Yesteryear, Old Camp was a popular rendezvous point for hunting parties using the historic Joplin Trail between the flatlands of Orange County’s Trabuco Canyon and Old Saddleback (the crest of the Santa Ana Mountains). Today, Old Camp retains its charm as a remote hideaway, filled with massive live oaks, bay laurels, and bigleaf maples, serenaded by bubbling water flowing in the bottom of Santiago Canyon.
Today, Old Camp is reached by way of the Santiago Trail, a fire road closed to motor vehicles. Sticking close to the original Joplin route over part of its length, it runs for about seven miles along the sunny ridgeline just south of Santiago Canyon, finally dropping abruptly into the canyon. For more than a year after Orange County’s October 2007 Santiago wildfire, Santiago Trail was closed to all use, but it has recently reopened for hikers and mountain bikers. Users are advised to stick to the trail itself; off-trail travel is not allowed until November 2009 at the earliest, in order to allow the natural landscape to recover from the effects of the fire.
The trailhead is along Modjeska Grade Road at a point 0.5 mile north of Santiago Canyon Road in southeastern Orange County. Modjeska Grade Road tops a saddle, and the Santiago Trail, starting at a sturdy steel, vehicle-blocking gate, strikes off to the east. There’s no parking right near the gate, but you can find a few eligible areas, delineated between signed “no parking” zones, on the soft shoulder of Modjeska Grade Road.
On foot or by bike, head east on the Santiago Trail, and in a mile enter Cleveland National Forest. At 2.8 miles, you begin skirting the back side of the Vulture Crags. These broken outcrops of conglomerate rock served as a nesting site for California condors over a hundred years ago. On a little farther, you can look back and note, below the crags, layer upon layer of beige to brick-red marine sediments, all spectacularly tilted as a result of faulting associated with the formation of the Santa Ana Mountains.
After a long and somewhat tedious 7.2 miles on the Santiago Trail, the trail forks. A short spur continues upward to follow a small powerline, while the Santiago Trail bears left and descends to Old Camp (7.5 miles). A narrow, rugged remnant of the Joplin Trail continues uphill from there and all the way to the saddle between the two peaks of “Old Saddleback” — Santiago and Modjeska peaks, which together form the crown of the Santa Ana Mountains. Old Camp, however, is probably as far as you’ll want to travel in a single day, so head back the way you came.
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.
A long hike or bike ride up the west slope of the Santa Ana Mountains leads to the shady retreat of Old Camp.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 87 miles
Hiking/biking length: 15 miles