Outside of the big three hikes in San Diego – “Potato Chip Rock”, Cowles Mountain, and Iron Mountain - the Cedar Creek Falls hike is one of the top five most popular hikes in the entirety of San Diego County. And, unlike many claims made about hiking in San Diego, this is not blogger hyperbole, this is a verified fact. The Forest Service website for the area even states that this trail is “...possibly the most traveled trail in the Palomar District”. As Cedar Creek Falls is so popular, no description of the hike would be complete without getting into why the trail and the waterfall is and has been so popular.
The trail and waterfall is first popular because it is a great and unique location within the county; and is also popular due to its notorious history. While San Diego does possess a number of distinct and diverse biomes, it does not have many waterfalls, because it is a desert environment first and foremost. Generally, the waterfalls that do exist in San Diego are seasonal and small. Cedar Creek Falls, by contrast, is some eighty feet high, and while also seasonal, does manage to flow (or trickle) for a good portion of the year. When it is flowing during wet, winter months, the falls are indeed, quite spectacular. Along with the waterfall, the falls also have a pool of mostly flowing water at the base, which was referred to during much of the 1980s-2000s as “the Devil’s Punchbowl”. During this period of time and before, the area was popular as a spot to hang out at, and for some, a great spot to go cliff jumping.
In general, cliff jumping is an inherently dangerous practice, and again, speaking in generalities, something that becomes even more dangerous in a zone where water flow becomes non-existent during the summer months. Unfortunately, the “Devil’s Punchbowl” and falls became a zone for drinking, parties, and in 2011, a death. Because of this, and because of the high amount of rescues in the area due to heat exhaustion, the area was closed by the Forest Service until 2013. When the area was re-opened, it featured a permit system that is still in place today, and well-marked and maintained trails. While it was assumed at the time of the re-opening that the permit system would decrease use and interest in the region, the opposite occurred. Year-round, the Cedar Creek Falls permit is something that is highly sought after by San Diego locals. However, the permit system has reduced the number of rescues, and has improved the wilderness area greatly.
Directions: This hike can be completed from two locations, either from the East in Julian (a much longer distance) or from the West, off of Thorndike Road in Ramona. For purposes of this post, I will be only discussing the Western approach off of Thorndike Road. Both locations require day-use permits year-round from the United States Forest Service, which manages the wilderness space. As of 2016, all wilderness permits can be obtained from Recreation.gov, and are $6.00 per group of five people. As I’ve mentioned frequently, this is a popular hike. Although the Forest Service constructed a parking lot at the end of Thorndike Road, this lot regularly fills to capacity on weekends and weekdays. While there is parking alongside the road, late arriving hikers should be advised that they may have to park a fair ways from the trailhead.
In terms of the permit process, and having a permit, I would be remiss if I did not mention that there is a Forest Service gate and checkpoint at the trailhead that is managed by volunteers and Forest Service employees. This station checks permits year round, and regularly turns around hikers who do not have a permit. Simply put, if you do not have a permit, you will not be able to go on this hike. Assuming one has a permit; the hike departs from the Forest Service checkpoint, and heads up a slight ridge, before descending into the San Diego River Gorge. Since 2013, the trail is very well maintained, and well-marked by both the Forest Service, and by the constant stream of hikers, bikers, and joggers heading to and from the falls. In my opinion, the best views on the hike are to be found in the first quarter of a mile, when one can see Saddleback Mountain, the surrounding ranges, and the San Diego River Gorge below. At the two mile mark, hikers will find themselves at the bottom of the San Diego River Gorge, and will then pass through cottonwood trees and black oaks for the next mile as they ascend slightly to the base of the falls and the “Devil’s Punchbowl”. Depending on the season, the falls will either be flowing, or non-existent. And again, depending on the season, the pool will either be picturesque or full of stagnant water. From this point, hikers can linger as long as they like (but not cliff dive or drink alcohol) before returning back to the trailhead via the same trail. The trail is six miles of roundtrip distance, and does feature a thousand feet of elevation gain, which mostly comes on the return to the trailhead.
Difficulty/Disclaimers. The most obvious disclaimer is the following: if you attempt this hike from Memorial Day through November 1, you will probably not see a waterfall at all. Period. While rainfall totals and seasons vary by year, this general rule is almost always applicable as San Diego is a desert climate, and most likely always will be a desert climate. If you are dead-set on seeing the falls flowing, you will need to obtain a permit for January-mid-April. I have done this hike twice, once before the permit system in August, and once after the permit system in April. When I went in August, the waterfall was not flowing at all. Correspondingly, while the hike was nice, I did not find it to be that impressive. When I went on this hike this year in April, when there were spring flowers, and a waterfall, which made it much more enjoyable. The moral of the story here: when you go will affect how you perceive the hike.
Along these lines, it is worth noting that ever since the 2003 Cedar Fire, the hike and the area is largely exposed. This means that for most of the year, even during winter months, the hike will be hot. From Memorial Day through November 1, temperatures in the region can regularly reach 95 degrees; and temperatures in excess of 100 are not uncommon. These hot temperatures, combined with the lack of cover means that the conditions are somewhat challenging for many people. Hikers should be prepared with an ample amount of water for their group and pets. This is something that the Forest Service also regularly checks and cautions against at the trailhead.
Finally, while difficulty is a subjective thing to judge, this is a hike that is in my opinion, moderate and suitable for most hikers. Having said that, extreme temperatures, lack of water, and lack of preparation can raise the difficulty for this hike substantially. In addition to my many warnings, the Forest Service provides a number of warnings online, and will also do so through a number of signs and in-person contacts at the trail. If you are attempting this trail, be safe, be prepared, and enjoy seeing San Diego’s largest seasonal waterfall.