Santiago Is a Peak Experience for Hikers : Recreation: The same thing that makes the mountain so valuable as a radio relay point is the reason for its longtime popularity with climbers--its 5,687-foot altitude.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Think of it as an invisible counterpart to the Los Angeles four-level interchange.

That's how Walter Baranger, a technology expert with the New York Times, describes the airspace around Santiago Peak, at 5,687 feet the highest point in Orange County.

Santiago Peak is the southern half of the peaks (Modjeska, at 5,496 feet, is the other) that make up Saddleback. Santiago is a popular destination for intermediate and advanced hikers, but it is also, Baranger points out, "the premier radio relay site in Southern California and one of the most important in the United States."

Situated at the top of Santiago are at least 150 antennas, linking businesses, communications networks, police and fire departments and other agencies--public, private and military--throughout Southern California. Microwave dishes and repeater installations at Santiago Peak serve the military, amateur radio agencies--almost everyone who needs a radio relay, Baranger said.

"Everyone in Southern California is affected by it," he said. "If it were to go down for some reason, everyone would feel it."

All of Saddleback is in the Santa Ana Mountains and is part of Cleveland National Forest, which includes portions of Orange, Riverside and San Diego County. It is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service, with headquarters in Corona.

The same thing that makes Santiago so valuable as a radio relay peak is the reason for its longtime popularity with hikers--its altitude. Baranger, a longtime amateur radio enthusiast who lived in California all his life until moving to New York 18 months ago, says that, on a truly clear day, one can see as far as Tijuana to the south and Catalina Island to the west.

Cindy Ullerich, an information specialist for the Forest Service in Corona, says there are several hiking trails in the area, and one--called the Holy Jim Trail--leads to the summit of Santiago. There is no overnight camping on Santiago, and hikers must bring their own food and water, but picnicking is allowed. Fires are never permitted, and toilet facilities are nonexistent in the wilderness area.

Still, she says, for those who are "in reasonably good shape," a trip from Trabuco Canyon to the peak and back can be completed in one day. This might be one of the better times of the year for such a trip. It can be cold in winter and early spring at 5,000 feet, and dry and dusty in midsummer.

Hikers can begin on Trabuco Canyon Road. To get there, they would exit Interstate 5 at Alicia Parkway going east. After about 10 miles, Alicia Parkway ends at Plano Trabuco Road, and a left turn must be made. Soon, Plano Trabuco becomes Trabuco Road, which in turn becomes Trabuco Canyon Road. After about five miles, motorists will reach the Holy Jim Road fork, where they must park.

Forest Service officials suggest that hikers have a good guidebook for the mountains, and many like "Santa Ana Mountains Trail Guide," written by Kenneth S. Croker and published by Whale & Eagle Publishing Co. in Costa Mesa. The 1985 book is still in print.

The distance from the trail head to Santiago Peak is about eight miles, rising 4,000 feet. Officials say the trail is in generally good condition, except for one washout.

"You're going in and out of brush, seeing a great variety of trees and other plant life," Ullerich said.

An added benefit is that Trabuco Creek has been stocked with trout this year. Fishing licenses are required. The hiking trail has several switchbacks to help minimize the incline. Ullerich said Boy Scouts and other volunteers try to clear away overgrowth and keep the trail easy to find, but there are no regularly scheduled repairs.

From the start of the trail, it's about five miles to Bear Springs, six to the Coldwater Trail, and two more to the peak. Hikers are free to walk all around the peak, but the area containing the electronic equipment has been closed off, the result of vandalism.

Those who don't want to walk can usually drive. Many Forest Service roads are closed during the winter, and their opening date depends on winter damage. For example, the road to Santiago Peak won't be opened until Wednesday, as a result of landslides caused by the March rains, Ullerich said. The majority of the agency's roads are graded but not paved, and only vehicles with sufficient clearance should attempt the drive.

"We've seen Cadillacs and other cars like that up there," Ullerich said, "but it's a lot easier in something that's built for that kind of road."

By car, one would reach Santiago Peak by taking Chapman Avenue in Orange east to its junction with Santiago Canyon Road and taking Santiago Canyon Road south and east past Irvine Lake. Eventually, a left turn from Santiago Canyon Road puts the motorist onto Silverado Canyon Road, a narrow and winding path. Just past a fire station at Wildcat Canyon Road, there is a Forest Service gate.

Beyond the gate, the road is called the Main Divide, a truck trail, and is designated as 3S04 "if nobody has stolen the sign," Ullerich said. There, it branches off to the south, reaching both Santiago Peak and nearby Trabuco Peak, which is also more than 4,600 feet high. Many of the roads and trails were cleared during the Depression in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and have not been upgraded significantly since then.

In his book, Croker calls lower Holy Jim Canyon "a very pretty canyon," describing it as being filled with oak trees, large-cone spruce and dense vines and brush. The trail actually was named for a 19th Century local called Cussin' Jim Smith, Croker says, but map makers apparently thought that redesignating Smith as "holy" might add some class to the area.

While there is no camping at Santiago Peak, Ullerich said the Forest Service maintains several campgrounds in Orange County. To the north, off Ortega Highway is the Falcon campground and picnic area. Another, also near Ortega Highway, is the Blue Jay campground, which has 50 sites. The Falcon campground is largely designated for groups of 30 or more. Also nearby is the 18-site Upper San Juan Campground, she said.

At least one is always kept open, Ullerich said, even during the winter, while others are closed for maintenance. During the summer, all are open.

In Riverside County but still within the boundaries of Cleveland National Forest is the El Cariso campground, which is divided into northern and southern sites. Reservations for all camping in the area can be made by calling Mistix, a reservations agency, at (800) 283-2267, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Additional information also may be obtained by calling the Forest Service at (714) 736-1811.

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