Sometimes the intimacy of a small, hidden waterfall is more aesthetically rewarding than the thunder of a famous one. Such is the case with Holy Jim Falls. Tucked into a short, steep canyon draining the southeast flank of Santiago Peak (the high point of the Santa Ana Mountains in Orange County), the falls are seemingly remote but relatively easily reached on foot. The last stretch of trail leading to the falls may be a little overgrown with poison oak, so wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt.
The last few miles of driving up along the bottom of Trabuco Canyon to the trailhead is an adventure in itself, not one to be undertaken by low-slung automobiles. Rocks and potholes are the norm. 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. Proceed 4.7 miles to the Holy Jim Trailhead, on the left. Along the way you’ll pass various cabins on leased Cleveland National Forest land — many tucked away in beautiful groves of oaks and sycamores.
After 4.7 miles you arrive at the Holy Jim Trailhead on the left. Park there, and don’t forget to post your National Forest Adventure Pass on your car. On foot, proceed up the road heading north into Holy Jim Canyon, passing more cabins beneath the sheltering trees. A century ago this canyon was home to settlers who eked out a living by raising bees. One beekeeper, James T. Smith, became so famous for his cursing habit that he was popularly named “Cussin’ Jim.” Other nicknames bestowed on him included “Lyin’ Smith,” “Greasy Jim,” and “Salvation Smith.” Dignified government cartographers later invented a new one, “Holy Jim.”
After 0.5 mile of hiking you come to a sturdy steel gate. Beyond, a narrow trail continues upstream, crossing the creek seven times in 0.7 mile. Typical moisture-loving native trees, ferns, and chaparral shrubs line the canyon, but you’ll also see naturalized fig trees and a purple-flowered ground cover called vinca (or periwinkle), the latter two introduced by the early settlers. Just after the last stream crossing, the trail switches back sharply to the left and begins ascending the west slope of the canyon. Leave the main trail at this point and continue straight up the bottom of the canyon on an even narrower trail. After about 400 yards you’ll come to the shallow pool and grotto at the base of the falls. Above it the water cascades about 18 feet over a broken cliff.
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.
Holy Jim Falls
Holy cow! Check out mini-majestic Holy Jim Falls in the Santa Ana Mountains.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 83 miles
Hiking length: 2.8 miles round-trip