West Horsethief Canyon to Trabuco Peak
Date Hiked: May 7, 2011
Best Season: Autumn Spring Winter
Check Trail Conditions: Cleveland National Forest, Trabuco District (951) 736-1811
- Distance: 10.05 miles round-trip
- Elevation Gain: 2,640 feet
- Route Type: Out-and-Back
- Trail Type: Dirt and rock
- Difficulty: Strenuous
Two years ago, we tried to hike up Trabuco Canyon to Main Divide Road, but the day was so hot and we started so late, that we decided to take the “more shaded’ route up Trabuco Trail instead of the more exposed Horsethief Canyon Trail, and even then it was too hot and too exposed and we turned around before we even made it to the shaded part. We mostly remembered the hot and miserable part, and how poorly Colleen was feeling even before we got started, so we really didn’t have a lot of positive memories of this hike.
But earlier this spring, on a nice cool day, we decided it was time to try again, and we were so glad we did! We had totally forgotten how pleasant much of the first half of the hike was (at least on a not-too-hot day), and if you can power your way through the exposed switchbacks in the middle, the second half of the hike was well worth it as well.
You get to the trailhead by taking Trabuco Canyon Road (from Live Oak Canyon to the north or Plano Trabuco Road to the South) to the unmarked dirt Trabuco Creek Road right where you cross the creek. Head east on the dirt road and go about 5.3 miles to where the road dead ends at the Trubuco Canyon Trailhead, about a half mile past the Holy Jim Trail Parking lot (which is the trailhead to the very popular Holy Jim Falls). This road is very rough, and while it is somewhat possible in a regular automobile, it really isn’t recommended in a low clearance vehicle. You definitely don’t need a four wheel drive, except after heavy rains, but most of the vehicles that make it to Holy Jim or Trabuco Canyon Trailheads are trucks with at least a little bit of clearance and decent tires. Our kids love this ride, as it goes through the creek several times, making nice splashes, and it feels like a four wheel drive trail, even though it really isn’t. The first half of the drive is through the lower, exposed part of the canyon, but the upper part is very well shaded and goes along the creek, where you will often find people fishing, swimming, or relaxing in the spring, when the water is running high.
The small parking area at the trailhead (you did bring your USFS Adventure Pass, didn’t you?) is very well shaded, and the trailhead is very well marked. About 2/3 of the first two miles of this trail (to the junction of West Horsethief Canyon and Trabuco Trail) is really quite shaded and beautiful. Much of it runs either right alongside or not too far above Trabuco Creek, and during a wet spring (no guarantees late in the summer or in a particularly dry year), you can hear the creek below through this entire stretch of trail. There are also several creek crossings, which can be easily done by rock hopping across it during most times of the year, but may be a bit more treacherous after a good rain.
At about the two mile mark, you come to another creek crossing and a junction with West Horsethief Canyon to the left, and Trabuco Trail to the right. As we understand it (and the maps confirm), Trabuco Trail will take you up to Main Divide Road near the Los Pinos Peak trail, along a partially shaded path, and West Horsethief Trail will take you along an almost entirely exposed steep path full of switchbacks to Main Divide Road near Trabuco Peak. Our original plan was to take West Horsethief Canyon Trail to Main Divide Road to Trabuco Trail back down, which is a 10 mile, 2700 ft elevation loop. The guide at Trails.com had recommended this route, as the Horsethief route is apparently easier to take up, and Trabuco easier to take down.
But we decided we’d rather hit Trabuco peak, to the north of where West Horsethief Canyon Trail, and if we had the time and inclination, we’d continue back down Main Divide Road to the south, and take Trabuco Trail back down to the canyon. As it turned out, by the time we’d climbed up to Trabuco peak from the canyon, we had neither the time nor inclination to keep going down the road to Trabuco Trail, and just went back down Horsethief Canyon instead.
Many people just turn around at the junction here, and that really does make a nice, shaded, 4 mile round trip hike that is largely shaded and along the creek. But we have some sort of dysfunction that makes us continue past the most pleasant parts of a hike, into the more death march-ish parts. Indeed, once you start up West Horsethief Canyon Trail, it very quickly leaves the trees and the shade and the water to become a very exposed, very steep set of switchbacks, as it heads up to Main Divide Road.
The next mile and a half really isn’t very fun at all, to be honest. Most of it was hot and miserable, and boring, even on a pretty decently cool day in the rest of Orange County. It was almost entirely chapparal-type vegetation along this stretch, so not terribly attractive to look at and providing very little shade, and yet coming up just high enough along the trail to block most of the wind–especially for our dog, who enjoyed the heat even less than we did!
But eventually, we hit the next higher chapparal climate, with some slightly higher manzanita trees that at least provided occasional shade–including shade for an angry and irritated rattlesnake!
Very shortly after the snake, the trail leveled out a bit, and we hit the top of the trail, right about where the pine trees started and the trail hit Main Divide Road, at just over 3.5 miles from the trailhead. As previously mentioned, we had decided that rather than heading rightward towards Los Pinos Peak and Trabuco Trail, we would turn to the left and hit the top of Trabuco Peak.
The road was much wider than the trail, and mostly followed a ridge, so we got a much nicer breeze than we’d had below, and the road was at least a bit less steep than the switchbacks, so after sitting in the shade on the side of the road to recover a bit shortly after hitting the road, we felt good enough to forge on to the peak without too much pain or discomfort. Holly had totally rallied as well, and didn’t have any more obvious issues or difficulties the rest of the way up.
At almost exactly 5 miles from the trailhead, and a mile and a quarter from where Horsethief Trail hit Main Divide Road, was a very narrow, very steep and unimproved trail on the right side of the road that went straight up to Trabuco Peak. It really was only another 200 feet or more of elevation from here, to the peak height of 4,684 feet, but it was a bit hairy, and Colleen wasn’t really sure she wanted to do it, as it took a full hands and feet scramble up, and a butt-dragging crab walk to safely navigate the way back down.
Trabuco Peak itself was a little disappointing, to be honest. It had a couple of trees at the top, but largely was shrouded in head high brush and chapparal, which obscured most of the view. Trabuco Peak is the third highest point in the Santa Ana Mountains, and was used as a reference point in the drawing of the lines between Orange and Riverside County, serving as one of the corners along the county line. We did sign the peak register, and enjoyed the view of Lake Elsinore and Temescal Canyon (the view of OC is obscured by Santiago Peak and other ridges from here) for a bit, before heading back down.
The path back along Main Divide Road was pretty pleasant, but once we started on down Horsethief Canyon Trail again, it was pretty rough. Our knees aren’t great, and heading downhill, the trail was steep and covered with loose rock, causing us both to slip a few times. Hiking poles helped a lot, but it was a very slow, careful walk back down the switchbacks.
Once we hit the bottom, and reconnected with the creek, the walk back to the trailhead was nice and shaded and easy, even if our feet and knees were really feeling the work of the day. After all, this was the most elevation, and almost the most mileage we’d ever done in a day up to this point, so we were quite sore by this point (which is why we have almost no photos from the walk back down). We had made our usual mistake of hitting the trailhead a bit late, at around 11 a.m., and we got back to the car at 7 p.m., as it was just approaching darkness. I always pack some headlamps and flashlights on our real hikes, so I wasn’t too worried about the light, but you may want to start earlier than we did. You might especially want to start early enough that you can hit those switchbacks on the uphill stretch before the hottest part of the day–especially on a hot summer day.
In summary, we loved the lower half of the trail, and were pleased to reach the summit of the third highest peak in Orange County, but be prepared for a difficult stretch there near the top!
View Trabuco Peak via West Horsethief Canyon Trail in a larger map