Hiking The Santa Anna Mountains Main Divide: The 91 To Modjeska And Out Trabuco Canyon

  • Updated: April 11, 2010
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

Hiking the Santa Ana Mountains Main Divide Truck Trail
What:  91 Freeway & Cole Canyon to Trabuco Canyon Via Main Divide
  Sierra Peak (3.045')
  Hagador Peak (3,880')
  Pleasants Peak (4,007')
  Bedford Peak(3,800')
  Bald Peak (3,947')
  Modjeska Peak (5,496')
Where:  Santa Ana Mountains, Orange County, CA
When:  April 11th, 2010
Who:  Matthew Hengst, John Slagle, Christine Soskins, Dave Driscol
Stats:  34 miles, 8,700'
Pictures:  Matt's Flickr
GPS Track:  Matt's

After a somewhat less than successful hike the previous weekend in the general vicinity of Villager Peak and my own near cancelation this weekend for family reasons our group training for the HPS Big 4 Butt Kicker Edition backpack was on somewhat shaky ground.
Fortunately everything resolved itself at the last minute and we were off for a planned 34-ish mile hike with six (admittedly minor) peaks and 9,000 ft of gain to round out a full day.  Yeehaw!

I spend the previous day out at Big Rock in Lake Perris climbing with SCMA so I was already slightly sore when I pulled up to the entrance to Trabuco Canyon at 5:30 am Sunday morning.  But hey, as everyone seems determined to remind me I’m young and therefore neigh invincible. Funny, it all seems horribly painful from my perspective but what do I know...

The hike I’d planned was along the Main Divide Truck Trail of the Santa Ana Mountain. We were leaving vehicles down in Orange County at the dirt lot entrance to Trabuco Canyon and then were going to be dropped off up at the 91 freeway at the Cole Canyon trailhead.  At that point the options would become hike 30+ miles back to our cars or find a spot with cell coverage and beg friends for a pickup.  Motivation!

John's wife Gail ready to shuttle the crazy people
In addition to my usual long distance hiking partners in crime (John, Dave, and Christine) we had managed to pull in John’s wife Gail to act as our drop off shuttle. At 5:30 am in the morning on a Sunday. We will now refer to her as Saint Gail.

After a bit of a drive up the 241 toll road we arrived at the 91 to find a slight problem. Apparently there’s an effort underway to expand the 91 freeway by a lane or two and as a result the usual route to Cole Canyon and the Main Divide Truck Trail was blocked off by a large amount of dirt, fences, and construction equipment.

After exploring the two exits on either side of our goal and running in to dead ends it was time for decisive action. This involve a rather decisive dive across two busy lanes of 91 traffic through a gap in the jersey barriers.

Not the normal trailhead

After we skidded to a stop at the side of the freeway and let go of our death grips on the vehicle panic bar (according to the waitress at the bar I’m sitting in at Boise this can also be referred to as the handle-above-the-window-thingy), hurriedly grabbed our packs, and hustled for the side of the road hoping to get over the barriers and fences in the way before anyone driving by noticed us.  Hey, I was awake now!

We actually came up against a locked chain link gate but fortunately someone had previously smashed their way through it, probably after running into similar frustrations.

The future Cole Canyon Trailhead

We strolled on through and the day truly began.

It was now 6:24 am. Our estimate was we would be walking until sometime after 9 pm.

We started up a relatively gradual climb slowly getting warmed up. So far the weather was rather nice with an overcast sky keeping things cool enough we were comfortable as long as we were moving and keeping any stops to an absolute minimum.

I appreciated this as I was carrying 7 liters of water in my pack and if I was going to run dry and die of dehydration 4/5 of the way through I’m much rather not have been carrying all of that weight.

I’ve hiked in the Santa Anna Mountains numerous times but usually more on the southern end so most all of this was new territory. We had some pretty views as we climbed towards Sierra Peak especially as the local wildflowers are starting to bloom this time of year.

Early on I determined two things. 1. Someone in Cleveland National Forest has a gate fetish as we came across them every few miles. 2. Apparently people head up into the Santa Ana Mountains just to shoot things as every sign, post, and inanimate object seemed to have bullet holes / dents in it. I probably could have picked up at least two full trash bags full of spent ammunition from the ground throughout the day.

I should point out at this point that there is a certain breed of person in the Santa Ana Mountains (other than your average hikers and mountain bikers.) These folks live roughly 20 minutes from stereotypical Orange County yet for some reason seem to have a notion that they are remote mountain folk and are known for occasionally threatening the odd mountain biker with a loaded shotgun and dogs. There’s also a large occurrence of teenagers who live in Orange County and drive daddies SUV and end up flinging themselves off the dirt road to their deaths only to have their parents give anguished calls for safety rails 10 miles from the nearest paved road (won’t someone please think of the children!) And still others just head up to burn, break, and otherwise trash anything then can possible get a hold of. All of
them tend to lower your faith in humanity and make you feel glad if you’re up there when no one else is around.

One of John and I’s favorite games when hiking in the Santa Ana Mountains is counting the abandoned vehicles. Despite the fact Cleveland National Forest periodically contracts helicopters to lift out abandoned vehicles you still find a large number sitting on the side of the trail or halfway down a hillside. This trip we all bet on the number we would see. Dave had 4, Christine 5, John 6, and I said 8. By hour 3 we were already up to 3.

Hurray for humanity! (The picture is actually from another hike John and I did but you get the idea)

We made our first goal, Sierra Peak, and found radio towers and two mountains bikers who had only barely managed to beat us up there. There was no summit register of course but there were the usual assortment of radio towers and a few nav benchmarks.

Summit of Sierra Peak.  Behold the wilderness...
We continued on to a rather pretty area with open green hills.

 At this point we came across a box building at the intersection of several jeep trails.

On the maps it was listed as ksrt-am and has a radio tower icon next to it. After a bit of digging I found that it had originally belonged to a Mr Roaney and had been a land mobile radio business and a site for an amateur radio contest station back in the 70s before the vandalism just became too bad and it was sold.

Apparently the hole in the roof comes from some unknown person taking a chainsaw to it. Once again Santa Ana Mountain folk make you proud of humanity.

There is also apparently a house just down the slope from the abandoned building but we didn't hang around to explore as we had a long day ahead of us.

Next was something marked as Beek’s Place on just about every map we had.

I’d seen the name on maps but never knew the history behind it. After a bit of digging I found it was actually named after Joseph A. Beeks who bought the land in the 30s with plans of reselling the land. He eventually built a house up there and a smaller structure for a caretaker who lived there fulltime.

Incidentally the Beeks family is the same one who runs the Balboa Ferry.

Joseph died in 1968 but the family retained the land through the 1980s at which point the vandalism just became too much. They apparently still visit periodically but it’s basically abandoned.

Pictures from a few years ago show a roof still on some of the ruins but when we went by the last few planks were sitting in an illegal fire ring.

After that it became a series of small peaks with various radio towers, gates, and dire warning signs to stay away from the equipment.

Near Bedford Peak we stopped briefly to chat with another group of hikers who seemed to think we were doomed. They repeatedly tried to convince us what a long way it was from Bedford to the route we were planning to descend. Maybe we looked more tired than we really felt.

As we approached Modjeska Peak and the part of the mountains I was more familiar with we hit low clouds and it started to drizzle a bit.

We also ran into another Orange County WTC Leader, Lisa Buckley, who also looked at us like we were a little bit crazy. Granted she was on a 25 mile hike herself so there are degrees.

The wonderful part of climbing Modjeska was just getting off the Main Divide truck trail for a little while.  The hard packed dirt of the road was extremely punishing to our feet and we all remarked on how nice the soft soil of the Modjeska shortcut trail felt. Sadly we didn’t get to stay on it near long enough.

It wasn’t raining but the mist was enough to make the leaves quite damp and Dave was having repeated troubles with his glasses fogging up.

Descending Joplin was something John and I had done a number of times though usually in the dark.  Granted with the clouds we actually had less visibility than usual.

We made Old Camp which marked the half way point from the saddle to the bottom of Joplin and took a brief rest. Interestingly enough there were newts crawling all over on the ground.

We continued on, somewhat slower due to our generally beat up status but with the end in sight.

Descending the last part was actually what we’d been dreading for most of the day since now we were rather tired and had to really watch our step. Descents are also when your knees really start killing you.

And just because anything involving Trabuco Canyon after dark wouldn’t be complete without something creepy happening just as we were standing over the erosion pit with the two vehicles in the bottom we see lights coming up from below.

This was odd because it was now over an hour after dark and those vehicles aren’t exactly visible after dark. We continued down the trail wondering what we were going to find when we reached the bottom only to see a vehicle tear down the road just as we got there. This was soon followed by a second truck which shot up the road, saw us, did an abrupt U turn, and then took off down the road. Ok.

We spent what felt like an eternity hiking the last 1.4 miles or so along a dirt road out to the cars.  Fortunately other than the oddities at the Joplin trailhead the usual amount of oddball teenagers and such seemed to be at a minimum that weekend.

At long last we arrived at the cars a little after 9 pm.

Still smiling!

I will say the moment I sat in the bed of my truck and realized I didn’t have to walk anymore was pretty much the highpoint of my day.

All of us were beat up to varying degrees but overall the hike had gone well. We made all of our goals and got a pretty good workout. I was hopeful for the following weekend which would have us doing about the same mileage out in Ventura County.

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  1. Wow, that's a serious hike. Long time ago, but kudos to you.