San Juan Hill in Chino Hills State Park via the Rimcrest Drive Trailhead
Date Hiked: December 3, 2011
Best Season: Autumn Spring Winter
Check Trail Conditions: Chino Hills State Park (951) 780-6222
- Distance: 7.34 miles
- Elevation Gain: 970 feet
- Route Type: Loop, as hiked
- Trail Type: Dirt fire road, with some single track trails in between
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Parking: Free at Rimcrest Entrance, $5.00 at other entrances
- Locality: Chino Hills State Park
- Nearest City: Yorba Linda, CA
- Kid-Friendly: No
- Dog-Friendly: No
If you live in Southern California, it is amazing how many hiking opportunities there are right in our backyard. Even aside from the obvious options in the Angeles National Forest or the Cleveland National Forest on the edges of most of the urban and suburban development, there are places like the Puente Hills/Chino Hills piece of the Transverse Ranges, running right down the border of Orange and Los Angeles Counties. We’ve done a number of hikes in the Puente Hills Landfill Native Habitat Preservation Authority area on the west end of these hills, while most of the east end is within Chino Hills State Park.
We’ve done several hikes in this area, but until recently, hadn’t hiked to the top of the tallest “peak” in these hills–San Juan Hill, at 1,781 feet. According to the map you can get at the two main entrances to the park or online, the two most obvious routes to San Juan Hill are from the east, by starting in the campground/equestrian area accessed off Soquel Canyon Road from Hwy 71, or from the west, by parking at the Rimcrest Trailhead in Yorba Linda, which is how we chose to go.
Located off Rimcrest Drive, there is no ranger station or pay kiosk here, just a residential street with a sign at the end of it. Almost immediately after crossing through the open gate signifying the entrance to the park, you’ll turn right and head pretty quickly up a reasonably well maintained fire road called South Ridge Trail. In fact, the first three miles is pretty aggressively uphill, almost all the way to the top of San Juan Hill.
You’ll pass a few minor trail junctions along the way, but it is nearly impossible to lose the way until near the end, as you climb along the obvious ridgeline trail towards the top of the hill. South Ridge Trail follows along much of the southern border of the park, giving very nice views of Orange County all the way to the coast and Catalina Island on a clear day (we’ve previously blogged about what a great sunset hike a different stretch of this trail can be).
At about the 2.5 mile mark, there will be a trail junction on the left for Bovinian Delight (sounds like something I’d BBQ...). Roughly a half mile later, there will be another less well marked junction on the left (another cutoff to Bovinian Delight, which we’ll come back to in a minute) followed almost immediately by a small trail up the hill to your right. This is the single track trail to the top of San Juan Hill, and is marked with a post.
This last piece to the top is only about a tenth of a mile and 100 feet in elevation gain. On a clear day, the view from the top is impressive, with a 360 degree view of Southern California, including the coast, the San Gabriel Mountains, the San Bernardino Mountains, Mount San Jacinto, and the Santa Ana Mountains.
At the top is what is left of a monument that simply says, “San Juan 1896″. I had assumed that it was a tribute to the famous Battle of San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. After all, there is a Spanish-American War Memorial in Irvine Park, and Orange County did lose four men in the war, so it seemed likely. One problem though–the entire Spanish-American War (including the charge up San Juan Hill) was in 1898, and the monument has 1896 on it! A local historian suggested perhaps a link to the Rancho San Juan Cajón de Santa Ana, which was a major landholding in Orange County during the 1800s, but it didn’t appear to include the Chino Hills, and I find no relationship to 1896 and that rancho. The only “San Juan” I can find with a specific link to 1896 is The Battle of San Juan del Monte, which is recognized as the first battle of the Phillipine Revolution for independence from Spain, but I am unaware of any particular significance of that event to Orange County. Does anyone out there know the answer to this riddle? Is it a tribute to Filipino independence? When was the monument itself erected? What originally stood on top of the monument base? Is the date just wrong, and that’s why they tore down the hypothetical statue (Teddy Roosevelt on a horse maybe) on top in embarrassment? If you know the answer, let us know! (UPDATE: Karl R has the answer to the mystery in the comments below. It was one of four historic triangulation stations created for surveying in the late 1800’s, as described in the linked article)
After enjoying the views and pondering the monument mystery, you can head back down the hill. You could simply return the way you came, for a relatively boring 6 mile out-and-back hike. We chose to turn it into a loop hike, by hiking down to Telegraph Canyon Trail and returning that way, which added an additional mile or so to the total hike and includes some of the more scenic pieces of the park.
To do the loop, once you re-connect with South Ridge Trail at the base of the San Juan Hill spur, head down the Bovinian Delight cutoff trail you passed just immediately before heading up the hill. This is not really an improved trail, but really more of an old dirt road track being re-claimed by the grasses (if it weren’t on the Park map, we wouldn’t have even considered taking it), so if you find it impassible (which it may well be at certain times of the year–see our “Easy Street” photos by season at the end of the post), you can head down the main Bovinian Delight Trail another half mile back down South Ridge Trail. If you take the cutoff, it will connect to the main trail after only a quarter mile.
This is about the point that you will actually lose sight of civilization for the first time on this hike. Through the entire time along South Ridge, you’ve been on an exposed ridge that overlooks much of suburban Orange County. On Bovinian Delight, you will finally drop into Telegraph Canyon far enough to block your views of the houses to the north and south of the park.
Shortly after joining up with the main trail, the single track descends into some trees and a narrow canyon that provides the first semblance of shade since the trees on Rimcrest at the trailhead.
About 3/4 mile from South Ridge Trail, Bovinian Delight Trail runs into Telegraph Canyon Trail at Four Corners, the major trail crossroad in the park. There is a kiosk here and some benches, and even a port-a-potty at the intersection. Heading to the right will lead you towards the Rolling M Ranch, campground, equestrian area and the Chino Hills entrance. Straight ahead takes you to Raptor Ridge or Hills for Everyone Trail, and to the left will get you to the Carbon Canyon Park Entrance and the new visitor’s center. It’s also pretty close to the center of the park, based on the map you can get from one of the Ranger Stations or online here.
To get back to the Rimcrest entrance, head left down Telegraph Canyon about three miles to the Easy Street Trail. The trail through here is a very well maintained fire road that is very busy with hikers and lots of mountain bikes, especially on a weekend. It is a very gradual descent along the trail, through some of the prettiest scenery in the park. Beautiful oaks shade many stretches of the trail, and while the “seasonal stream” that runs along the side of the trail is usually close to dry, it does provide water (or at least moisture) for a variety of greenery and wildlife. There are some great areas along the way to stop and enjoy a snack or a picnic lunch.
If you’re not paying attention, it would be quite easy to walk on by Easy Street Trail, so keep an eye on the left side of the trail. You’ll pass the better marked Little Canyon Trail junction at about the two mile mark, and then the Easy Street junction less than a mile after that. The trail goes down into the creekbed (sometimes it is wetter than others) before heading back up as a single track trail through a narrow pass. This trail is less than a half mile long and gains 150 feet in elevation, but it will drop you almost exactly at the Rimcrest Trailhead where you parked.
Despite the fact that dogs aren’t allowed on the trails (one of our pet peeves), we enjoy the convenience of access to the trails at Chino Hills State Park. It’s not the greatest wilderness experience, and other than along Telegraph Canyon, most of the trails are totally exposed, making it fairly hot and miserable in the middle of a Summer day. But the grasses are green in the Winter, and the wildflowers in the Spring can be very beautiful, so if you’re looking for a local hike with a view, and it isn’t too hot, why not charge up San Juan Hill?
View San Juan Hill in Chino Hills State Park in a larger map