One of the things I love about living in Southern California is that you can go from the beach to the mountains all in a day. Just a short drive can make you feel worlds away! Since this holiday weekend brought beautifully warm weather, we decided to skip the crowded beach at home and head out to the Cleveland National Forest to hike the Holy Jim Trail. Just a bit outside of Rancho Santa Margarita, the Cleveland National Forest covers wooded mountains with lots of hiking options. The most popular is Holy Jim Trail, leading to Holy Jim Falls.
We took the Ortega Highway East, turned left on Antonio and Right on Rancho Santa Margarita Road. The street curves around to the left and you’ll see an open gravel lot on your right with long, dirt road ahead. Pass it first to make a stop at The General Store to grab your Adventure Day Pass and then head back over to the parking. The full hike from this first parking lot is about six miles one way so most people drive up to the Holy Jim parking lot about 4.5 miles up the road. To say the road is bumpy would be an understatement! I definitely recommend a truck with good suspension and tires! Our youngest daughter was squealing like were on a roller coaster at some points on the way up. If the drive up gets too rough there are lots of spots you could pull over to get out and explore or make the hike a little longer. On our first trip up last year, my Equinox was not equipped for the drive so we pulled over and got out to check out streams and little pools surrounded by rocks. We crossed fallen logs and had a great time just exploring. Keep going and you’ll arrive at the Holy Jim Parking lot with a sign marking the trail. It’s actually about another half mile on this trail before you reach the actual Holy Jim Trailhead, but its an easy walk through tiny old cabins that you won’t believe anyone actually lives in way out there.
The trail is great for beginners and you’ll pass families with kids and dogs along the way. It’s about 2.8 miles roundtrip. There are some areas where you will cross a running creek so make sure you’ve got good footwear on and help any kids find sure footing across. My kids at 10 and 13 were having a blast following the trail, crossing the creek and looking for signs of the waterfall at the end. Our youngest is 2 1/2 and she got carried a lot! There were only three or four spots where we were a little nervous trying to get through with her, either crossing water or climbing up or down some steeper rocks. We saw other little ones on passing, and the sturdy backpack type baby carriers looked like the way to go. The more difficult the trail got, the closer we were – and just under an hour from the actual trailhead we found Holy Jim Falls. It’s tiny, as far as waterfalls go. But you can get close enough to reach your hands in and it’s beautiful nonetheless. We stopped for a few pictures and some snacks before heading back down. The waterfall really makes you feel like you reached this majestic destination on your adventure (not so) far from home.
We had a wonderful day getting out and exploring the environment so different from the beach at home, but less than an hour away. It’s a little gem hidden in the forest and a perfect afternoon adventure!