Santiago Oaks Regional Park is our favorite home park in Orange County. We first visited and hiked it March 2009. Had we chosen to marry in spring or fall of 2009 (instead of the hot summer), we would have held the ceremony and reception here. Santiago Oaks provides the perfect combination of trails and topography to suit the interests of any hiker, mountain biker, horseback rider, or just folks looking for a good lazy shady picnic spot.
Situated between Orange and Anaheim hills, the park site mostly resides alongside Santiago Creek — the main tributary of the Santa Ana River in Orange County. It is located next to historic Irvine Regional Park and the still-in-the-works Weir Canyon Wilderness Park. This continuous flow of public lands provides for an almost limitless trail system (park trail map). The park lowlands, intersected and fed by Santiago Creek, offer riparian trails shaded by canopies of oak trees. Climbing up out of the park introduces a more chaparral-like ecosystem that is a bit hot and exposed during summer, yet lush and full of wildflowers during the spring. The park is easily accessible from the 91 freeway, the 55 freeway and the 241 toll road.
For our first hike here that March of 2009, Jeff and I wanted to explore as much of the park’s diversity as possible, but still within a limit of 5 miles or less. We came up with what we now call the “inner park loop”, a trail that hits the park’s major highlights including the short but scenic Nature Trail, the Historic Dam Trail, and 1100-foot high Robbers’ Roost (a spot rumored to historically have served as a lookout for bandits waiting to rob stagecoaches).
We started at the Nature Trail, which is packed with plants and flowers and provides good views of the entire park from just a short climb and walk. The trailhead is located next to park headquarters and the shady picnic area. From the Nature Trail, we caught the connection to the equally short and equally scenic Historic Dam Trail, which takes you to a designated Orange County historical landmark.
From the Historic Dam Trail, you hop on to the ultra shady Santiago Creek Trail for just a bit, which is lined with a canopy of trees.
This trail is one of the most inviting and popular in the park — and gets quite crowded with hikers, mountain bikers and horses during the hot summer months.
Santiago Creek Trail spans the entire width of the park and provides a route to nearby Irvine Regional Park (we’ll blog about that experience later).
From the Santiago Creek Trail, we picked what we thought would provide the easiest most direct route up to Robbers’ Roost — the Oak Trail. This trail follows a slow steep fully exposed path up to Robbers’ Roost. You know a trail has a steep climb when there are benches and picnic tables located along the way. When we hike up to Robbers’ Roost now, we actually reverse this route because the Oak Trail is so steep.
When you hit the top of the park, continue following the trail (all the high trails converge here) to the right, to reach the approach to Robbers’ Roost.
After climbing all the way up the Oak Trail, we were a bit perturbed to discover a “cheater route” up to Robbers’ Roost, via a short walk up from the parking lot at Anaheim Hills Elementary School. Jeff and I prefer to huff and puff our way up to Robbers’ Roost from the park floor, but this shorter walk up from the school provides a good alternative route for those with younger kids, or those who aren’t up to the steep climb.
Upon reaching Robbers’ Roost, there is a narrow steep dirt trail up to the summit (the rock). Although the path is well-worn, there is still enough soft loose dirt and rocks on it to be a bit slippery at times — not usually an issue on the climb up, but watch your footing when climbing down.
If you prefer an easier alternative up to the peak, follow the main trail around to the east side of the hill, and there you will find a partially-paved trail that meets up with a nice and wide short dirt trail that provides a much more gradual trek up to the rock peak. And by all means, climb up top of the rock!
The 360 degree views from Robbers’ Roost are usually quite good, but they are absolutely stunning on a clear day. It’s not unusual to take in views of Mount Baldy, downtown Los Angeles, downtown Anaheim, the ocean, Catalina Island and Saddleback Mountain. And looking southeast allows you to comprehend just how extensive and isolated the former land holdings were when still part of the Irvine Ranch.
To finish the second half of the Inner Park Loop, head southeast from Robbers’ Roost to the Barham Ridge Trail.
This rolling single-track trail stretches across the top of a ridge that provides excellent views of all sides of the park. It is also extremely popular with mountain bikers who like to pick up speed, so just stay on alert and move to the side of the trail to let them by.
Barham Ridge Trail dead-ends at a scenic spot overlooking the Villa Park Dam and Irvine Regional Park.
Just before the terminus of Barham Ridge Trail, look for the intersecting Mountain Goat Trail to make your descent to the park floor.
This trail actually has two paths — one for horses and one for hikers and mountain bikers. The hiking/biking trail is extremely popular with mountain bikers — the kind equipped in head gear attached to metal back and neck braces. Even though hikers have the right-of-way, you definitely have to watch out for mountain bikers who come flying down the trail, especially around the sharp switchback turns.
When reaching the bottom of Mountain Goat, follow the signs to the Santiago Creek Trail to make the return trip across the park. Follow Santiago Creek Trail all the way to park headquarters to catch the walkway back up to the parking lot.