Holy Jim Falls

Cleveland National Forest / Rancho Santa Margarita / Lake Forest, California, USA

About Holy Jim Falls


Hiking Distance: 2.5-3 miles round trip
Suggested Time: 90-120 minutes

Date first visited: 2010-02-14
Date last visited: 2016-04-10

Waterfall Latitude: 33.69427
Waterfall Longitude: -117.51582

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Holy Jim Falls has such a memorable name that every time I think about it, I have this impulse to shout out “Holy Jim!” before the word “Falls.”

Apparently the name was in honor of a foul-mouthed beekeeper who used to live in the area nicknamed “Cussin’ Jim.”

Holy_Jim_Falls_120_04102016 - Holy Jim Falls
Holy Jim Falls

And I guess conservative governmental types eventually renamed it to “Holy Jim.”

I also read somewhere that apparently Jim’s short temper was said to have resulted in the last known California Grizzly Bear to be shot dead here (for going after his honey).

Whether this story was true or not, it did seem like there were plenty of legends and a bit of a colorful past concerning this waterfall and the surrounding area.

With the adventure it took to access the falls, I’m sure we’d be adding our own little twist of personal experiences to all that had been said about this place.

The Adventure starts with Trailhead Access

Holy_Jim_Falls_001_jx_02142010 - The unpaved Trabuco Canyon Road leading to the trailhead for Holy Jim Falls
The unpaved Trabuco Canyon Road leading to the trailhead for Holy Jim Falls

Speaking of which, this was indeed one of the more adventurous local waterfalls we’ve done.

A big reason why was the condition of the last five miles of driving on the rough unpaved Trabuco Creek Road to the trailhead of the falls (see directions below).

I’d have to say that the road conditions might be what’s going to make you do a “Cussin’ Jim” and swear (especially if you’ve managed to scrape the underside of your car like we did a few times).

So we recommend taking a high clearance vehicle to get to the trailhead though we did see a handful of passenger cars make the attempt.

Holy_Jim_Falls_023_04102016 - A high clearance ranger vehicle driving past us as we walked towards Holy Jim Falls
A high clearance ranger vehicle driving past us as we walked towards Holy Jim Falls

In any case, you’ll definitely want to go slow, and going anywhere near like 20mph is probably considered gunning it.

Of course, there will be some well-prepared off-roaders who would appreciate the slower drivers pulling over to let them pass where possible.

Basic Trail Summary of Holy Jim Falls

When we finally made it to the trailhead, we then embarked on the roughly 3.6-mile round trip hike (though I’ve seen it reported to be 2.5-3 miles round trip, which certainly seemed to shortchange it).

The longer distance was something we estimated based on our latest experience where it took us nearly an hour to get to the Holy Jim Falls, and then it took us around 50 minutes to get back.

Holy_Jim_Falls_020_04102016 - The Holy Jim Trail near its start, where the scenery was attractive even under the drizzling conditions that this shot was taken in
The Holy Jim Trail near its start, where the scenery was attractive even under the drizzling conditions that this shot was taken in

If the hike was merely 2.5 miles, it certainly should’ve taken much less than almost 2 hours of trail time.

That said, our slower pace could be the result of the dozen or so stream crossings, which could really slow progress when the waterflow was high (like it was on our first visit in 2010).

Detailed Trail Description to Holy Jim Falls

From the trailhead parking area, we followed a slightly uphill road adjacent and above where most of the cars would be parked.

There was a sign saying “Holy Jim Trail” confirming we were going the right way.

After the initial hill, the road then went through a community of cabins and a few concrete fords.

Holy_Jim_Falls_003_02142010 - Under high flow conditions, concrete fords like this one can be both slippery and slow going en route to Holy Jim Falls
Under high flow conditions, concrete fords like this one can be both slippery and slow going en route to Holy Jim Falls

We weren’t sure if the people occupying or owning these cabins were permanent residents or if they were renting them out for visitors.

In any case, it really felt like we stumbled upon a village that wasn’t easy to get to given the conditions of the roads to get here.

After nearly 10 minutes of walking through this cabin community, we then went past a signposted gate marking the official Holy Jim Trail.

From here on out, we left the cabins behind and the road narrowed into a foot trail, where we were quickly greeted by the first of several stream crossings.

Holy_Jim_Falls_006_02142010 - The trail to Holy Jim Falls was both popular with hikers as well as mountain bikers
The trail to Holy Jim Falls was both popular with hikers as well as mountain bikers

As we continued along the trail, we’d encounter stretches of somewhat gentle uphill sections followed by flat areas.

We could tell that we were getting a net elevation gain the further along the trail we went, which made going to the falls surprisingly longer than we thought going into the hike.

The width of the trail vacillated between open spaces and narrower spots flanked by the ubiquitous poison oak.

Towards the last half-mile or so, there was an incline that junctioned with a different trail going to the Main Divide Road.

We kept right at this junction to continue to the Holy Jim Falls, and then we encountered our last stream crossing.

Holy_Jim_Falls_009_02142010 - One of the tricky stream crossings en route to Holy Jim Falls when the creek had high flow
One of the tricky stream crossings en route to Holy Jim Falls when the creek had high flow

This particular crossing was probably the trickiest one mainly due to the amount of slippery rock scrambling as well as stream walking that needed to be done in there.

Shortly thereafter, we reached the 20ft Holy Jim Falls, where the trail abruptly ended as the canyon closed in at the falls.

We believe that this was one of those few waterfalls where less is more as the lower volume made the clear plunge pool attractive as well as allowing us to better appreciate its character and the tranquility it induced.

There really wasn’t a whole lot of ways to photograph or view this waterfall given the confined space so we didn’t feel the need to spend too much time here.

Holy_Jim_Falls_095_04102016 - Julie and Tahia walking up to the base of Holy Jim Falls in low flow
Julie and Tahia walking up to the base of Holy Jim Falls in low flow

Thus, we returned the way we came (having to face the stream crossings again), but at least the hike back was mostly downhill.

Holy Jim Falls – Small But Popular

Anyways, after all the trouble it took to both drive to and hike to the Holy Jim Falls, the thought did cross our minds whether this waterfall was worth the effort (especially given its diminutive stature).

That said, we noticed that this waterfall happened to be one of the more popular hikes in Orange County.

In fact, we saw numerous families with large troops of children making the hike as well as plenty of others walking their dogs.

Holy_Jim_Falls_004_02142010 - Passing by one of a handful of cabins that we encountered on the Holy Jim Trail
Passing by one of a handful of cabins that we encountered on the Holy Jim Trail

Moreover, there were plenty of log cabins along the trail near the trailhead that kind of reminded us of the cabins along the trail to Sturtevant Falls.

In addition to all the foot traffic, we shared this trail with lots of mountain bikers.

Although sometimes mountain biking and hiking on the same trail do not make a good mix, we did notice some signage at the trailhead indicating that the rehabilitation of the Holy Jim Trail was largely due to the efforts of a mountain biking club.

So if it weren’t for their efforts, it could be argued that this trail and waterfall wouldn’t even be available!

Waterflow of Holy Jim Falls

Holy_Jim_Falls_022_02142010 - Holy Jim Falls in high flow when we first saw it in February 2010
Holy Jim Falls in high flow when we first saw it in February 2010

Finally, of all the well-known waterfalls in this part of Orange County (others are Blackstar Canyon Falls and Falls Canyon Falls or “Hidden Falls”), it seemed like only Holy Jim Falls had the most reliable flow.

That said, we suspect that the springs and streams feeding Holy Jim Creek may have limits to its watersheds’ ability to supply the water reliably.

After all, the mountains comprising this part of the Cleveland National Forest don’t typically get that much snow.

Therefore, rainfall-reliant waterfalls like this one would have an even more limited flow life.

Holy_Jim_Falls_092_04102016 - Holy Jim Falls when we came back six years later in low flow
Holy Jim Falls when we came back six years later in low flow

Given the temperamental nature of rainfall in Southern California, it would appear that Holy Jim Creek may have a few weeks of healthy flow following the last moderate to heavy rain event.

Of course, this waterfall could easily go dry (even in the Winter and Spring months) if we happen to have one of our now-infamous and more frequent dry California Winters.

Authorities

Holy Jim Falls resides in the Cleveland National Forest near Lake Forest in Orange County, California. It is administered by the USDA Forest Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website or Facebook page.

Holy_Jim_Falls_002_04102016 - Starting at the parking lot for Holy Jim Falls under a drizzly morning in April 2016. This photo and the next several shots came on this day
Holy_Jim_Falls_013_04102016 - This was the Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department, right before the car park for the Holy Jim Trailhead
Holy_Jim_Falls_015_04102016 - Looking towards the Holy Jim Falls Trailhead parking lot
Holy_Jim_Falls_017_04102016 - Tahia getting onto the Holy Jim Trail. We had to make sure we took this trail and not continue walking east on the Trabuco Creek Road
Holy_Jim_Falls_018_04102016 - Julie on the trail leading to the Holy Jim Falls, which started off on this pretty wide unpaved road
Holy_Jim_Falls_024_04102016 - Julie and Tahia walking around a puddle on the unpaved road part of the hike to Holy Jim Falls
Holy_Jim_Falls_027_04102016 - Julie and Tahia walked by what seemed like more cabins in April 2016 than on our first time hiking to Holy Jim Falls back in February 2010
Holy_Jim_Falls_028_04102016 - On our April 2016 visit to Holy Jim Falls, this concrete ford was pretty dry and easy to cross
Holy_Jim_Falls_032_04102016 - This was one of several stream crossings on the Holy Jim Trail. Six years prior to this photo taken, each of these stream crossings had a lot more water so they were trickier to cross without getting wet
Holy_Jim_Falls_036_04102016 - Julie and Tahia approaching the gate marking the Cleveland National Forest boundary next to this cabin
Holy_Jim_Falls_038_04102016 - This was the first stream crossing we encountered almost immediately after the gate marking the official trail to Holy Jim Falls in the Cleveland National Forest
Holy_Jim_Falls_040_04102016 - Julie and Tahia crossing another one of the stream though it was far easier during our 2016 visit than during our 2010 visit when thee was a lot more water
Holy_Jim_Falls_041_04102016 - Another look at Julie and Tahia on the Holy Jim Trail in April 2016
Holy_Jim_Falls_043_04102016 - Context of the Holy Jim Trail and some of the cloud-shrouded mountains in the area while we were passed by other hikers
Holy_Jim_Falls_048_04102016 - Julie and Tahia traversing what would be yet another creek crossing though it was quite trivial during our 2016 hike
Holy_Jim_Falls_053_04102016 - Julie and Tahia going through a tighter stretch of the trail flanked by overgrowth
Holy_Jim_Falls_057_04102016 - Julie and Tahia further along the Holy Jim Trail passing by an interesting tree that seemed to show signs of fire damage
Holy_Jim_Falls_061_04102016 - Yet another one of many stream crossings on the Holy Jim Trail aided by fallen logs
Holy_Jim_Falls_066_04102016 - Julie and Tahia going over still yet another stream crossing which was fairly easy to cross during our April 2016 hike to Holy Jim Falls
Holy_Jim_Falls_069_04102016 - This little clearing gave us a little break from having to watch for poison oak growing into the trail for Holy Jim Falls
Holy_Jim_Falls_073_04102016 - Julie and Tahia going past yet another creek crossing and about to climb up an incline as we got closer to Holy Jim Falls
Holy_Jim_Falls_076_04102016 - After another uphill stretch, we encountered this trail junction where the path on the right went to Holy Jim Falls while the path on the left went to the Main Divide Road
Holy_Jim_Falls_079_04102016 - Julie and Tahia going by a somewhat tricky and slippery obstacle as we got closer to Holy Jim Falls
Holy_Jim_Falls_080_04102016 - Tahia had no trouble going under this fallen log on the way to Holy Jim Falls
Holy_Jim_Falls_081_04102016 - This was the last stream crossing on the way to Holy Jim Falls, which was a bit tricky due to the necessity of having to scramble over slippery rocks
Holy_Jim_Falls_083_04102016 - Context of the slippery roots and rocks around that last stream crossing near Holy Jim Falls
Holy_Jim_Falls_084_04102016 - Tahia on the final sloping stretch leading to the Holy Jim Falls
Holy_Jim_Falls_089_04102016 - Julie and Tahia finally making it up to the Holy Jim Falls in low flow during our April 2016 hike
Holy_Jim_Falls_108_04102016 - Julie and Tahia checking out the bottom of Holy Jim Falls, which was possible during our April 2016 hike since there wasn't too much water in the creek
Holy_Jim_Falls_117_04102016 - Direct look at the Holy Jim Falls fronted by a very clear plunge pool during our April 2016 visit
Holy_Jim_Falls_133_04102016 - More contextual look at the Holy Jim Falls surrounded by lush greenery in April 2016
Holy_Jim_Falls_137_04102016 - Looking back at that last stream crossing as we were on our way to the parking lot after having had our fill of Holy Jim Falls in April 2016
Holy_Jim_Falls_140_04102016 - Julie passing back through an open part of the forest on the way back from Holy Jim Falls
Holy_Jim_Falls_142_04102016 - Julie and Tahia on the mostly downhill return hike from Holy Jim Falls just as the sun started to break through the morning clouds in April 2016
Holy_Jim_Falls_156_04102016 - Back at the cabins on the return hike from Holy Jim Falls
Holy_Jim_Falls_165_04102016 - Passing by another one of the cabins on the way back from Holy Jim Falls
Holy_Jim_Falls_172_04102016 - Even on the return hike, there was surprisingly decent scenery on the Holy Jim Trail
Holy_Jim_Falls_173_04102016 - Finally back at the Holy Jim Trailhead parking with some nice scenery surrounding the area as seen in April 2016
Holy_Jim_Falls_001_02142010 - At the trailhead for Holy Jim Falls on our first visit in February 2010. This photo and the rest of the photos in this gallery was taken on this day
Holy_Jim_Falls_008_02142010 - Beyond the cabins and now hiking in wilderness en route to Holy Jim Falls on our February 2010 visit
Holy_Jim_Falls_014_02142010 - The creek crossings were deeper and trickier during our February 2010 hike to Holy Jim Falls than it was during our April 2016 hike when there was a lot less water
Holy_Jim_Falls_018_02142010 - Mom walking by this area of bare foliage en route to Holy Jim Falls during our February 2010 hike
Holy_Jim_Falls_020_02142010 - Finally making it to the Holy Jim Falls on our first visit in February 2010 when it had high flow
Holy_Jim_Falls_031_02142010 - Julie almost dwarfs Holy Jim Falls in this forced perspective
Holy_Jim_Falls_036_02142010 - My attempt at a long exposure shot of Holy Jim Falls
Holy_Jim_Falls_041_02142010 - Mom and Julie crossing creeks in high flow as we headed back from Holy Jim Falls during our February 2010 visit

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We’ve made it to the Holy Jim Falls vicinity in a couple of different ways, but we’ll describe here what we think is the most direct route without incurring fees from toll roads (on the Hwy 133 and Hwy 241) and without too much surface street driving.

By the way, if you blindly follow the GPS, they will insist that you take the toll roads, but we ignored it.

In any case, the key is to access Trabuco Canyon via Trabuco Creek Road.

Falls_Canyon_Falls_012_02212016 - Trabuco Creek Road was not only shared with other high-clearance vehicles and deep potholes, but it was also shared with other hikers
Trabuco Creek Road was not only shared with other high-clearance vehicles and deep potholes, but it was also shared with other hikers

So from the Greater Los Angeles area, we took the I-5 south towards Mission Viejo, where we took the Alicia Parkway exit.

We then turned left to get onto Alicia Parkway, and we followed this busy surface road for a little over 5 miles through Lake Forest towards Santa Margarita Parkway (going past several traffic lights as well as a stretch where we saw some scenic homes around Lake Mission Viejo).

We then turned right onto Santa Margarita Parkway, then followed this busy road for about 3.5 miles (going past the toll road Hwy 241 en route) before turning left onto Plano Trabuco Rd.

Plano Trabuco Rd eventually veered left onto Trabuco Canyon Rd in about 0.5 miles, then Trabuco Canyon Rd wound its way down to Trabuco Arroyo in 0.8 miles.

Falls_Canyon_Falls_130_02212016 - Trabuco Creek Road had a surprising amount of traffic for such a rough road
Trabuco Creek Road had a surprising amount of traffic for such a rough road

Before crossing the bridge over the arroyo (creek), we turned right onto the unpaved Trabuco Creek Road.

Right at the turnoff, there appeared to be an unpaved parking lot, but the unpaved road continued on the far end of the “parking lot”.

At this point, we were on the Trabuco Creek Road, which was initially rough gravel flanked by some ranches and lots of private property signs.

As we continued driving on Trabuco Creek Road, the gravel slowly gave way to a narrower and a bit rougher terrain full of ruts and deep potholes.

Holy_Jim_Falls_007_04102016 - The building just before the Holy Jim Falls Trailhead parking lot was actually an active fire station
The building just before the Holy Jim Falls Trailhead parking lot was actually an active fire station

It was in this stretch of the road that the clearance of our vehicle was tested.

At roughly 2.8 miles from Trabuco Canyon Road, we reached a concrete ford over Trabuco Creek.

Beyond this concrete ford, there was a reassuring sign saying that the Holy Jim Trailhead was another 2 miles away.

The road became even rougher and narrower beyond this sign, but there were still pullouts and makeshift shoulders to let oncoming vehicles pass by.

Eventually, we’d arrive at the surprisingly busy Holy Jim Trailhead, where we were fortunate to find a parking spot and start the hike.

Holy_Jim_Falls_174_04102016 - The trailhead parking for the Holy Jim Falls hike
The trailhead parking for the Holy Jim Falls hike

Overall, this drive took us around 90 minutes, where over 30 minutes of it was on Trabuco Creek Road alone.

By the way, since the Holy Jim Falls trailhead was in Cleveland National Forest, every parked vehicle must display an adventure pass.

Day and annual passes can be purchased from specific ranger stations as well as from outdoors outfitters like REI.

Examining the end of the trail where there was the waterfall and some heavily-vegetated surrounding cliffs


Broad L-shaped sweep from the Holy Jim Creek up to the waterfall itself in high flow

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Tagged with: orange county, cleveland national forest, rancho santa margarita, lake forest, trabuco canyon, california, southern california, waterfall



Visitor Comments:

Holy Jim Falls – Solid Hike December 11, 2010 8:54 am by Jon - Went up yesterday 12/10/2010...the drive in is 5 miles...actually the hike is 40 minutes to falls and very pleasant.. ...Read More

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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of the award-winning A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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