Modjeska Peak, Canyon Are Linked to Old Poland

The story of Modjeska Peak and Modjeska Canyon in Orange County began in Warsaw, Poland, in the 1870s. Count Karol Bozenta Chlapowski edited a fiercely nationalistic journal, The Country. The count got into trouble for his literary rebellion against the cultural and political imperialism of czarist Russia and Germany. He and his wife, acclaimed actress Helena Modrzejewski, along with novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz (“Quo Vadis?”) and other Polish writers and artists, yearned for the freedom of America and the climate of Southern California.

The count purchased an Orange County farm, and the dreamy Polish aristocrats immigrated to the New World. While the setting and company were artistically inspiring, the immigrants had difficulties with some of the practical aspects of ranch life. No one, it seemed, knew how to milk a cow or care for citrus trees.

Sienkiewicz preferred writing to working in the fields, Helena enjoyed singing and acting far more than cooking, and the count lost a lot of money in a short time. Even utopian colonies have to pay their bills.

Helena mastered English, shortened her name to Modjeska and, under the count’s management, began her tremendously popular stage career. In 1888, Madame Modjeska and the count returned to Orange County. This time they bought a ranch in Santiago Canyon and hired professionals to run it.


The Bard’s Arden

Madame called her ranch Arden, after the enchanted forest in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” New York architect Stanford White was commissioned to design a dream home, which looked out over a little lake, across which glided swans.

The couple spent their mornings riding over the ranch and inspecting the orange orchards and vineyards, and their afternoons with friends in discussion of art, literature and current events. Evenings were given over to music recitals or Madame’s performances of one of her favorite parts--Camille, Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth.

For two decades, the Chlapowski/Modjeska household was a center of artistic and literary life in Southern California. Today, a state historical marker on Modjeska Canyon Road commemorates their home. A few years ago, the home was purchased by Orange County, which someday may restore the residence and open it to the public.

The natural history of Modjeska Canyon is as intriguing as its human history. In 1939, Dorothy May Tucker, a canyon resident, willed her land to the Audubon Society, and the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary was created. Cal State Fullerton took over its operation in 1969.

Diversity of Bird Life

The sanctuary is best known for its hummingbirds, which may be viewed from an observation porch. Because the sanctuary includes a mixture of coastal scrub, chaparral and oak woodland environments, it attracts a diversity of bird life. Nearly 200 species have been spotted in the sanctuary.

Two short nature trails wind through the preserve. One trail interprets chaparral flora and the other leads along the banks of Santiago Creek. Among the trail-side exhibits is one interpreting the life of water bugs and explaining the difference between a mayfly nymph and a dragonfly nymph. A small nature museum keeps the same hours as the sanctuary--9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.

Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary is the trailhead for Harding Trail, a dirt road that ascends the western slopes of the Santa Ana Mountains. The trail, formerly known as Harding Truck Trail, is used by Cleveland National Forest fire crews and their trucks, but is closed to all other vehicles.

Old Saddleback, composed of 5,687-foot Santiago Peak and 5,496-foot Modjeska Peak, forms the eastern boundary and highest portion of Orange County. You can reach the peaks via Harding Trail, but this would mean a 20-mile hike. A more reasonable destination, halfway up the mountain, is Laurel Spring, a tranquil rest stop tucked under the boughs of giant bay laurel. En route to the spring, you’ll get great views of Madame Modjeska’s peak and canyon, as well as much of rural Orange County.

Directions to the trailhead: From the San Diego Freeway in El Toro, exit on El Toro Road. Drive inland on the road, which after about 7 miles bends north and continues as Santiago Canyon Road. Eight and a half miles from the freeway, veer right onto Modjeska Grade Road, travel a bit more than a mile, then turn right and follow Modjeska Canyon Road a mile to its end at Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary. Park in the gravel lot by a tiny observatory. The trail, signed Forest Road 5S08, begins at a locked gate on the north side of the road.

The hike: Harding Trail immediately begins a no-nonsense ascent above Modjeska Canyon, which, in all but its lower reaches, is officially known as Harding Canyon. To the northwest is Flores Peak, named for outlaw Juan Flores. Flores and his gang in 1857 robbed a San Juan Capistrano store, killed its owner, then killed Sheriff John Barton. The gang fled to the Santa Ana Mountains with Gen. Don Andres Pico and his posse in pursuit. The gang was captured, but Flores escaped for a time. He was later caught and hanged in Los Angeles.

As you ascend, notice the lumpy, pudding-like clumps of conglomerate rock revealed by the road cuts. After a mile, the trail descends a short distance (the only elevation loss on the way to Laurel Spring), rounds the head of a canyon and ascends to the remains of a funny-looking wood structure that locals call the Goat Shed.

Enjoy the view of Modjeska Canyon. If you’re feeling a bit leg-weary, this is a good turnaround point.

Chaparral-lined Harding Trail continues climbing east along a sharp ridgeline. To your left, far below, is deep and precipitous Harding Canyon, and to your right, Santiago Canyon. Four-and-a-half miles from the trailhead, Harding Trail offers clear-day views of the southern end of the Los Angeles Basin, the San Joaquin Hills and the central Orange County coastal plain, the Pacific and Catalina Island.

The view serves notice that you’re nearing Laurel Spring. A narrow trail descends 50 yards from the right side of the road to the spring. The spring (unsafe for drinking) waters an oasis of toyon, ferns and wonderfully aromatic bay laurel.