by Ellen Girardeau Kempler
Southern Orange County’s view across a sea of development toward Saddleback is a rugged reminder of wilder times. Forming the saddle at 5,687 and 5,496 feet respectively, Santiago and Modjeska peaks mark the highest, and most visible, points in the 35-mile-long Santa Ana Mountain Range. On clear winter days, the landmark formally called Old Saddleback seems etched into the skyline, as much a part of our panorama as Catalina Island and the Pacific coastline. Occasionally snow caps the tops of both peaks.
Southern California Indians, who had settled the area long before Spanish explorers arrived, considered Kalawpa (Saddleback) sacred. They believed that the god Chinigchinich lived on the top of Santiago Peak and watched over the various tribes, punishing transgressors against his natural fortress by sending down rattlesnakes and grizzlies.
The mountains’ first explorers encountered thick, almost impenetrable chaparral, and the densest grizzly bear population in the state. Despite the Indian legend, hunters shot and killed the last one in Southern California (a female misnamed Little Black Bear) in 1908.
Rattlesnakes, ticks and poison oak still thrive on Saddleback, and it’s a risky adventure to drive the unpaved road that leads to the top of Modjeska Peak from the end of Silverado Road. Once at the Modjeska summit, it’s a short hike to the top of Santiago Peak. Various high-difficulty trails also lead from the bottom of both peaks, and, from the top, both offer views of five counties.
Rising from the subdivisions, Saddleback’s uninviting landscape still seems like Chinigchinich’s territory. While the Sierra Club has proposed the entire area be designated as wilderness to make it off limits to mountain bikers, recreational groups such as the Warrior’s Society oppose this. Even today, the struggle to preserve Saddleback’s natural history embodies the age-old struggle of civilization against nature.
Marketing veteran Ellen Girardeau Kempler is founder and chief navigator of Laguna-based Gold Boat Journeys. She specializes in writing and editing, digital content development, marketing strategies and communications training. Contact her at [email protected].