- Location: Cleveland National Forest, southwest of Julian. From Highway 78 (5.7 miles east of the junction with Highway 79 at Santa Ysabel, 21 miles east of Ramona and 38 miles east of Escondido) head south on Pine Hills Road for 1.6 miles. Bear left onto Eagle Peak Road and follow it for a total of 9.4 miles to the trailhead, known as Saddleback. Note: Eagle Peak Road is single-lane and winding, so exercise caution. Additionally, much of the road is dirt. A high clearance vehicle is recommended, although with care, standard passenger vehicles should be able to make the trip. Allow at least half an hour from Pine Hills Road in each direction. A permit ($6 for up to 5 people) is required.
- Agency: Cleveland National Forest/Palomar Ranger District
- Distance: 5.6 miles
- Elevation gain: 1,100 feet
- Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Elevation gain, terrain)
- Suggested time: 3 hours
- Best season: November – April
- Dogs: Allowed but not recommended due to the heat
- Cell phone reception: None
- Water: None (if Cedar Creek is flowing, there may be enough water to filter for the hike back up, but it’s debatable if it’s worth carrying the extra weight of the filtration device)
- Restrooms: None
- Camping/backpacking: None (Saddleback is open for day use only); camping is available at nearby William Heise County Park in Julian. While the Saddleback trail head does not have a gate as the Ramona trail head does, overnight parking here is at your own risk.
- More information: Trip descriptions here and here; Trip Advisor page here
- Rating: 9
Updated March 2019
Known as both a spectacular destination and a death trap, Cedar Creek Falls is one of San Diego County’s most talked about hiking areas. If there have been recent rains, the hike to the 100-foot waterfall is a must do for anyone in decent physical shape. Even if water levels are low, the dramatic mountain and canyon views are not to be missed, whether you travel from the more easily accessible Ramona trail head or the more remote starting point described in this post.
The danger of this hike is that both routes require a long, exposed ascent to return to the parking area. Hikers who start out in the morning may face unrelenting mid-day heat on the way up and those who don’t bring enough water may face deadly consequences (especially if alcohol has been involved, which is frequently the case.)
Warnings aside, if circumstances are right, this is an outstanding trip – arguably the best waterfall hike in San Diego County, if not all of So Cal. The approach from the east is even better than the Ramona route: due to its remote location (though the two trail heads are only a few miles apart as the crow flies, driving between them takes more than an hour) it attracts fewer hikers, so you will have more solitude, at least until you get to the bottom. Additionally, while the Ramona trail head is just outside of a suburban neighborhood, the extra time required to reach the Saddleback trail head, much of which is on a long, winding dirt road, underscores how remote the hike is and how difficult a rescue would be.
If you are lucky, you may get a view of Mildred Falls, believed to be the tallest waterfall in San Diego County, from the trail head. Unfortunately, there is no safe or legal access to this impressive waterfall, so unless you are willing to risk your life and record, settle for enjoying the view from afar. (Click here if you are still tempted).
The trail descends steadily for 2.2 miles, dropping over 1,000 feet to the San Diego River gorge. On the way, you will enjoy outstanding views of the gorge. If there have been heavy rains, you will also enjoy the sight of California golden poppies dotting the hillsides. Other wildflowers you may see include lupine, Indian paintbrush and non-native black mustard.
The switchbacking trail from Ramona becomes visible as you descend, and you will probably start hearing voices of hikers coming down or up. At 2.2 miles, you reach the junction. Head left (east) toward the waterfall. There are two stream crossings that may be a little tricky if water levels are high. Near the waterfall, some easy rock scrambling is required.
At 2.8 miles from the start, you reach Cedar Creek Falls, which drops over the edge of a cliff into a large pool. Swimming or jumping off the cliffs is prohibited.
Text and photography copyright 2019 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.