Southern California Waterfalls:
When is the best time to see them?

A hiker managed to time her visit well for Sturtevant Falls
When it comes to Southern California Waterfalls, Julie and I have received questions regarding their waterflow. Even though we have seen our share of the ones in the Southland, we have come to realize that most of them require some degree of timing in order to see them flow satisfactorily. This is especially true for the waterfalls that don't tend to flow year-round (some that we've visited have a season as short as a few weeks!). Indeed, we've had our share of pleasant surprises as well as disappointments, crowds as well as quiet experiences devoid of people. We won't lie to you and say that you should come regardless of the conditions.

Let's face it. If you come to see waterfalls, you have a reasonable expectation of seeing them perform, especially if you (and your friends and family) go through the time and trouble of getting there. So that's where this page can be of help. We're imparting our experiences to tell you what we know about waterfalling where we live. Hopefully, you'll find it of use to improve the odds of maximizing the enjoyment of your experience.

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Snow flanking the base of San Antonio Falls

The first rule to consider when waterfalling in So Cal is the seasons.

Having lived here for most of our lives, we know that our Mediterranean climate means we get most of our precipitation in the Winter and early Spring months (around December through April). The rest of the year is pretty much devoid of measurable precipitation though we may experience mist from the coastal fog of a thick marine layer (in what's known as June Gloom and more recently May Gray) or sporadic monsoonal downpours when some pop-up desert thunderstorms manage to make their way further west towards our neck of the woods.

That said, we've had some years where the "typical" seasonal rains have come as early as September or October and continue as late as June, but we'll talk about these events later. The bottom line is that based on these cyclical seasonal patterns alone, the best time of the year to go waterfalling in the Southland would be to time your visit for the Winter and early Spring months. However, this comes with some caveats, which I'll get to in the next rule.

For a more complete climate story (at least less anecdotal than what we're presenting), check out this website.

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On dry years, timing is everything, especially for short-flowing waterfalls like La Jolla Canyon Falls

The second rule to consider when waterfalling in So Cal is to recognize what kind of year we are having. Are we having a wet year or a dry year?

I remembered growing up that this wasn't as much of a consideration as the seasonal variations (described in the first rule) were pretty much a reliable indicator of when to time a visit to go waterfalling. However, it seems that over the years, this all-or-nothing climate pattern is becoming a more critical factor in predicting the likelihood of seeing a waterfall flow (let alone the water supply and wildfire issues Southern California faces in general). In other words, we were either seeing really wet years (which some people would say is caused by "El Nino" conditions) or we were getting really dry years where we would get well below (if any at all) "normal" precipitation even in January and/or February. So under these "abnormally" dry years, I'd say that this rule would trump the seasonal precipitation rule 1.

So how do you know if we're having a wet year or a dry year (especially if you don't live here or haven't been paying attention to our rainfall totals)?

Well, generally you start to see press coverage in the local newspapers or the evening news when we haven't seen any significant rain for the season and it's already January or even February or later. If you're real technical, I suppose you can also look at the hydrological data in Southern California's watercourses. I'm pretty certain farmers and water companies keep a real close eye on this data.

Anecdotally, Julie and I generally don't really consider waterfalling until we have had at least some substantial rain storm (i.e. at least two or three consecutive days of rain or a series of storms coming regularly with a few days break in between them). Whether this occurs in December or even as late as March, we tend to put our waterfalling on hold until then. For example, in 2014 (the third consecutive year of drought conditions), we didn't start our waterfalling until April, which followed a few very late storms in March. In other years, we went waterfalling as early as December!

In dry years, timing is everything, especially for waterfalls that don't flow year-round (which is the vast majority of them). In wet years, you can be less choosier about which waterfalls to visit and when, though you also have to be aware of flash floods and landslides (especially if the soil is destabilized after a wildfire).

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A huge crowd in front of Eaton Canyon Falls

Up until now, I've only focused on climate patterns in terms of seeing when a waterfall will flow, but we also have recognized over the years that crowds also make a difference in the experience. After all, when it's crowded, that can certainly take away from the peaceful Naturesque experience we all seek when we go back to Nature, and it can especially become an issue when it concerns parking and traffic. For example, Julie and I have faced this issue in places like Eaton Canyon Falls, Sturtevant Falls, and even Solstice Canyon Falls though it's not limited to just these three waterfalls that we could think of off the top of our heads.

The only defense against this to avoid the times that you can expect most people to show up, which tends to be on the weekends from the late morning to the early afternoon. Come before the rush early in the morning, or on a weekday when most people would be fighting the notorious traffic on the LA freeways on the way to and from work, and you may be only one of a handful of people visiting. Heck, you might even be the only ones there! While Julie and I have been surprised with a few exceptions here and there, this is a pretty good rule of thumb.

Another way to avoid crowds is to find waterfalls that are more out-of-the-way or less known (probably because they're out-of-the-way or they require exertion and/or risk beyond what most people would do). For example, Julie and I managed to avoid a weekend crowd when we visited Cooper Canyon Falls as well as Soldier Creek Falls simply because they took a while to drive to, and they involved a bit of dicey scrambling to reach. Of course whether the risk to life and limb to you and your friends or family to reach some of the more hidden spots is something you really need to be honest with yourself about. Hopefully the write-ups we've provided in this website help you stay informed as far as our own personal experiences are concerned.

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Enjoying a hot Spring Day at Fish Canyon Falls in low flow

Finally, you might have noticed that I had to put quotes around the words "normal" or "typical" in this write-up. This is because what was considered "normal" or "typical" in the past may not be that way anymore. The all-or-nothing property of our climate is becoming more dominant thanks to Global Warming and the subsequent Climate Change. We're even seeing this all-or-nothing property in the intensity of our storms (as infrequent and sporadic as they're becoming) as well as the intensity of dry spells, especially our Santa Ana winds, which are offshore easterly winds that typically bring heat waves and low humidity to Southern California.

I know saying this will bring out the climate skeptics and become a political issue, but let's call a spade and spade and tell it like it is. There's not a whole lot you can control on a macro scale on these things (especially given how the solutions run counter to the signals the world economy tells you how you should gain wealth), but there are things you can control in terms of how you respond to these things. And that's where we hope this page can be of help in terms of maximizing the enjoyment of your waterfalling experience despite the circumstances.

So the bottom line is this. Pay attention to our seasons and whether we're having a wet or dry year. Then, decide on which waterfalls to visit based on these observations. Once you've figured out what you want to do, then plan your visit accordingly while trying to avoid the crowds. Do these things, and you're more likely to have a pleasantly relaxing time rather than a stressful one...

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