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 visits in 2016 and 2017 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 and 2017, we made visitd here at least a week or two after the previous major storm systems that passed through here. 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 group permits of up to five people per group issued per day. We managed to book our permit for a Saturday of our two most recent visits 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 pit-toilet 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 a 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 trail signs indicating your progress on the trail, and these were spaced out at roughly a quarter-mile apart (at least towards the beginning). Later on, they became even more spaced out.
This trail descended a handful of long switchbacks. The switchbacks on the left side skirted a dry gully while passing between some interesting rock formations. The switchbacks on the right side were more exposed to the sun while also allowing us to glimpse further downstream the San Diego River. At a little over half-way down the overall descent, there was a short ridge where closure signs urged hikers not to trample on sensitive vegetation. I could see how the hill adjacent to this ridge could have afforded a somewhat commanding view of the San Diego River Gorge basin though you could already get such views simply by following the trail. After this ridge, the trail descended several more switchbacks before bottoming out amongst the shrubs and trees lining the San Diego River.
Once we got to the bottom, we had to cross the San Diego River, which in our experience was a pretty short crossing where someone had put a small log to facilitate the traverse without getting the feet wet. Shortly after the river crossing, we then reached a trail junction where the Saddleback Trail (or Eagle Peak Trail) was coming in from the left, the San Diego River Gorge Trail was continuing to the right, and the Cedar Creek Falls Trail continued straight ahead past some fencing. Naturally, we continued straight ahead past the fencing for the waterfall. By the way, 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.
The rest of the trail was pretty flat as it curved to our left then went over a pair of stream crossings of Cedar Creek. Each time we’ve done this trail, the crossings were nothing more than some skillful rock hopping to keep the feet dry. Even our daughter insisted on doing these stream crossings on her own. Once past the stream crossings, the gorge narrowed even further as the trail went past some blackened trees, which I suspect was evidence of a fire that came through here before. Eventually after another 15 minutes or so, we reached the bouldery fringe of the plunge pool before the beautiful Cedar Creek Falls. Given the roughness and size of the boulders around the plunge pool, scrambling to improve the views (or avoid people which was hard to do) was a bit awkward at time, but with care, it wasn’t too much of a problem.
According to the signage, this long and mostly downhill hike was just under 3 miles. It took us around 75 minutes to get to the falls from the Ramona side trailhead (with a five-year-old hiking with us). However, the key thing to remember was that on the return hike, this three-mile stretch would be pretty much all uphill and exposed to the sun. We normally do this hike on cool winter days, but I can totally imagine how brutal this trail would be in the Summertime even though it would also be the time for people to want to be going for a swim in the large plunge pool fronting Cedar Creek Falls. That said, it took us over 90 minutes to return to the trailhead for a grand total of roughly 3+ hours spend away from the car.
Speaking of swimming, it was no longer permitted to climb around the falls (that was part of the agreement when securing the mandatory permit to go on this hike). In our last couple of times in seeing this waterfall in 2016 and 2017, we noticed at least one helicopter doing a circle around the end of the trail. However, that hadn’t deterred some daredevils from scrambling up to one of the rock ledges and do a scary cliff jump into the deep plunge pool beneath Cedar Creek Falls.
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 (formerly the Ramona 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.
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 Gorge 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.
As for the other trailhead, 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 (Main Street) 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.
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.