Great Drive: California

Orange County’s Santiago Canyon

By Kevin Miller


Silverado Canyon RoadSouthern California is known as a land of freeways and traffic; beaches and smog; palm trees and starlets. Right in the heat of it all is Orange County, home to Disneyland, Newport and Laguna Beaches, and a nearly uninterrupted landscape of parkways, subdivisions, and strip malls. I’ve made several visits to “the OC” in recent months, and have found myself overwhelmed by the monotony of Orange County’s broad, stoplight-laden roads connecting chain restaurants, big-box stores, and office parks.

Always up for an enjoyable drive (even in a rental car), I ventured out to the beach during a previous visit, but was sorely disappointed to find heavy traffic both approaching the coast, and along Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway. This time, spying curvy roads on  my map running past a regional park and a National Forest, I headed east.

From my starting point in suburban Lake Forest, it is a quick jaunt to the place where El Toro Road, which starts near Laguna Beach, becomes Santiago Canyon Road. Heading effectively north, Santiago Canyon Road quickly exits suburbia and becomes a 55 MPH two-lane thoroughfare with bicycle lanes on each shoulder, double-striped in the center to prohibit passing in most locations. Within a mile you pass Cook’s Corner, a well-known pub popular with motorcyclists.

As I continued north on Santiago Canyon Road in the early evening, I was treated to incredible natural vistas that are other-worldly when compared to the geography near my home in western Washington. Through the open windows I caught the scents of eucalyptus trees and desert dust and I wound past scrub-covered mesas and tinder dry hills, with vistas of Cleveland National Forest to the east and a Limestone Canyon Regional Park to the west. 

Silverado, CAAfter passing the turnoff for Modjeska, I decided to try my luck on Silverado Canyon Road. From Santiago Canyon Road, it is a couple of miles to reach the town limits of Silverado, where the speed limit drops to 25 MPH as the road narrows. While I had intended to carve some canyons on my evening drive, the road through Silverado intrigued me. Homes lined both sides of the road, situated just inches from the road and very near a dry creek bed which looked like it could become quite full of water in a heavy rain. Many of the homes had scarcely enough space between themselves and the road to park a car. Lined with overhanging trees growing close to the incredibly narrow road, with hillside-homes barely visible though the leaves, Silverado Canyon Road seemed a million miles from the concrete-and-stucco jungle of suburban Orange County.

Santiago Canyon RoadSilverado Canyon Road is closed to vehicle traffic a few miles east of the town of Silverado, so I turned around and retraced my steps to Santiago Canyon Road, which I followed north past scenic hills, a wildfire watchman, and Lake Irvine, until the road re-entered suburbia near the city of Orange. At that point I did a U-turn and retraced my path through the hills and canyons which hid most of the sunset while showing off a few colorful clouds and a sliver of the moon.

Though it wasn’t necessarily a place to drive fast, this route can provide a much-needed escape from the suburban hell that is Orange County. The drive was very pleasant at the end of a stereotypically clear, sunny day in southern California. As I took the drive on a weekday, both vehicular and bicycle traffic was light. I would imagine that as Orange County residents flock to the wilderness area during on weekends, the two lane roads I enjoyed could become clogged with traffic, so plan accordingly, and enjoy. View Route in Google  Maps

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Kevin Miller

As Autosavant’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Autosavant, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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  1. Looks like I’ve found a new place to cruise then!

  2. Which rental car was your chariot of choice for the day? It might almost be better if it was something lame so the low speed limits aren’t too depressing. I’m with you, though – I can’t stand incessant traffic lights, and they’re even worse when they’re not synchronized with one another.

  3. This drive was in a Hyundai Elantra sedan, which actualy handles pretty well. The 4-speed auto has too-widely-spaced ratios, though, which kills any hope of moving off quickly. Honestly, the steering was a little too twitchy for accurate driving on the curvy road up Silverado Canyon, i kept running over the ‘turtles” that mark the lanes.

  4. It’s further away from L.A., but the payoff is pretty big – the San Marcos Pass up near Santa Barbara is a thrill ride.

  5. I have the same critique of the Kia Forte’s 4-speed auto. As soon as you have some semblance of horsepower, the car shifts into a gear where the engine’s far from its powerband.

  6. PCH at 3 AM is still a very good drive, provided you chew up at 70 miles or so. It’s like being in Heaven.

  7. I meant to type, “chew up at least 70 miles”.

  8. There are many good drives available at three o’clock in the morning around L.A.

    Malibu Canyon, PCH, etc. Once the traffic goes away, you can let loose on some great roads.

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