Holy Jim Falls, one of Orange County’s best known hikes


Holy Jim Falls Trail

Date Hiked: March 14, 2009 and April 19, 2009
Best Season: Autumn Spring Summer Winter
Check Trail Conditions: Trabuco Ranger District (951) 736-1811
  • Distance: 2.8 miles round-trip
  • Elevation Gain: 625 feet
  • Route Type: Out-and-Back
  • Trail Type: Holy Jim Falls Trail
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Holy Jim Falls was the very first hike Jeff and I ever did together, while we were still just dating (March 14, 2009). I grew up in Orange County and did a lot of camping and hiking with my family in Trabuco Canyon as a kid, but I had never visited Holy Jim, despite hearing so much about it for years.  Since our mutual love for the outdoors is one of the things that bonded Jeff and I, we decided to spend the first beautiful sunny kid-free Saturday in our very first Spring together finally hiking to the falls.  We enjoyed it so much that we hiked it again a few weeks later with the kids.

Holy Jim Falls Hike 03-09-09

Driving through the creek crossing on the road out to Holy Jim, just before the road enters the National Forest.

To get to Holy Jim Canyon, take Interstate 5, or the 241 Tollroad, to El Toro Road in Lake Forest.  Continue on El Toro into Trabuco Canyon until it hits Cooks Corner, where it turns into Live Oak Canyon Road (which in turn becomes Trabuco Oaks Canyon Road).  Watch for the Trabuco Creek Road cut-off on your left — it’s a dirt road along a creek wash usually packed with of-road vehicles.

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The small dirt trailhead parking lot.


Take Trabuco Creek Road 5-miles to the trailhead parking lot (a National Forest Adventure Pass is required).  The road is bumpy, slow-going, and frequently gets muddy and washed out during the rainy season.  Although we’ve seen regular passenger cars make the drive, we strongly recommend a high clearance vehicle.  At times, you will need to pull off to the side for oncoming vehicles.

It is actually a bit of an uphill walk from the parking lot to the official trailhead.

And much of the hike meanders alongside the creek.  This makes for really pleasant springtime hiking — although my water-proof hiking boots were much-appreciated after heavy rains — but, means a lot of mosquitoes in late spring and early summer.

Holy Jim Falls Hike

One of the benefits of hiking in the spring...water in the creek.

Holy Jim Falls Hike

The first water-crossing on the trail, piece of cake when at normal levels.

Most of Holy Jim Trail is heavily shaded once you get past the official trailhead — this is a rarity for Orange County hikes. Poison oak is quite plentiful alongside the actual trail, so definitely be on the lookout. However, the trail itself is very well traveled, maintained and cleared of brush and poison oak.

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Most of the trail is heavily shaded, which makes Holy Jim a pleasant hiking option even during the hottest of Southern California summers.

At about the halfway point, you’ll find one of the most scenic spots of the hike — an excellent spot to stop for a brief rest and snack. On your left is a large rock (picnic rock) and a weird dam built in the 1950s. A giant live oak directly across the path on your right provides plentiful shade.

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The 1950s-era weir dam.

Holy Jim Falls Hike 03-09-09

A 500 year old giant live oak tree.

The second half of the trail does involve some maneuvering over rocks on the approach to the falls, but it’s still easy enough for even little kids to make it. The falls themselves are always a popular spot for families, often quite crowded on the weekends. While there is a little bit of space around the waterfall to sit and enjoy a lunch, the crowds usually drive us away after just a few minutes. Jeff and I refer to Holy Jim Falls as a “Disneyland Hike” because it can get so crowded, but, it’s still worth checking out.

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The trail is well signed with historical markers.

Holy Jim Canyon provides a glimpse back into Orange County history.  The canyon was first settled in the 1880s by beekeepers, one of whom — cantankerous James T. “Cussin’ Jim” Smith — is the canyon’s namesake.  Most of the homes here were built in the 1920s and 1930s, numbering around 100 total at the community’s peak, however only 48 cabins remain, few of which are the original buildings.  The cabins are privately owned, and sit on land leased by the U.S. Forest Service in 20 year increments for recreational use only.  The cabins cannot serve as primary full-time residences.

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One of the privately owned cabins that sit on land leased from the Forest Service.

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Enjoy all the beautiful wildflowers if you're hiking in the spring.

Holy Jim Falls Hike 04-09-09

And watch out for rattlesnakes! I spotted this one right by our feet when we stopped to read a historical marker. Although some previous hikers had apparently tried to decapitate this snake, it was still alive and moving when we came upon it. My husband, who is more humane than the previous hikers, moved the snake off the trail with a stick and tossed it into the nearby brush.

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You can pretty much count on needing to wash your vehicle afterwards.

View Historic Holy Jim Falls Trail in a larger map.

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