OC’s Santiago and Trabuco Canyons Are Twisty Fun

Legendary is a label that applies to many roads, none more than the drive we’re taking this week, the route through the Santiago and Trabuco canyons in Orange County.

Generations of bikers have left the beaten track in The OC for these twisty wonders; just minutes from the nearest master-planned community, yet so rural, so natural Southern California.

Our four-wheeled ride for this trip is Hyundai’s sporty Genesis Coupe, which clearly was built for this type of driving.

Jump on I-5 north to SR-55 east, then head east on Chapman Avenue through the city of Orange. After a few minutes, the city and most of the traffic disappears with Chapman and you’re on Santiago Canyon Road, county highway S-18. This runs through a canyon in the Santa Margarita Mountains, giving drivers panoramic views around every corner. It’s the kind of road that the Harley-Davidson set like so much: two lanes, easy cruising and just challenging enough.

These mountains are sharp and rugged, something that’s probably kept the bulldozers away. Parts are preserved in open space areas, with hiking and horse trails heading into the hills. Irvine Lake, a privately run facility (adults, $22) offers camping and picnic areas.

Something else here deserves the legendary label: Cook’s Corner, the biker roadhouse where Santiago Canyon Road meets El Toro and Live Oak Canyon roads. I visited on Father’s Day and the place was packed with folks in fine leathers; a gent even sported a beard worthy of ZZ Top band member. The line of bikes parked out front almost all said Harley-Davidson on the gas tank. A band played, the beer flowed and the burgers weren’t bad, either.

Live Oak Canyon Road, which continues into Trabuco Canyon Road, is a bit more twisty and requires more attention of drivers, but it’s a bit shorter than Santiago Canyon Road. It rises out of the gorge and after one, last turn, it’s back to another master-planned community.

The last treat was the meandering Antonio Parkway, a typical Orange County “collector” street that runs several miles to Ortega Highway. While it’s all developed, it still has views of the mountains and a few spots that are even a bit rural. It crosses the toll road from nowhere, SR-241, which the OC folks would like to join up with I-5 at Trestles beach in San Onofre. But that’s another story.

The Genesis Coupe was worthy of the great reviews it’s been getting the last couple of years. V-6 equipped, it had plenty of power when needed and a V-8 like exhaust note. Driving position and interior amenities make it a very pleasant trip.

The down side is the stiff suspension, which works great on curves but manages to let the passengers know about every crack, expansion joint and pothole in the road. It’s a rough ride similar to that in my much smaller and older ’91 Miata. With the sunroof, my 6-1 frame was a bit tall and if I forgot to duck, my head would hit the ceiling when we drove over a bump.

Paddle shifters allow for driver control of the six-speed automatic but I let the smooth-shifting transmission do the work for me, with the GPS telling me which turns to take and Jimmy Buffett coming through loud and clear through the Sirius-XM satellite radio.

The question is not whether you’ll drive Santiago and Trabuco canyons, but when. I’d avoid any hot, Santa Ana wind event; I’d hate to be around when there’s high fire danger. Rain might also produce flash floods and a slick roadway. That only leaves about 90 percent of the year for a delightful drive through a bit of Southern California that hasn’t been lost to the bulldozers.

 

Cruising Santiago Canyon.
Cruising Santiago Canyon.

Route and Info

Distance

  • 194-mile round trip from central San Diego; about 31 miles from Chapman Avenue and SR-55 to I-5.

Difficulty

  • Easy to moderate. Gentle curves on Santiago Canyon Road become more challenging on Live Oak Canyon and Trabuco Canyon roads.

Directions

  • I-5 north to SR-55 north in Orange County
  • Exit at East Chapman Avenue. Head east. Continue onto Santiago Canyon Road (S-18).
  • Left at Live Oak Canyon Road. Continue onto Trabuco Canyon Road.
  • Continue onto Plano Trabuco Road.
  • Right at Santa Margarita Parkway.
  • Left at Antonio Parkway.
  • Right at Ortega Highway (SR-74).
  • I-5 south to San Diego./li>

Comments (1)

  1. Charles A. Brackman

    Does anyone know if there is Live Oak/Trabuco Canyon racing club?

    The question stems from a trip I took this evening to the post office in Trabuco Canyon from my home in Lake Forest. (PO Boxes are less expensive there)

    As I took the corner onto Live Oak from El toro by Cook’s Corner, there was a white Camaro or Charger who seemed eager to ascend the hill. He quickly caught up to me, and as in many cases to accommodate other drivers when caged by the double yellow line, I accelerated to maintain a speed and distance that seemed tolerable; 60mph. Those who drive this road frequently know the speed limit is 35mph. By the time I had reached that speed, the driver behind me had not fallen off a bit, yet I could not go faster due to a line of cars in front of me appearing to be in the same hurry.

    As speeds quickly reached 80mph, and the driver to my aft could still not maintain a 10 foot distance, my first though was that these guys were late for their weekly homesexual pow-wow deep within the bowels of Holy Jim, no pun intended. I can understand the push to get where they were presumably heading, but isn’t this tailgating pushing the limits of safety? I wasn’t about to drive unsafely close to the driver in front of me.

    This is when it dawned on me, “Racing Club!” Obviously the reason for all the “pushing-the-limit” driving. But then there was what seemed to be a regular type driver in the road who soon was being tailgated by this homo-racing-club, for lack of a better term, and remained tailgated until I broke out of the line at the post office. Don’t know why they didn’t just pass, perhaps their cars or nerves are just not up to scratch.

    In any case, the idea of a racing club sounds great, and this is an excellent road for it. So if anyone knows how to sign up, please let me know. Please let me drive in the white car that was following me that I am not homosexual, I merely was going to the post office. (he came back out of the canyon following me as I drove back home) Please also let him know that if he is trying to look cool, he should attempt in an 8 cylinder vehicle, those 6 cylinder american muscle cars are just silly and look pretty dumb when running red lights, just sayin’.

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