The goal of this marathon hike or mountain-bike ride is to reach Modjeska Peak, the lower of the two distinct peaks that form “Old Saddleback,” the defining summit ridge of the Santa Ana Mountains. If you omit the out-and-back leg to the peak itself, however, you shorten the trip by 2.5 miles and save a fraction of the 4400-foot elevation gain and loss. Either way, this is an ambitious all-day trek on foot and a tough half-a-day-or-more mountain-bike ride.
To get to the trailhead, exit either of Orange County’s eastern toll roads (Highway 241 or 261) at Santiago Canyon Road. Drive six miles east to Silverado Canyon Road, turn left, and drive east toward Silverado Canyon. Continue 5.4 miles to the forest gate (which is generally open for vehicles but can be closed at any time for various reasons — extreme fire hazard, road washouts, etc.). Park near here, and be sure to post a National Forest Adventure Pass on your parked car.
On foot or bike now, proceed up Silverado Canyon on Maple Springs Road. In about 300 yards, just after crossing the alder-shaded bottom of the canyon, turn sharply to the left (west) on the old roadbed that climbs sharply up the north slope of the canyon. This is the Silverado Trail, built originally for fire control, then used for a while by four-wheel-drive enthusiasts. It is now eroded but suitable for hiking or “biking” (which may involve a lot of dismounting and pushing).
The trail remains in rough shape until you reach a graded road atop a ridge. Bend to the right (northeast), heading toward the Main Divide. On reaching Main Divide Road (2.9 miles from the start), go right and start to enjoy views that can stretch west to the Pacific Ocean and east to San Jacinto Peak. You follow Main Divide Road for several undulating miles, passing several small summits along the way and under a big power line that barely clears the ridge. Below and to the west, a scant mile or so away, you can trace the zigzag path of the Maple Springs Road (your return route) across a sparsely timbered slope and down to the bottom of upper Silverado Canyon.
After 8.7 miles (from the start), Main Divide Road comes to an intersection north of — and about 1000 vertical feet below — the imposing Modjeska Peak. Swing left, staying on Main Divide Road, and continue 75 yards. Then, turn onto the obscure trail that angles steeply up the road cut on the left and continue climbing across a slope. After 0.8 mile you reach the access road leading to Modjeska Peak. Go left and continue 0.5 mile to Modjeska’s open summit. On a clear day, the 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains, basins, and ocean is obstructed only slightly by the antennae-bristling summit of Santiago Peak, a mile southeast. (Note: mountain bikers headed to Modjeska Peak might want to avoid the trail shortcut to the peak and instead go the long way around, using the gradually ascending Main Divide Road.)
Your return to the starting point is now entirely downhill. Go back to Main Divide Road, continue north to the next road intersection (4523'), and turn left on Maple Springs Road. As you start down, keep right at the next two road intersections, staying on Maple Springs Road. Enjoy this scenic downhill stretch past willowy Coulter pines and manzanita thickets. Big-cone Douglas fir, bigleaf maple, bay, and live oak trees crowd together in the larger ravines, casting dense pools of shade over trickling streams.
On the sixth sharp hairpin turn from the top, four miles down from Main Divide Road, you finally reach the bottom of Silverado Canyon. Maple Springs Road becomes paved at this point. In the last three miles back to your car, the stream trickles along next to the road, flanked by sycamores, alders, more maples, and the tall, swaying stems of the Matilija poppy.
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.
Silverado-Modjeska Peak Loop
By foot or mountain bike, traverse some high points of the Santa Ana Mountains’ Main Divide.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 105 miles
Hiking/biking length: 18.3 miles