Morning fog in Holy Jim Canyon


Mariposa lilies were part of the June wildflower display along the Holy Jim Trail.


One of my favorite chaparral flowers: wooly blue curls. Exquisite smell, elaborate blossoms, many medicinal uses.



Peely-barked manzanita: Walking past it on a hot summer afternoon, I actually felt a pocket of cool air. Cool!


Rockin’ the Holy Jim Trail. Yikes.


Here the Holy Him Trail crosses a geology-text-book perfect talus slope.


Shrubby tunnels provide welcome shade along the Holy Jim Trail. We started hiking before sunrise (5 am), but it still got hot by the time we finished 8+ hours later.


Brother Doug almost stepped on this lazy snake that was sunning in the middle of the Main Divide Road. It never even rattled at us, but just slithered away.


I always am looking to add to my photo collection of “bare feet and creatures.”


The view from Main Divide Road, just below Santiago Peak. Almost there . . . Doug leads the way, looking out for snakes . . .


The 1899 marker at the top. 5,687 feet above sea level.


The view from the top of Orange County, CA: “my hometown.”


It was a beautiful, butterfly-filled day. Sometimes the swallowtails would fly next to us as we hiked along.

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