Nestled between the quiet east end of the City of Orange and the 241 freeway, Santiago Oaks Regional Park is an expansive reach of preserved wildlife that eclipses all its neighboring parks in natural beauty. It offers visitors 1,269 acres filled with interweaving trails for endless biking, hiking, and equestrian options.
Almost all trails are open to hikers, bikers, and equestrians alike. Only five trails are reserved exclusively for hikers: the Historic Dam Trail, the Pacifica Trail, the Peralta Hills Trail, the Sour Grass Trail, and the Windes Nature Trail.
Most of the trails in the park are less than a mile long, but due to their interwoven paths, explorers can customize their excursion to make it as long as they want. Don’t be deceived by the short lengths of each trail listed on the map; some are looped, but the second portion of the trail has a different name, so you can expect to double your walk. The only trails that are longer than one mile on their own are the Weir Canyon Trail and the Anaheim Hills trail, which, as their names might suggest, both run into the northern boundary of the park toward the Weir Canyon Nature Preserve and east Anaheim Hills.
Nature experiences vary depending on the trail chosen. Trails closer to the entrance have little to no incline but are fairly shady and have a concrete pillar creek crossing that is a popular photo location. When embarking on the Historic Dam Trail, don’t expect to be awed by its proportions; the dam is about the height of your average fence, but does create a small lagoon with a little waterfall depending on the time of year.
Some of the trails that lead up into the hills, such as the Peralta Hills Trail, the Hawk Trail, and the Mountain Goat Trail, are pretty steep. But hikers will be rewarded with beautiful panoramic vistas, especially from the top of the Barham Ridge Trail, which looks out over Orange County. Locals advise hiking these trails in the spring roughly between February and April, when the hills are green and filled with wildflowers, including California poppies. These steep trails are also ideal for downhill mountain biking.
Santiago Oaks Regional Park offers standard amenities in addition to a few unique features. Windes Drive leads visitors to the parking lot and main entrance, beyond which the developed portions of the park lie. Parking in this lot is $3 on weekdays and $5 on the weekend; visitors looking to avoid this charge can park for free at Anaheim Hills Elementary School after school hours or on the weekend. There is one trailhead entrance at this location.
One of the central amenities of the park is the Nature Center. In operation since 1981, the Nature Center contains informational exhibits about the local wildlife, preservation efforts, and the history of the park. Nature walks guided by park rangers are available on the Windes Nature Trail right outside. The Nature Center is used primarily for ranger-led educational programs for youth groups and school field trips that are arranged by reservation. It is occasionally open to the public on weekends if a staff member or volunteer is available. Just past this are the playground, a group picnic area, horseshoe pits, and one set of park restrooms.
One feature that sets Santiago Oaks Regional Park apart from other Orange County parks is the wedding facilities. A gorgeous, rustic gazebo has hosted many happy unions under its open A-frame roof, with plenty of open lawn space for spectators. Just around the corner on the edge of the historic orange grove is a beautiful reception center for guests to celebrate, eat, and relax.
The parcels of land now recognized as the park were acquired in small pieces over a period of many years. The first acquisition was made in 1974 by the Orange County Board of Supervisors when they bought a 62-acre parcel from a local family. This was quickly followed in 1976 by another 33 acres, which included the historic Windes residence that would be converted into the park’s Nature Center a few years later.
One of the largest pieces of land acquired, the 526-acre Barham Ranch, was bought by the County of Orange in 2003 and resulted in the connection of 3550 total acres of protected open space. Santiago Oaks Regional Park also annexed the Weir Canyon Wilderness Park five years later, creating a lengthy trail system that runs all the way from Irvine Regional Park to Weir Canyon.