Today I’d like to talk about the myth and legend of the “Devils Punchbowl” in San Diego County. If you’ve like me, and you’ve lived in San Diego, or spent enough time in San Diego, and you’re interested in the backcountry, chances are you’ve heard of “The Devils Punchbowl” after you heard about Cowles Mountain, Iron Mountain, and Woodson Mountain (a/k/a “Potato Chip Rock”). Here’s the interesting thing though: unlike the above peaks, “The Devils Punchbowl” is a more nebulous concept. There’s no doubt that it exists – it’s definitely a location that exists. But, it exists in about ten or eleven different locations, depending on who you are talking to, and who is giving you directions to the “actual” site.
There is the official Devils Punchbowl hike discussed here and here – also known to backcountry aficionados such as myself as Cedar Creek Falls, and then there’s everyone else’s Devils Punchbowl, which as far as I can tell is located in Descanso, Cuyamaca, the Laguna Range, Fallbrook, Ramona, and everywhere else there’s seasonal runoff, as San Diego is a dry county, and no matter which Devils Punchbowl you’re talking about, all of them will probably be just an area of slickrock with no water by the time the hot Santa Ana winds blow through the county in August, September, and October. This last weekend, I was lucky enough to be taken to yet another of the Devils Punchbowls by an experienced backcountry hiker and explorer and actual native San Diegan, of which in my experience, there are few. This is one of the things I love the best about being active in the outdoor community, locally and not-locally is the great tips that I occasionally get from friends and acquaintances.
Sadly, I will not be able to give out directions to this Devils Punchbowl, as my guide requested that I keep the location secret, as it was her and her family’s spot to visit when she was growing up. As this wasn’t the first time someone’s made such a request of me (see: the Blue Sun Cave); and as I have a few spots that I’ve kept secret over the years, I didn’t and don’t have a problem with keeping this Devils Punchbowl secret. What I can tell you, is that if you head out of Descanso, California, on Oak Grove Road, the road will eventually turn into Boulder Creek Road, and become unpaved. At this point, you are in one of the prettier – and lesser known areas of San Diego County. If you are out this way, do what I did: take the time to explore, and take in the vistas from ~4,000 feet.
At some point off of Boulder Creek, there will be an unmarked rusted gate, and if you are headed for this spot, you will want to pull off the road where you can, and start walking. The hike to this Devils Punchbowl starts out as a former dirt road, but quickly becomes a path that winds through some black oaks and chaparral. I’m not going to represent to you that this is a place that has never seen man, but what I will say is that this is an area that does not receive much foot traffic. But, as you can see from the pictures, if you have eyes, you will be able to see the faint trail where others have gone before you. After a mile, you will pass through a copse of trees, and be at the edge of a wide, clear pool of water, approximately twenty feet across and twenty feet wide. This is Descanso’s Devils Punchbowl, and it is pristine. The trail winds up around on the East side, and the pool is surrounded by granite on the North and East sides, and is fed by the creek that flows into it, and out on the other side.
In some respects, this Devils Punchbowl is no different than any of the others – a pool cut from spring and or creek fed water, and its location, on the edge of a canyon surrounded by sloping mountain walls reminded me of Harper’s Creek, upstream in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. But after a second, I realized why my guide wanted to keep it a secret. This Devils Punchbowl is a natural depression that is a perfect place to swim, and relax. The canyon it sits in has the silence of long-long distant historic nature. I’d never call Harper’s Creek a popular spot with its four to five daily visitors, but as compared to zero visitors, it would be a “popular” trail. In addition to the “punchbowl” itself, one could also explore upstream (as we did) and up toward an abandoned mine overlooking the punchbowl. To the chagrin of my guide, this mine has been sealed off by metal bars, but it still is an interesting curiosity to briefly check out.
As for the punchbowl proper, there’s a slight “slide” of flowing water into the pool, but I will caution the reader who can find this place regarding three things: 1) the water is extremely cold; 2) there may or may not be leeches in the water (there probably are, as I picked some off me); and 3) the rocks near the punchbowl are slick granite which you can easily slip upon, and fall into the pool (as I did). I spent the whole afternoon there, and while this wasn’t the most “extreme” of all my adventures, it was a great experience to reflect upon the beauty of nature on a sunny day. As for what this means for the location of the actual Devils Punchbowl for San Diego hikers, it simply means this: if you are fortunate enough to be guided to a spot – any spot – that spot is the Devils Punchbowl, whether it is, or it isn’t, because either way, you’ve experienced one of the unique spots of San Diego, and the name really doesn’t matter.