San Diego County is an amazing spot with a number of well-known hikes, such as Cowles Mountain (the tallest point within the city confines), El Cajon Mountain (San Diego’s toughest hike), Potato Chip Rock (San Diego’s biggest social media-post-hike), Cedar Creek Falls (the other of San Diego’s most popular waterfall hikes), Broken Hill (San Diego’s best coastal view hike), and last but not least, the hike to Three Sisters Falls. Like all of the hikes on this least, the trek to Three Sisters Falls is, and has been popular for an extended period of time, even during the summer of drought years, when the waterfalls become a trickle, and can be nonexistent. Like Cedar Creek Falls, the hike to Three Sisters Falls has also had its share of bad publicity, with hikers leaving trash, hikers needing to be rescued, and hikers on occasion, dying. While these items led to a permitting system at Cedar Creek, at the moment, the hike to the Three Sisters remains, by and large, unregulated, although as of 2016, plans are potentially in the works to make the “trail” safer for all skill levels of hikers. Despite the past and present risks, the hike to Three Sisters is a unique San Diego backcountry experience that despite the crowds, lives up to the hype surrounding it.
The Drive: Unlike many San Diego hikes, getting to Three Sisters Falls is a bit of a challenge. Located in the Cleveland National Forest, Three Sisters Falls is roughly halfway in between the town of Descanso, and the town of Julian, off a graded dirt road. Correspondingly, there are two ways to get to the trailhead. For visitors coming from the northern portions of San Diego County, one will want to follow Highway 78 east toward Julian. At the town of Santa Ysabel (home to Dudley’s Bakery), Highway 78 becomes Highway 79, which visitors will want to continue to follow East, toward Julian. After seven and a half miles (some two and a half miles before Julian), visitors will want to turn right on Pine Hills Road. This road is also signed for numerous local camps, including YMCA and Girl Scouts, and is therefore easy to spot. From the turnoff, one will want to follow the road for 1.6 miles, and at that point, make a right turn onto Eagle Peak Road, which intersects with Boulder Creek Road.
All of these roads – Pine Hills, Eagle Peak, and Boulder Creek are narrow, and while paved, should be driven with caution due to the their tight turns. From the Eagle Peak/Boulder Creek Junction, visitors will follow Boulder Creek for 5.8 miles to the trailhead. Along this drive, one will have great views of the western half of San Diego County. While Boulder Creek is an unpaved road, it is generally in excellent condition, and does not usually require 4WD. Alternatively one can also follow Interstate 8 east, and exit at the 79 North off-ramps toward Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and Descanso. From Descanso, visitors will want to proceed to Boulder Creek Road, which as mentioned above, is unpaved, and will want to follow it for thirteen miles to the trailhead. Because of the hike’s popularity, while the trailhead is not marked with a “Three Sisters” specific sign, there is a metal gate on a bend in the road; and given the hike’s popularity, there will almost always be cars parked next to it. On average, from either of these routes, it will generally take one 45 minutes to an hour to reach the trailhead from various points in San Diego County.
The Route. Three Sisters Falls is a classic “out-and-back” hike, meaning that one hikes out the same way one came in. While there is no “approved” or “official” trail that is maintained, enough parties have visited the area over the years to make a wide, well-beaten track that leads to Boulder Creek, and the falls. While there are other foot paths that deviate from the route I will describe, these are trails that have been cut by parties that have a great deal of experience in the area, or parties that have been lost. Either way, these much smaller, narrower and obscured routes are not the standard routes, and should only be followed at a hiker’s own discretion and risk. The route is just at four miles of roundtrip distance; however, again, depending on how much one wants to explore or expand their hike along Boulder Creek, the distance can vary upwards into the five mile roundtrip zone.
From the parking area, there is a metal gate, and a number of warning signs which the trail passes between, heading down a mild ridgeline. After a moderate ten minute downhill walk, the trail makes a left (south) turn, and begins angling downhill. From this point, one can see the falls – or the absence of falls in the distance. The trail then winds around a number of moderate switchbacks, and a seasonal creek crossing, before crossing a short saddle. Once past the short saddle (the one mile mark), the trail begins to descend steeply into the canyon.
The “Ropes”. A tenth of a mile into the descent, hikers will encounter a section of the hillside that has literally been eroded by tens of thousands – if not hundreds of thousands of feet. This section is steep, and also highlights the need for an actual trail – or trail maintenance. In an effort to make things better, some kind souls have tied off ropes in three sections along this point: near the top (attached to a bush); in the middle (affixed to a rock); and near the bottom (also affixed to a rock). As a mountaineer and climber, I feel like I would be remiss if I did not mention that all of these ropes are regular garden-variety hardware store rope that has been left out in the elements for an unknown period of time and are in unknown condition.
In my personal opinion, having climbed many things and done many things, I feel there is no need for these ropes, and by extension, the use of these ropes, especially as there are numerous foot paths that allow one to descend safely without any aid. Having said that, I also realize that for many people, this hike is the first “extreme” thing they have done – or attempted, and as such, there is a perception that they need the ropes to descend safely. Again, I would note that using an unsecured rope or poorly secured rope on a dirt slope of unknown quality is riskier than descendingon one’s own, but in the end, everyone must do what they deem best to safely descend, now knowing the risks of the rope and the slope and appreciating them for what they are.
Once past the slope, the trail levels out and heads through brush to Boulder Creek. Depending on the season, and the amount of rain the region has received, one may be walking through some seasonal flow, but in any event, hikers will be traveling through thick shrub and brush which has a number of footpaths leading through the area. While the risk of getting lost is low, given that the creek is readily visible at this point, hikers should be aware of the risk of poison oak and ticks in the undergrowth. Once one reaches Boulder Creek, depending on how high the flow of the creek is, one can hike up it through a path laid out by a number of red spray painted arrows, or bypass the route via a foot trail that is some fifteen to twenty feet above the creek. Either way, the distances are equivalent. After a short walk, one will find themselves at first the lowest sister, approaching the middle, and the upper sister. While one can walk all the way to the top of the final sister, the last sections are over eroded rock, which even during the dry months can be slippery on their own. Hikers should exercise proper judgment and caution based on their skill levels and the conditions present in electing how to proceed through one – or all of the falls. Once one is done at the falls, the route back is the same described above, but is somewhat more difficult based on the fact that one must ascend the steep slope one descended earlier.
Tips. First, as noted above, this hike is one of the most popular in San Diego, hands down, year round. On my last visit with my friend Josh of California Through My Lens, it was a Wednesday – and the trail was still busy. Hikers should be aware that unlike many hikes in the county, solitude is scarce on this trail. Second, while poison oak is a plant that grows rampantly when it has access to water, and much less so when it does not, it is scattered over most of the course of the hike. Hikers should take proper precautions to avoid coming in contact with it.
Third, irrespective of skill level, hikers should be prepared with plenty of water for this hike, no matter the time of year. The entire trail is exposed, and during the summer months, it is regularly quite hot. While water consumption is dependent on many factors, a great starting place for each hiker is 1.5L (48 oz), if not substantially more. Fourth, while the falls are popular for swimming and sliding, individuals should exercise good judgment as to the proper times to enter the water and attempt certain things. Finally, hikers should attempt to exercise leave no trace principles on the hike, meaning that they should pack in what they pack out – and this means trash. While the area is cleaner than it has been over the years, there is still room for improvement in terms of preserving the area. Above all else, irrespective of skill, everyone should enjoy the hike, and appreciate the area. For a unique video of the area, check out this link here from California Through My Lens.