Vien R. Guenther
Cedar Creek Falls/San Diego River Gorge Trail – Cleveland National Forest, San Diego County
Updated: Jan 6
If you haven’t been in the back country of San Diego, there are hiking trails here that offer spectacular waterfalls. One of them is Cedar Creek Falls located in the Cleveland National Forest, the southernmost U.S. National Forest in California. To hike here, a permit is required, with limited permits given per day. The trail is open year-round but hiking here in summer is not advisable. Hikers (and dogs) have died here from heatstroke, as well as falling from the cliffs. Besides, the water dries out in summer and the pool gets stagnant and covered with algae. But even without the waterfall, the surrounding mountain views are enough of an inducement to hike here, at least for us. This trail is designated as strenuous but others may find it easy to moderate. Make sure about your hiking capabilities. You are responsible for your own safety.
TO GET HERE
Coming from Downtown San Diego it is less than an hour drive via CA-94 and CA-125 to I-8/Kumeyaay Highway heading east and CA-67 North/San Vicente Freeway. Then turn right to Willow Road and then left to Wildcat Canyon Road/Barona Road. After 12.2 miles you will reach a junction to San Vicente Road. Head east, then past the San Vicente Golf Resort turn left to Ramona Oaks Road and right to Thornbush Road to San Diego River Gorge Trailhead (which is the trailhead for the falls).
Coming from Ramona it is about a 17-minute drive via San Vicente Road. As you turn left to Ramona Oaks Road, you will be driving through the San Diego Country Estates neighborhood. Turn right on Thornbush Road, the San Diego River Gorge Trailhead is at the end of the road.
Another trailhead is near the historic town of Julian, at a cross road between Eagle Peak Road and Cedar Creek Road. From Julian it is about 34-minute drive to the trailhead.
- THE HIKE -
Whichever trailhead you choose to begin your hike, both trails are downhill and distance is pretty much the same. Weather conditions make a big difference on this hike. Hiking down is easy, but not so much climbing back up. There is not much shade along the trail, except at the bottom, near and around the waterfall. Even seasoned hikers can get sluggish when it’s hot, let alone not having enough water to drink, so bring plenty of water, even on a cool day. Snacks are always helpful for some energy boost. The best time to hike here is in Winter and Spring when the weather is cool. After a heavy rain is even better to see the waterfall at its best. We hiked here early morning in March, after a heavy rain, on a weekday.
CEDAR CREEK FALLS TRAIL/SAN DIEGO RIVER GORGE TRAIL - 6.0 miles
The San Diego River Gorge Trailhead has a designated parking area, complete with restroom, picnic site, potable water and with site hosts who put out some snacks at the trailhead. Very nice of them! You have to sign in before heading out on the trail. We did after our hike; we were so eager to start the hike we forgot. Even at the beginning of the trail, the beautiful mountain view will inspire you to look forward to what’s up ahead. We did, and we were not disappointed.
The meandering trail is gentle with benches and shelters provided along the trail. You might not need them hiking down, but hiking back up is another matter, especially when it's hot. These shelters will cool you off while enjoying the beautiful view.
Don’t just hike down and back; enjoy the surroundings. You might be surprised at what you can discover, such as this conglomerate rock, or “pudding stone”(not the valuable kind), found along the trail. Some wildflowers at this time were already out, which adds to the beauty of the surrounding landscape.
Before you reach the waterfall, there is a junction to Eagle Peak Road, heading northeast and connecting to the Cedar Creek Falls Trailhead from Julian. Down in the canyon you will find lush vegetation, you will get to cool off under the trees and have snacks before tackling the rest of the way to the falls. Before reaching the falls you will cross the San Diego River Gorge and Cedar Creek, a tributary that feeds into the San Diego River and the El Capitan Reservoir.
We took our time hiking down but even so there was no one there when we reached the falls. We had the place to ourselves for a while, enough to take pictures of us at leisure without anyone around. We treasured the peace and quiet of the place before a solo hiker arrived. Hiking on weekdays definitely has its advantages.
Hiking here at the right time has its rewards. The Cedar Creek Falls, 80 feet high, is gushing down from the recent rain. The pool, 50 feet wide, with a natural rock barrier was full. It's like an oasis tucked away in the nook of a gorge.
It's understandable why this place is popular, even in the early 1930s. But back then cars could easily access it from Lakeside, before the El Capitan Dam was built in 1934. The road is now closed and that is a good thing.
While we were having our sandwich, other hikers were starting to arrive. Some people like to start late. The water is cold but one of them was tough enough to swim in the pool. Climbing over the rock to see the waterfall from above is irresistible to some, despite the signs that prohibit it. The signs are there for a reason. A teenage boy died falling from that cliff, and others from jumping into the pool.
We decided to hike back before it gets crowded. This is definitely a wonderful place. I hope it will stay that way so others can enjoy it in the future.
Bring snacks and plenty of water. It makes a lot of difference for your hiking experience. Don't underestimate the heat, it can be deadly if you are not prepared.
The Cedar Creek Falls Trail captured from GPS and downloaded to Google Earth