Significant hiking feats can be accomplished in the “wilds” of Orange County, especially in the upper elevations of the Santa Ana Mountains, which define the county’s east border. A case in point is the 10-mile, 2700-foot-elevation-gain hike from Trabuco Canyon to the so-called “Main Divide” of the Santa Anas.
From Trabuco Canyon Road, at the easternmost end of O’Neill Regional Park in Rancho Santa Margarita, turn east on the rough, unpaved Trabuco Creek Road. Drive all the way to the end of the road, nearly six miles, to the Trabuco Canyon Trailhead. Be sure to post a National Forest Adventure Pass on your parked car.
Begin by hiking upstream along the oak- and bigleaf-maple-dotted Trabuco Canyon stream, which will flow with reasonable vigor during the next month or two. Check out the spring wildflowers, which will likely include bush lupine, matilija poppy, paintbrush, wild sweet pea, red and sticky monkeyflowers, prickly phlox, mariposa lily, wild hyacinth, and penstemon.
At 1.8 miles you come to a signed junction where the West Horsethief Trail branches left. Earlier, you probably spotted switchbacks carving up the treeless slope that now lies east of you. After following a canyon bottom for a short while, the West Horsethief Trail begins climbing in earnest, zigzagging through chaparral. During the coolness of the morning, diligent effort will get you to the top of this tedious stretch fast enough; later in the day this could be a hot, energy-sapping climb.
After 1100 feet of elevation gain the trail straightens, begins to level out along a ridge, and enters a vegetation zone dominated by manzanita and blue-flowering ceanothus. Cooler air washes over you, perhaps bearing the scent of the pines that lie ahead.
At 3.3 miles from the Trabuco Canyon Trailhead, the Horsethief Trail joins Main Divide Road in a sparse grove of Coulter pines. Turn right and follow the dirt road east, then south, for an easy, meandering, viewful 2.5 miles.
At 5.8 miles, amid a patch of Coulter pines and incense cedars, you come to Los Pinos Saddle. At the northwest corner of a large, cleared area in the saddle itself, find the old roadbed (Trabuco Canyon Trail) angling downward along the shady slopes of Trabuco Canyon’s main fork. Stands of live oak and big-cone Douglas fir keep this part of the trail well shaded. Flowering currant and ceanothus shrubs at the trailside brighten things up in the spring.
One mile below the saddle, the trail veers left, crosses a divide, and begins descending along a tributary of Trabuco Canyon. You walk by thickets of California bay (bay laurel), which exude an enigmatically pleasant/pungent scent. After crossing the tributary ravine twice, the trail clings to a dry and sunny south-facing slope. Down below, in an almost inaccessible section of the ravine, you may hear water trickling and tumbling over boulders half-hidden under tangles of underbrush and trees.
Before long, you arrive back at the junction of the Horsethief Trail in shady Trabuco Canyon. From there, continue downhill to the Trabuco Canyon Trailhead.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.
Trabuco Canyon Loop
Climb to the Main Divide of the Santa Ana Mountains for far-ranging views of Riverside County, Orange County, and the ocean.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 85 miles
Hiking length: 10 miles