Difficulty PG13 Distance 5.1 to 10 miles General information: Dogs allowed General information: Waterfall hikes Rating: 7-8 San Diego County - Mountains & Eastern county Season: Fall/Early Winter Season: Late Winter/Spring

Cedar Creek Falls (West Approach)


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Cedar Creek Falls, Cleveland National Forest, San Diego County, CA
Cedar Creek Falls
Eagle Peak seen from the San Diego River Gorge Trail, Cleveland National Forest, San Diego County, CA
Eagle Peak from the San Diego River Gorge Trail

Cedar Creek Falls (West Approach)

  • Location: 15519 Thornbush Road, Ramona. From Escondido, follow Highway 78 east for about 18 miles. In downtown Ramona when Highway 78 turns left, stay straight and follow 10th St., which soon becomes San Vicente Road, for a total of 6.8 miles. Turn left on Ramona Oaks and follow it 2.9 miles to Thornbush Road. Turn right on Thornbush and follow it 0.2 miles to the parking area. From Poway, take Highway 67 to Dye Road (6.1 miles northeast of the junction with Poway Road). Turn right and follow Dye 1.8 miles where it turns left and becomes Ramona St. Follow Ramona 0.4 miles and turn right on Warnock. Go 0.8 miles and turn right on San Vicente. Follow San Vicente Road 4.8 miles to Ramona Oaks. Turn left and follow Ramona Oaks 2.9 miles to Thornbush. Turn right and drive to the parking area. Restrooms and water are available at the trail head. Dogs are allowed but not recommended. To purchase the required permit ($6 for a group of up to five) click here. If you have a Smartphone, you can buy the permit at the trail head but plan on 10-15 minutes’ processing time. Note that the permit is only required for visiting the area around the falls; the first two miles of the hike don’t require it.
  • Agency: Cleveland National Forest/Palomar Ranger District
  • Distance: 5.4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,050 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Elevation gain, distance)
  • Suggested time: 3 hours
  • Best season: November – June; sunrise to sunset
  • USGS topo map: “Santa Ysabel”
  • Recommended gear: sun hat; sunblock; hiking poles
  • More information: Yelp page here; trip descriptions here and here; articles about the history of the trail and its current regulations here and here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 8

The good news is that the San Diego River Gorge Trail provides a route to Cedar Creek Falls that is more convenient and accessible than the trail from south of Julian. The bad news is that over use and reckless behavior from some visitors has caused the implementation of a permit system. In addition to seeing its share of cliff-jumping type accidents, Cedar Creek Falls is a reverse hike through almost entirely exposed terrain in an area that gets very hot during the summer. Hikers who aren’t prepared for a long ascent can find themselves hating life on the return from Cedar Creek (the approaches from both directions are reverse hikes.)

Information board at the Cedar Creek Falls Trail Head, Cleveland National Forest, San Diego County, CA
0:00 – Info board at the trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

Despite the caveats, the scenic rewards of this hike are considerable. Even if the waterfall is barely a trickle, which is the case as of this writing, this is still one of the better hikes in San Diego County. The trail from Ramona is moderately graded and easy to follow.

Descending switchbacks on the San Diego River Gorge Trail, Cleveland National Forest, San Diego County, CA
0:18 – Descending the switchbacks (times are approximate)

From the trail head, pass by an information board with dire warnings about heat stroke and and other potential hazards and begin the descent. As you make your way down the wide switchbacks, you get a panoramic view of the San Diego River Gorge below, with Eagle Peak towering above on the opposite side. Beyond are the higher summits of the Cuyamacas. You may also notice the trail from the east cutting its way down the hill side. Distance markers at quarter-mile intervals mark your progress.

At just over two miles, you reach the attractive floodplain of the San Diego River, dotted with oaks and sycamores. Almost immediately after you come to a junction with the trail from Julian. It is only beyond this point that the permit is required. Stay straight and follow the canyon of Cedar Creek, crossing the stream bed a few times. The trail becomes somewhat rocky but never too difficult.

Trees and mountains on the San Diego River Gorge Trail, Cleveland National Forest, San Diego County, CA
0:25 – Change in the foliage as the trail descends

At about 2.7 miles from the start, the top of the 80-foot waterfall comes into view. You find yourself at a large pool nicknamed the Punchbowl, lined with rocks and a few shallow inlets. Here you can sit and enjoy the scene; though it’s only a few air miles from civilization it feels far more isolated. Make sure you rest up for the ascent back.

San Diego River Flood Plain, Cleveland National Forest, CA
0:50 – Greenery on the San Diego River flood plain, shortly before the junction

Text and photography copyright 2015 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.

Punchbowl, Cedar Creek Falls, Cleveland National Forest, San Diego County, CA
1:05 – Punchbowl at Cedar Creek Falls
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