In memory of Rob Melone
Three Sisters Falls
- Location: Cleveland National Forest between Descanso and Julian, San Diego County. From I-8, take the Highway 79 exit (40) and head north for 1.3 miles. Turn left on Riverside Drive and go 0.9 mile to the “downtown” area of Descanso. At the market, turn left on Viejas Grade and make an immediate right on Oak Grove Drive. In 1.6 mile, turn right onto Boulder Creek Road. You will follow this road a total of 13 miles to the trail head. The first five miles are paved and the last 8 are dirt/gravel, but passable for all cars despite a few rough spots. There are a few spots that can become flooded following recent rains. The trail head is at a hairpin turn in the road and is well signed (you will probably see at least one other car parked here). Alternately from Highway 79 in Julian, take Pine Hills Rd. south for 1.6 miles. Turn right onto Eagle Peak Rd. and go 1.4 miles. Bear left onto Boulder Creek Road, following it for a total of 8.4 miles to the trail head. Until recently a National Forest Service adventure pass ($5 per day or $30 per year) was required for parking here; because there are no facilities at the trailhead, passes are no longer required. (For a list of sites in the Cleveland National Forest that still require the pass, click here. If you would like to purchase a pass just to be sure, or to use at other sites, click here).
- Agency: Cleveland National Forest/Palomar District
- Distance: 3.8 miles
- Elevation gain: 1,100 feet
- Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Steepness, terrain, trail condition)
- Suggested time: 3 hours
- Best season: December – June
- Recommended gear: sun hat (some people might find hiking poles helpful, but they may also be an encumbrance on the steep and rocky slopes and while boulder hopping in the stream)
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield San Diego County
- Dogs: Allowed but not recommended due to the difficult terrain and possibility of extreme heat
- Cell phone reception: None for most of the hike; weak to fair in some spots
- Water: Stream water may be drinkable with a filter
- Restrooms: None
- Camping/backpacking: Remote/dispersed camping may be possible on some parts of the trail. For permitting information, click here.
- More information: Trip descriptions here, here, here and here; Yelp page here; video of the waterfall here
- Rating: 8
It’s one of San Diego County’s most popular, adventurous and in some circles infamous hikes. It features panoramic mountain views, riparian habitats, exposed slopes, a steep and rocky descent and ascent, boulder scrambling and a waterfall that is not to be missed after heavy rains–all in two miles each way. It is Three Sisters Falls and it is hike #900 to be posted on this website.
Like nearby Cedar Creek Falls, Three Sisters requires hikers to know what they are getting themselves into. According to this article, five helicopter rescues were made between the two waterfalls in one day in June, 2016. While both waterfalls are reverse hikes (down than up) in area that often sees triple digit temperatures during the summer, Three Sisters has the added challenge of a very steep and loose descent and more difficult boulder scrambling to get to the falls. That said, well-prepared hikers who make the trek will be amazed, especially during wet winters. When the falls are at full blast, they are stunning; even if they aren’t at their peak, the variety of scenery and the sense of adventure (and bragging rights) are worth the effort to reach and complete this hike.
The trail starts off innocently enough (despite three posted signs with dire warnings about the conditions ahead). You follow an abandoned service road along a ridge, enjoying views of Eagle Peak straight ahead and the Cuyamaca Mountains behind. You may be able to pick out the Santa Anas in the distance, far off to the northwest. After passing a knoll dotted with oaks, the trail descends to a saddle about 2/3 of a mile from the start. You should be able to hear and see the waterfall by this point.
Take a hard left on a somewhat obscure trail that descends along the slope, soon reaching Sheep Camp Creek (1 mile from the start.) The shaded stretch of trail along the creek is the most peaceful part of the hike. You follow the trail to a saddle (1.3 miles) with a wide area that could be a good spot for camping. The trail skirts the edge of the canyon for another 0.1 mile before the steep descent begins.
In the next 0.3 mile, you drop almost 500 feet down a rocky (sometimes wet) slope, aided by four ropes that have been left by volunteers. (If you are wary of the ropes and you are willing to use your hands and your ‘fifth limb’ then you may be able to make your way down without them). The last two ropes, though shorter, are the most treacherous as the terrain is likely to be wetter than higher up on the exposed hillside.
At the bottom, you can rest on a boulder at a pleasant clearing beneath two oaks. Head upstream (left) toward the sound of the waterfalls. At this point, the best route may depend on the water level of Boulder Creek. It’s possible to navigate the east side (stream on your right) of the canyon without crossing the stream on a network of use trails that have been beaten into the ground. You can also wade through sections of the creek, but it may well be waist-high. Whether you ford the creek or stick to the higher route, expect to engage in some boulder-hopping over the next 0.2 mile.
Depending on your chosen route, you will probably end up between the lower and middle sisters. The middle is the tallest, dropping about 50 feet into a large pool. With the cascading water on one side and a dramatic view down the canyon on the other, this is a good spot to rest up for the steep ascent back. Intrepid hikers who can negotiate rocky slopes that are likely to be slippery can make it to the base, or even the top, of the next waterfall, but that is only advisable for the experienced and skilled. If you do decide to climb higher, make sure you keep energy for the strenuous return.
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.