Cottonwood Creek Falls
- Location: Cleveland National Forest, southeastern San Diego County. From I-8 about 40 miles east of San Diego and 10 miles east of Alpine, take the Sunrise Highway/S1 exit (47) and head northeast for 1.8 miles. Just before mile marker 15.5, you’ll come to two large dirt lots on either side of the road. Park in the lot on the west side (even though you’ll have to cross the street to get to the trail, it’s more accessible from here than from the lot on the east side of the road).
- Agency: Cleveland National Forest/Descanso District
- Distance: 1.8 miles
- Elevation gain: 500 feet
- Difficulty Rating: PG
- Suggested time: 1 hour
- Best season: December – June
- Dogs: Allowed (rocky terrain may be difficult on their paws)
- Cell phone reception: Good to fair on the descent to Cottonwood Creek; none in the creek itself
- Water: If there is enough water in the creek, filtering it may be an option
- Restrooms: None
- Camping/backpacking: Possible on the banks of the creek. Permit required. For information on remote/dispersed camping in the Cleveland National Forest, click here.
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield San Diego County
- More information: Articles about the hike here and here; Yelp page here; video of the falls here
- Rating: 6
In eastern San Diego County, where mountains and desert exist side by side, there can be more than meets the eye. Case in point: Cottonwood Creek, where snow melt from Mt. Laguna cascades through a seemingly dry landscape. On cool days following recent rains, San Diego hikers won’t want to miss this trip.
The two small tiers of Cottonwood Creek Falls make a more enjoyable destination than the hike’s indifferent beginning would suggest. From the northern end of the lot, carefully cross the road and look for an unmarked use trail that starts by the utility pole. The somewhat overgrown trail drops steeply into a thicket of maznanitas that create a near-tunnel. At one point, you’ll have to avoid cacti while ducking underneath manzanita branches. The trail soon enters a more open landscape, still rocky and loose in spots but easier to navigate. As you descend, following the power lines above, the noise from the Sunrise Highway vanishes, but don’t be surprised if you hear shots from the nearby Green Head Gun Club. Lower still, the creek comes into view and you may hear the croaking of frogs.
At 0.7 mile, the descent ends at a jeep trail. Head left, passing by some oaks and soon the trail peters out at the banks of Cottonwood Creek. From here, make your way upstream, most likely by some moderate boulder scrambling along the left (west) bank. Keep an eye out for a few cacti plants sticking out from between the rocks. You soon reach the lower tier which cascades about 10 feet down a granite slope. With caution, the rocks on the left side of the waterfall can be negotiated, bringing you to the upper tier. The falls drop along a rock wall marked by gray, tan and white stripes of sediment, collecting in a pool at the base. The sound of the water and the view down canyon make this an enjoyable spot to rest before heading back.
Photo gallery (click thumbnails to see 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.