Kitchen Creek Falls
- Location: Boulder Oaks Campground, Cleveland National Forest. From San Diego, head east on Interstate 8 for about 50 miles. Take the Buckman Springs Rd. exit (51), turn right and make the first left onto Old Highway 80. Go 2.1 miles to a large dirt turnout on the right side of the road, just outside the campground.
- Agency: Cleveland National Forest/Descanso District
- Distance: 4.8 miles
- Elevation gain: 900 feet
- Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Terrain, steepness, navigation)
- Suggested time: 2.5 hours
- Best season: December – May
- Recommended gear: sun hat hiking poles
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield San Diego County
- Dogs: Allowed (exercise caution during warm days; some dogs may require assistance on the rock scrambling)
- Cell phone reception: Good on Pacific Crest Trail; weak to none in the canyon
- Water: Stream water may be drinkable with a filter
- Restrooms: None
- Camping/backpacking: Boulder Oaks Campground; remote/dispersed camping may be possible on some parts of the trail or in the wide clearing above the waterfall. For permitting information, click here.
- More information: Trip descriptions here, here, here and here; video of the waterfall here
- Rating: 8
This is a hike of contrasts: oak-dotted valleys and desert terrain; easy travel along the Pacific Crest Trail and a difficult descent and ascent along a use trail; noise from traffic and cascading water. Add it all up and you have a favorite of adventurous San Diego hikers, well worth a visit after heavy rains, even for Orange County and L.A. residents. The multiple tiers of Kitchen Creek Falls are estimated to add up to 150 feet. It’s difficult to get a look at the entire thing, even after negotiating the steep drop from the ridge below the Pacific Crest Trail but the panoramic mountain and valley views on the way and the challenging scrambling make this hike rewarding even if there’s not much water.
Begin by crossing Old Highway 80 and a shallow drainage ditch, looking for a giant oak with a Pacific Crest Trail decal nailed to it. Pick up the P.C.T. and head underneath the Interstate 8 bridge. The trail switchbacks up an oak-dotted slope, then traverses a manzanita-covered hillside. Keep an eye out for a few cholla and prickly pear cacti. The noise from I-8 fades as you head first southeast and then northeast. From this vantage point, the views of Pine Valley and the Laguna Mountains are panoramic.
At about two miles from the start, just opposite a P.C.T. sign post, an unsigned but fairly clear use trail branches off to the left (if you find yourself making a sharp bend to the right, you’ve come too far.) Follow the trail along a ridge where it drops to a bench and forks. The right fork leads downhill to a pleasant area of Kitchen Creek above the falls; those who don’t want to make the steep drop to the base of the falls might find this an enjoyable alternative. To reach the base of the falls, bear left on a faded trail that soon drops steeply, requiring hands as well as feet, before reaching a large flat area. Here, one can scramble down the rocks on the north side of the clearing and reach a spot just above the falls. However, for those who want to get to the base, the most difficult part is ahead. (Note that Google Maps shows the falls as being about 0.1 mile north of its actual location).
Look for a use trail that drops off the southwestern side of the clearing and follow it down to the banks of Kitchen Creek, some two hundred feet below. The terrain is loose and rocky, but soon levels out somewhat. The exact route to the creek may vary; as you get lower, it should be easy to find a path of least resistance. Head upstream along the side of the creek or by boulder hopping. Soon the bottom tier of the waterfall comes into view. Depending on how comfortable you are with rock scrambling, you can climb a little higher to see more of it. Either way, this is an excellent spot to enjoy some well-earned solitude while restoring energy for the steep climb out of the canyon.
Photo gallery (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)
Text and photography copyright 2017 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.