Santiago Oaks/Irvine Regional Park
It took me a while, but I finally realized why I enjoy riding on dirt and gravel more than I do pavement. If you’ve been following the Spokes vBlog, you’ll see me on more of the latter, less of the former. This was never by accident. Rather, it was by design.
I fell into the same trap everyone falls into.
Follow professional cycling and you instantly equate being a cyclist with road bikes. And with road bikes comes a certain cult-like ideology that almost everyone on a road bike follows. You wear specific clothes, race (not ride) as hard as you can, and obsess over your Strava numbers.
Quite frankly, this turned me into an asshole. I don’t want to be an asshole.
Hop on a mountain or gravel bike and things seem to change. At least they did for me. I slowed down, for once. I started to look around at the scenery. THERE ACTUALLY WAS SCENERY TO LOOK AT! I didn’t feel compelled to wear “the uniform” on my mountain bike. I put on a pair of cargo shorts, a t-shirt, some flat platform shoes, and I was good to go.
I’m not giving up on riding pavement. I’ve just fallen in love with the slower pace of riding on gravel, and forcing myself to slow down and appreciate the wonders of nature all around me. Our current social and political climate has gotten out of hand. Riding on dirt paths has become an antidote for the stress that this has caused in my life.
If that’s not enough, gravel grinding alleviates the biggest challenge I’ve faced while riding in the city — dealing with assholes in cars trying to run me over. My only worry in the hills is being eaten alive by a mountain lion. The statistical odds are in my favor on dirt paths.
Enter Santiago Oaks.
Located in North Tustin, and a next door neighbor to Irvine Railroad Park, Santiago Oaks offers a little of everything for everybody.
Want to be a daredevil? Hit the Enduro Trail — 10 miles of single track in a high desert setting, with over 1600 feet of climbing.
Want something a little less technical, but still challenging? The Irvine Regional Park loop provides 8 miles of mixed terrain with 1300 feet of climbing.
What if you just want to ride on dirt, get a solid workout in, and maybe do a tiny bit of technical stuff? That’s where I come in.
I just started riding in Santiago Oaks, so I wanted to take it easy. Upon entering the park, I took the first hard left. This is Santiago Creek Trail. This runs for 2.7 miles with 200 feet of climbing. Super easy, with only a few moderately challenging terrain sections.
From there, I connected to Egret Trail, which is even shorter – less than a mile and a half with a whopping 35 feet of climbing, consisting of two short hills. The only challenges you’ll find taking this route outside of some loose gravel sections are piles of horse shit every 100 yards or so. We do, after all, have to share this trail with horses.
The end of Egret Trail connects you back on the main road, which is part of Santiago Creek Trail. Turn left to continue on this trail. You’ll soon see a narrow trail to your left. This is Willows Trail, and that’s where the fun begins if you’re into taking part of the Enduro Trail. Go nuts, but not too nuts unless you’re into ER visits.
Continuing on, you’ll come to another option on your left — Roadrunner Loop. This is another moderate ride, with a few small hills to climb. This will add an additional 1.5 miles and 50 feet of climbing to your tally.
Go far enough here and you’ll see Chute Trail. This gets pretty technical, but it’s worth it for the views alone once you get to the top. It’s only a mile long, but it will feel like it’s longer than that with the 400 feet of climbing you’ll have to do to get to the top.
Parking’s kind of a bitch, but you have options. The safest bet is to pay $3-5 to park inside of Irvine Regional Park. But if you’re tight on money, or simply don’t like paying for parking, there are free options too.
There’s limited free parking available at Santiago Hills Park on Trails End Lane, just off of Chapman. If you don’t mind entering the trail from the backside, there’s free parking available at Santiago Oaks Regional Park off of Windes Drive.
I prefer taking a mountain bike on these trails, but I suppose you can do it on a gravel bike. I just like the confidence riding a mountain bike gives me on terrain like this.
Am I a mountain biker? No, not in the popular sense. I’m a hiker on wheels. But all of these endurance races – Dirty Kanza, Tour Divide, Silk Road Mountain Race, Atlas Mountain, Badlands, GBDuro. They’re all done on gravel bikes AND – get this – mountain bikes. These things are tanks, so why wouldn’t you take it cross country?
You don’t HAVE to have a gravel bike or a cross bike to tour. Mountain bikes do the job. They’re practically indestructible. I’m out here pushing through sand, loose gravel, rolling over rocks, wood, railroad ties. I’m sure you could take a cross or gravel bike out here, but it might get a little wonky with wheels narrower than 2 inches.
Bikepacking is like backpacking, just on a bike. And a mountain bike is built for the job just as well as a gravel bike is.
If you’re into riding dirt trails, download the MTB Project app. It has a ton of maps in it — all user generated. People have done a lot of recon to put this project together, which is how I’m discovering new routes. It’s an incredible community of cyclists helping each other out.
Maybe you’re like me. You want to try riding your mountain bike, but you don’t want to take risks. Find paths like this and you’ll realize what you’ve been missing all along.