San Diego's Five Best Waterfall Hikes

With miles of pristine beaches, rolling chaparral covered hills, and a constant semi-arid desert climate, San Diego will never be identified as one of the hot spots for waterfalls or hikes to waterfalls. However, unbeknownst to many people, from December through Memorial Day, San Diego does have a number of great seasonal waterfall hikes that highlight some of the best features of the county’s backcountry. As all of these waterfalls are seasonal, timing is everything, and also somewhat dependent on the weather pattern for the year. During wet winters and springs, these waterfalls will have high flows, and creek crossings; and during drought years, there may only be a trickle and dry stream beds. Similarly, with respect to timing, at the right times, these waterfalls can and will appear spectacular – but at the wrong times, may be a letdown after a hot, dusty trek. Keeping all that in mind, these hikes can also be great gateways to explore other regions of San Diego County, and again, at the right times, great spots to view spring wildflowers. I’ve listed the below hikes in order of difficulty, and let me know your thoughts about them, or any additions you have to the list below!

Although seasonal, the Oak Canyon Cascades can be quite powerful at times.

1) Oak Canyon, Mission Trails Regional Park. At three miles of mostly flat roundtrip distance, Oak Canyon is both the easiest hike in the group in terms of difficulty and of access, as its trailhead is located at the Old Mission Dam. Over the course of one and a half miles, a hiker will walk past rustling oaks, and up through a canyon that may have flowing water. The end payoff point is a series of small but charming seasonal falls that cascade over a series of rocks.

Depending on the year and the season, the trail to the Oak Canyon Falls may also have water on it.

Tips: As Mission Trails is located in the heart of San Diego, this hike is popular year-round, especially during the springtime. For those looking for an experience with fewer hikers and runners, a weekday hike, or an early morning hike is a great way to beat the crowds.

Tucked away in Cuyamaca State Park, Harper's Creek and its seasonal falls are a secluded find.

2) Harper’s Creek, Cuyamaca State Park. Harper’s Creek is one of the lesser known waterfalls in San Diego county, and is located up a canyon a short distance from popular hikes such as Cuyamaca Peak and Stonewall Peak. To access Harper’s Creek and waterfall, hikers will follow the East Side trail for two and three quarter miles, before crossing the creek toward the falls (5.5 miles roundtrip). During the wet months, the creek may be flowing as much as knee high. Again, the end payoff point is a series of small but charming cascades over a series of rocks.

Harper's Creek is also a great spot to see wildflowers during the spring.

Tips: Most of the East Side Trail passes through meadows before hooking east toward the waterfalls, which provides great opportunities to view wildlife during the early morning hours, and wildflowers during the springtime.

Kitchen Creek Falls are the first waterfalls to be found along the length of the Pacific Crest Trail.

3) Kitchen Creek Falls, Cleveland National Forest. Over the course of its two thousand mile length, the Pacific Crest Trail passes many fine waterfalls. Although it may not be the largest, or the most spectacular, the first waterfall on the trail is and always will be Kitchen Creek Falls. Unlike the first two hikes on this list, the trip to Kitchen Creek Falls does involve some elevation gain and loss over the five mile roundtrip hike, and a steep descent toward the falls. However, the area around the falls can be explored, and there are numerous cascades that are visible during the rainy season.

Tips: Located off of Buckman Springs Road on Interstate 8, the trip to Kitchen Creek Falls requires a substantial commitment of driving within the county, almost an hour one way. Separately, the rocks around the falls are quite slick, irrespective of whether there is water in the falls or not.

Cedar Creek Falls is San Diego's tallest waterfall and one of its most popular hikes.

4) Cedar Creek Falls, Cleveland National Forest. Along with Three Sisters Falls below, Cedar Creek is one of the most popular waterfalls in San Diego County year round. Cedar Creek Falls is also the tallest waterfall in the county with a sixty foot high cascade. At six miles of roundtrip distance, the trail does not sound too daunting; but in reality, as an out-and-back trail, hikers must ascend up three miles of steep terrain to return to the parking area under exposed conditions. Despite this challenge, this is a popular hike for locals and visitors alike, irrespective if the waterfall is flowing or not.

Depending on the time of year, the hike to Cedar Creek Falls also features a number of wildflowers.

Tips: A permit is required for this hike, and each hiker must have one to attempt the hike. Hikers should also be prepared with plenty of water for this hike, as temperatures can reach 90-100 degrees on the exposed switchbacks from March on.

Three Sisters Falls is San Diego's most popular waterfall, but is a challenging hike.

5) Three Sisters Falls, Cleveland National Forest. Hands down, the most popular waterfall hike within the county is also the most challenging waterfall hike in the county. Hikers must traverse a steep use-trail (non-mantained) down into the canyon where three separate cascades flow into a creek. To exit, hikers must follow the same steep and exposed trail back to their car. While the Three Sisters has been compared to a mini-Yosemite series of waterfalls during wet seasons, it is also a region that has required numerous rescues over the years along its six miles.

The hike to Three Sisters features a steep downhill descent to the falls, and a steep uphill ascent to the trailhead.

Tips: While the use-trail is very well-used, hikers should be prepared for routefinding, and have plenty of water due to the exposed nature of the hike. The area also has a great deal of poison oak year round, and those wishing to go in the water and slide down the cascades should monitor the conditions accordingly, as there have been numerous fall injuries and deaths.

Maidenhair Falls in Hellhole Canyon is a great spot to visit, and see desert wildlife.

Honorable Mention – Maidenhair Falls, Hellhole Canyon, Anza-Borrego State Park. Located on the far edge of San Diego County in Anza-Borrego State Park, Maidenhair Falls is a great seasonal waterfall that exists two and a half miles up Hellhole Canyon, and is a great spot to view desert wildlife, including bighorn sheep, and desert wildflowers during the spring blooms.