Cedar Creek Falls was certainly one of the most attractive (if not the most attractive) waterfalls in San Diego County. What made it so appealing was the bare rocks enclosing the rocky oasis-like grotto into which the vertical 80ft or so waterfall dropped. Adding to the scenic allure of the falls was some impressive mountain scenery backing the San Diego River basin. In fact, this waterfall seemed to grow so much in popularity in recent years (it definitely felt busier on our most recent visit in 2016 than when I first made this writeup back in 2008) that the authorities now require permits to do this hike (more on this later).
As you can see from the photo at the top of this page, the recognition and popularity was well-deserved. However, that picture was taken only a couple of days after a freak snowstorm hit the Julian area so it was pretty much at or near peak flow as far as I'm concerned. In our experiences, this waterfall tended to have a pretty short season, and it's very dependent on how much snow had accumulated in the watersheds that ultimately drained into Cedar Creek. On Julie's first visit to this waterfall back in early May 2001, it was completely dry. Recently in 2016, we made a visit here a little over two weeks after the previous major system that passed through here produced a lot of snow. You'll see in the photos below that the flow was noticeably less than the one shown at the top of this page. The bottom line is that the more time has passed since the last storm, the more limited the amount of water in the falls will be. Therefore, I'd say late Spring and Summer would not be good times to visit due to the lack of waterflow and the higher temperatures, which can be downright dangerous if you don't know what you're getting yourself into with this hike.
Speaking of the permits, the system was implemented around 2012 after too many injuries and fatalities had occurred on this trail as well as the cliffs surrounding the waterfall. We noticed on the online reservation site (the link can be found through the USDA website) that there was a daily limit of 75 permits issued per day. We managed to book our permit for a Saturday of our most recent visit just a couple days prior to our arrival. We didn't need to get permits on any of our visits prior to 2012. That said, I'd imagine availability can vary, especially with this falls maintaining its popularity on social media and on hiking blogs. In any case, by limiting access, it seemed to have curbed the number of rescues.
As for the hike itself, there are actually two different approaches to the waterfall - the west entrance at the San Diego Country Estates accessed from Ramona and the east entrance at the Saddleback Hill accessed from Julian (see directions to both trailheads below). Both trails require similar hiking distances of just under 6 miles round trip, and they're both upside down hikes (meaning you descend to the falls and hike up on the way out). Therefore, despite the obvious trails and lack of off-trail scrambling, this hike can be deceptively strenuous. That said, of the two trails, by far the most popular method of doing this hike was from the Ramona side. I suspect the main reason for its popularity would be from the easy driving route to get there. It also didn't hurt that the Ramona side arguably had better scenery en route to the falls. So I'll first start with the trail description from the Ramona side.
West Entrance / San Diego River Trail ("The Ramona Side")
From the trailhead, we first had to find parking, which was very limited despite there being a modestly-sized parking lot along with some street parking. We noticed that the trailhead on this side seemed to be pretty built-up as it had restrooms as well as a picnic shelter with attractive views towards the homes within the San Diego Country Estates as well as the attractive mountains looking in the other direction towards the trail. Once past the trailhead, there was a supervised sign-in area where a worker would check for permits as well as evaluate how prepared you are for the hike or what condition you're in. We spoke to the lady who worked here, and she said that she had turned back people who arrived drunk (alcohol is prohibited), who attempted to hike in flip flops, or who didn't bring sufficient water).
Once past the check-in area, the trail then immediately traversed a fairly wide and very sun-exposed path with increasingly nice views towards the San Diego River basin and its backing mountains. Following this well-used trail was pretty straightforward though it was pretty much downhill from the get go. It seemed like there were posts with American flags attached to the top and trail signs indicating the trail progress spaced out roughly a quarter-mile apart at the beginning. Later on, they became even more spaced out. This trail descended a handful of long switchbacks before going around a short hill, then ultimately descending right to the bottom across the San Diego River.
Beyond the river, the trail then passed through a wooden fence with a wide opening for the trail itself. This fence technically marked the entrance to the permit area, and there was still roughly a half-mile to go before arriving at the base of Cedar Creek Falls. Beyond the fence, the now flat trail meandered between mountains then curved to the left as the ravine narrowed the further we went. After two easy crossings of Cedar Creek (requiring nothing more than rock hopping), we'd eventually get to the end of the trail, which featured a wide plunge pool, the beautiful Cedar Creek Falls, and lots of big boulders and cliffs fringing the plunge pool. Given the sheer popularity of this spot, the boulder scrambling to attain better views was a bit awkward at times, but with care, it wasn't too much of a problem.
Although it was no longer permitted to climb around the falls (we noticed at least one helicopter doing a circle around the end of the trail), that hadn't deterred people from scrambling up to one of the rock ledges to do a scary cliff jump into the plunge pool beneath Cedar Creek Falls. Typically, it would require a little over an hour at a relaxed pace to get to this point. However, the return hike would be all uphill, and without any shade along the trail, this is how heat exhaustion can kick in. So in order to avoid this, bringing at least two liters of water is recommended for this hike. It would typically take between 90 minutes to 2 hours to finish the relentlessly uphill climb to get back to the trailhead.
East Entrance / Saddleback Trail ("The Julian Side")
Each of our first three visits to Cedar Creek Falls was actually along this Saddleback Trail even though it was less popular. The main reasons were that we would typically either spend the night or visit the charming town of Julian, and the directions given in our California Waterfalls book by Ann Marie Brown were for this particular trail. It seemed like the Ramona side of the trail was newer and more improved over the years.
Anyways, the trail started off on what appeared to be a weather-worn fire road that was for foot traffic only as vehicles had been prohibited for quite a while. We could tell because this trail had lots of overgrowth while also containing quite a bit of water gullies and ruts from water cutting right into the surface over the years. Barely a minute or two into the hike, we were able to see Mildred Falls, which plunged conspicuously to our right. I'm sure with that waterfall, it would only be flowing right after a clearing storm (like the first time we saw it). When we showed up two weeks after a clearing storm several years later, we only saw a dark wet streak on the rock wall where Mildred Falls was supposed to flow.
The trail then hugged the mountain and curved to the left as it flanked the ravine cut through by the San Diego River. As we got closer to the river level, we were able to look across the basin towards the San Diego Country Estates, where we could spot the water tank and some homes near its trailhead as well as the zig-zagging trail itself. Roughly half-way towards the bottom of the descent, there was a trail junction where the left path climbed then followed Cedar Creek for roughly 1/4-mile or so before reaching the top of Cedar Creek Falls. This trail detour was not necessary to get to the front of the waterfall, but when Mom and I first did this hike in 2008, we didn't know any better (we even did a pretty dangerous scramble down a gully from the top of the falls to its base, which is now forbidden). By the way, this little detour entered the designated permit area so technically a permit would be required..
Continuing past the trail junction, we continued on the fairly wide trail hugging the mountainous slopes, and when we finally reached the San Diego River basin, that was when the trail was the widest as well as busiest as it joined with the trail from the Ramona side. At that point, we then turned left to go through the wooden fences (entering the permit area), and we'd continue the last half-mile to get to the base of the waterfall as described above in the Ramona-side trail description.
Like with the Ramona-side trail, when we returned back to the Saddleback Trailhead, we had to do a relentlessly long 2.5-mile or so uphill hike. Unlike the Ramona-side trail, the Julian-side trail actually had the benefit of some shade from the mountains that the trail was on. Furthermore, we only encountered a few hikers along this trail as opposed to the waves of hikers on the Ramona side. That said, we still managed to sweat a lot and drink most of our water during this uphill stretch even though we were here in the Winter each time we've done this side of the trail. I can only imagine just how much hotter and dehydrating it must be to do this hike on a hot day in the Spring and Summer months!
Overall, we spent about 3.5 hours on this 6-mile round trip excursion, which included the hiking as well as the time spent enjoying the waterfall. It should be noted that the trail description from the Ann Marie Brown book stated that the hiking distance was only 4.5 miles, but that was because she only went to the top of Cedar Creek Falls and back. I don't think at the time of her writing that she ever made it to the bottom via the trails described on this page.
Looking up the San Diego River from within the basin
Another look at Cedar Creek Falls with decent flow even after two weeks without significant precipitation since a series of storms hit Southern California in the first week of January 2016
Each time we've visited Cedar Creek Falls, we've either spent the night or just visited the charming town of Julian, where the apple pies here are so famous that people stand in long lines for them!
On the way to Julian, we passed by the San Diego Wild Animal Park, which was a nice place to let our daughter see some rare and endangered animals from around the world
The San Diego River Trailhead at the end of the Thornbush Road (i.e. the Ramona side of the trail)
As you can see, the Ramona side of the trail is pretty built-up with restroom facilities and a car park
The Ramona side also has an attractive picnic shelter with a view of the nice homes within the San Diego Country Estates
The Ramona side of the trail had us go by this check-in station, where there's typically someone on duty checking to see if you've got permits
Looking back at the nice homes of the San Diego Country Estates from the waterfall trail
Looking back at the water tank and car park for the trailhead at the Ramona side
Throughout the Ramona side of the Cedar Creek Falls Trail, there are posts like this telling you how far you are from both the trailhead and the waterfall
This view from the Ramona side of the trail is one of the reasons why I think it's the more scenic (as well as easier) of the two different ways to visit the falls
One of the switchbacks on the descent to (or ascent from) the waterfall
Another one of the progress indicators further along the Ramona-side trail
This part of the trail was flanked by wire fences to keep us on the main trail. It seemed like there used to be quite a bit of off-trail scrambling here in the past
Once we got to the San Diego River and into the permit area, the last half-mile was both scenic and flat
This was the first stream crossing
This was the second stream crossing
Once we finally arrived at Cedar Creek Falls, we could appreciate why it was so popular
Technically you're not supposed to climb around the Cedar Creek Falls, but the warnings and threats of citation didn't stop people like this guy from doing a daring plunge into the waterfall's pool
Mom checking out Cedar Creek Falls, when it was in higher flow in February 2008
Julie heading back out of the permit area
Looking way ahead at a group of folks starting the long climb back up to the trailhead by the San Diego Country Estates
The Saddleback Trailhead at the end of the Eagle Peak Road (i.e. the Julian side of the trail)
Mildred Falls in context as seen from the trailhead
We could tell this side of the trail was far less used than the Ramona side as evidenced by the amount of overgrowth flanking the beat-up former fire road
Julie further ahead on the trail as now the San Diego River basin came into view
The surface of the lesser-used Saddleback Trail from the Julian side was a bit rockier and overgrown in spots
Context of the Julian-side trail hugging the mountains as it makes its descent to the San Diego River
Julie passing by a trail junction where the left fork led towards the top of Cedar Creek Falls and therefore the signage here indicated that it was a permit area
Mom on the detour to the top of the falls (before it was a permit area back in 2008). This spur trail was roughly about a half-way down towards the basin (or possibly before).
The detour trail degenerated into a bit of a rock scramble that ended right at the top of Cedar Creek Falls
Looking down as we made the steep and treacherous scramble down the gully to the base of Cedar Creek Falls from its top (when we didn't know any better at the time; thankfully, you don't have to do this)
This closure sign further emphasized that the descent we made a while ago is now prohibited
Approaching Cedar Creek Falls (as seen in 2008)
Julie starting the long uphill climb back up to the Saddleback Trailhead
Looking back down at the Ramona Trail where people were still coming into the permit area; illustrating just how much busier that trail was compared to the one we took
Some parts of the Julian-side hike still had some shade, which provided some degree of momentary relief from the sun
One nice thing about all the overgrowth along the trail was that we happened to catch some wildflowers in bloom
Finally seeing Mildred Falls again, which meant that we were in the home stretch
Sweep examining the end of the trail where there was the waterfall and plunge pool shared with lots of people who made the hike here (mostly from the Ramona side)
Being a spectator to a daring lady who took a leap of faith off of a cliff and into the plunge pool beneath Cedar Creek Falls. Note: we don't condone this activity, and it's technically illegal to climb around the falls according to the Forest Service.
As mentioned earlier in the introduction above, there are two main trailhead accesses. So I'll provide directions to both with the driving directions starting from the town of Escondido at the junction of the I-15 and Hwy 78. In order to get to Escondido from Los Angeles, we could take the I-5 south to the Hwy 78 junction between Oceanside and Carlsbad, then head east on Hwy 78 towards Escondido (roughly 90 minutes drive without traffic). Or, we could head east towards the I-15, then head south on the I-15 to the Hwy 78 junction at Escondido (between 90 minutes to 2 hours without traffic).
From Escondido, I'll start with the directions to the more heavily-used and popular Ramona side of the Cedar Creek Falls Trail (i.e. more formally known as the San Diego River Trail). So continuing east on Hwy 78, the freeway would end, then we followed the Hwy 78 signs through the town of Escondido before it would eventually become a somewhat winding road leading towards the town of Ramona. It's roughly 18 miles or 30-45 minutes between Escondido to Ramona.
At the traffic light, keep straight to leave the Hwy 78 and get onto 10th street, which eventually becomes San Vicente Rd. Follow this road for just under 7 miles as it goes through the San Diego Country Estates (featuring golf courses and some seemingly new housing developments) before turning left onto Ramona Oaks Road. Then follow Ramona Oaks Rd for the next 3 miles before turning right onto Thornbush Rd. Follow Thornbush Road past some residential neighborhoods to the road's end, which is the trailhead for Cedar Creek Falls.
The entire drive is paved, and the trailhead itself has a modestly-sized parking lot as well as some limited street parking. However, I can foresee that if it gets too busy, the parking can spill over to the residential area, which may displease the residents who may threaten to tow if traffic is blocked. Overall, the drive from Escondido to this Ramona-side trailhead was roughly about an hour depending on traffic.
Now, from Escondido, we could also drive towards Julian, then follow some local roads from there towards the Julian-side trailhead for Cedar Creek Falls. So taking the familiar 18 mile drive along the Hwy 78 from Escondido to Ramona, then turn left at the traffic light to continue driving on the Hwy 78. Follow Hwy 78 for the next 21 miles to Pine Hill Road (which is about a mile before the four-way stop in Julian).
Turning right onto Pine Hill Road (or left if you're coming from Julian), continue for about 1.7 miles keeping right at a fork with Eagle Peak Road (the left fork is to stay on Pine Hill Rd). After another 1.3 miles or so, stay right to remain on Eagle Peak Road (avoiding Boulder Creek Road, which branches left). Then, continue on Eagle Peak Road for the remaining 8 miles until you reach the signposted Saddleback Trailhead near a pair of locked gates blocking access to Cedar Creek Road and the continuation of Eagle Peak Road. Note that the last 8 miles of this drive is unpaved, and it gets progressively narrower and bumpier. The last mile might be scary for the uninitiated, but it's not too bad if you take it slow.
Overall, this drive from Escondido to the Julian side of the trailhead would be on the order of at least an hour. From Julian itself, this drive took us roughly 30 minutes.
Finally, it's also possible to drive east on the I-8 from San Diego to the Hwy 79 near Alpine. Then head north Hwy 79 to the town of Julian. From there, you can head west on Hwy 78 then turn left onto Pine Hills Rd and follow the rest of the directions above.
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