About Cedar Creek Falls
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 that authorities now require permits to do this hike (more on this later).
It definitely felt busier on our most recent visits in 2016 and 2017 than it did when I first visited Cedar Creek Falls back in 2008.
And as you can see from the photo above, the falls certainly deserved its recognition and popularity.
Timing Cedar Creek Falls
We took that picture you see at the top of this page only a couple of days after a freak snowstorm that hit the Julian area.
Therefore, I presumed that Cedar Creek Falls pretty much had its peak (or at least near peak) flow by my estimation.
In our experiences, this waterfall tended to have a pretty short season as its flow depended 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, the waterfall didn’t flow at all.
Recently in 2016 and 2017, we made our visits here at least a week or two after prior major storm systems had passed through here.
And as you can see in the rest of the photos on this page, Cedar Creek Falls noticeably had lesser flow than the 2008 flow pictured at the top of this page.
As a result, I’d say that the more time has passed since the last storm feeding Cedar Creek’s drainage, the more limited the amount of water the waterfall will have.
Therefore, if I had to go by a general rule of thumb, I’d say Cedar Creek Falls would most likely put on a good showing in the middle of Winter through early Spring.
If you wait until late Spring or Summer, the falls would not likely have good performance due to the lack of waterflow and the higher temperatures.
And given the amount of sun exposure on this hike, you could put yourself at risk without adequate preparation (a big reason why the authorities require permits for this hike).
Cedar Creek Falls Permits
Cleveland National Forest implemented the permit system around 2012 after responding to a plethora of injuries (even fatalities) at or around Cedar Creek Falls.
According to their online reservation site (which you can access through the USDA website), the forest service only issues a limit of 75 group permits of up to five people per group per day.
So far in our most recent experiences, we’ve managed to book our permits for a Saturday visit as late as a couple days prior to our arrival at the trailhead.
That said, I’d imagine availability can vary, especially with this falls maintaining its popularity on social media and on hiking blogs.
Nevertheless, this permit system appeared to have curbed the number of rescues compared to the peak of Cedar Creek Falls’ popularity prior to 2012.
About the Cedar Creek Falls Hike
As for the hike itself, there are actually two different approaches to the waterfall (see directions to both trailheads below)…
- the west entrance at the San Diego Country Estates accessed from Ramona
- the east entrance at the Saddleback Hill accessed from Julian
Both trails required us to hike similar distances of just under 6 miles round trip.
Moreover, both hikes were upside down meaning we descended to the falls, but we had to hike back up on the way out.
Therefore, despite the obvious trails to follow and the lack of off-trail scrambling required, this hike’s length combined with sun exposure made it deceptively strenuous.
As far as the Ramona side was concerned, it took us around 75 minutes (with a five-year-old in our party) to go just under 3 miles downhill to Cedar Creek Falls.
However, it took us over 90 minutes to return to the trailhead given its sun exposure and all-uphill trajectory.
Regarding the hike from the Julian side, we also had to hike about 3 miles down and 3 miles up.
Unlike the Ramona-side trail, the Julian-side trail had the benefit of some shade from the mountains that the trail hugged.
Furthermore, we only encountered a few hikers along this trail as opposed to the waves of hikers on the Ramona side.
Overall, we also 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.
Finally, regarding the potentially intense heat encountered on this hike, we normally do it on cool winter days.
However, I can totally imagine the appeal of dealing with the heat to go swimming at the Cedar Creek Falls plunge pool in the Summertime.
Historically, we’ve observed daredevils doing scary cliff jumps into the plunge pool disobeying signs (as well as the permit rules and regulations) prohibiting climbing around the falls.
People did this despite the presence of at least one helicopter doing a circle around Cedar Creek Falls surveying the area.
That said, of the two approaches to Cedar Creek Falls, we’ve found that the combination of the relatively easy driving route along with the arguably better trail scenery made the Ramona side more popular by far.
Thus, I’ll first start with the detailed trail description from the Ramona side.
Cedar Creek Falls Trail Description – The West Entrance / San Diego River Trail (“The Ramona Side”)
We first had to find parking, which was very limited despite there being a modestly-sized parking lot along with some street parking.
Perhaps the increased presence of visitos here had something to do with the fairly built-up nature of the trailhead on the Ramona side as it had pit-toilet restrooms.
We also noticed 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, we then approached a supervised sign-in area where a worker would check for permits while evaluating our clothing as well as our physical condition.
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 enough water.
Once we passed 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.
We had no trouble following this well-used trail though we pretty much went all downhill right from the get go.
However, we also knew that we’d have to gain all that elevation loss back on the return hike so we had that to look forward to later on.
In any case, we noticed posts with trail signs indicating our progress on the trail.
They spaced out these signs at roughly a quarter-mile apart (at least towards the beginning) though they seemed to have lengthened these intervals further into the hike.
To lessen the pitch of the descent, the trail zig-zagged along a handful of long switchbacks.
The switchbacks to 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, we spotted 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 we already got similar views by 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 itself.
Once we got to the bottom, we then had to cross the San Diego River.
In our experiences so far, we had no trouble traversing the watercourse without getting our feet wet as someone had put in a small log to act more or less like a bridge.
Shortly after the river crossing, we then reached a trail junction.
At this junction, the Saddleback Trail (or Eagle Peak Trail) came in from the left, the San Diego River Gorge Trail split off to the right, and the Cedar Creek Falls Trail continued straight ahead.
Naturally, we continued straight ahead past the fencing where signs clearly indicated that we had entered the permit area.
The signs also reminded us that we still had roughly a half-mile to go before reaching Cedar Creek Falls.
The rest of the trail was pretty flat as it curved then went over a pair of unbridged crossings of Cedar Creek.
Each time we’ve done this trail, the crossings merely required some skillful rock hopping to keep the feet dry.
Even our daughter insisted on doing these stream crossings on her own.
Once we got past the stream crossings, the gorge narrowed even further as the trail went past some blackened trees.
I suspect these burnt trees came from fires that sadly seemed to have increased in frequency due to Climate Change.
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, we had to do some additional awkward scrambling in order to improve the views or avoid people clogging up our photos.
The East Entrance / Saddleback Trail (“The Julian Side”)
The Saddleback Trail to Cedar Creek Falls definitely lacked the popularity of the San Diego River Trail from the Ramona side.
Nevertheless, we’re quite familiar with this less popular trail because we’ve taken it on our first three visits to the Cedar Creek Falls.
The main reasons were that we would typically either spend the night or visit the charming town of Julian.
In fact, the directions given in our California Waterfalls book by Ann Marie Brown were for this particular trailhead.
This option also had a bonus waterfall sighting of Mildred Falls, which sat very close to the Saddleback Trailhead.
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.
Given the amount of overgrowth as well as water gullies and ruts cut into the road, it seemed like vehicular access was prohibited many years ago.
Barely a minute or two into the hike, we saw the aforementioned Mildred Falls, which plunged conspicuously across the ravine to our right.
This waterfall typically had very light flow or didn’t flow at all.
So I’d imagine seeing this guy flow meant coming almost immediately after a clearing storm.
The trail then hugged a mountain and curved to the left as it ultimately flanked a deeper ravine cut by the San Diego River.
As we descended closer to the river level, we could look across the basin towards the San Diego Country Estates (formerly the Ramona Estates) as well as the zig-zagging trail leaving from that popular trailhead.
Roughly half-way towards the bottom of our descent, there encountered a trail junction where the path on our left path climbed away from the main trail.
That trail was an optional detour that ultimately followed Cedar Creek for roughly 1/4-mile or so to the top of Cedar Creek Falls.
Continuing past the trail junction, we continued descending on the fairly wide mountain-hugging path into the San Diego River basin.
Shortly thereafter, we encountered the trail junction with the much busier trail from the Ramona side.
At this junction, 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 when we talked about the Ramona side.
Finally, regarding the Julian side of the trail, we should note that the trail description from our Ann Marie Brown book stated that the hiking distance was only 4.5 miles.
However, she only went to the top of Cedar Creek Falls and back (via the optional detour that we mentioned above).
I don’t think at the time of her writing that book that she ever made it to the bottom via the trails described on this page.
Cedar Creek Falls resides in the Cleveland National Forest near Ramona or Julian in San Diego County, California. It is administered by the USDA Forest Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions and permits, visit their website or Facebook page.
As mentioned earlier in the introduction above, there are two main trailhead accesses to Cedar Creek Falls – the Ramona side and the Julian side.
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.
The second way involved heading east towards the I-15, then heading south on the I-15 to the Hwy 78 junction at Escondido (between 90 minutes to 2 hours without traffic).
From Escondido to the Ramona Trailhead (i.e. the San Diego River Gorge Trailhead)
From the I-15/Hwy 78 interchange near Escondido, we continued driving east on Hwy 78, where the freeway would end.
Once in the town of Ramona, at the traffic light, we kept straight to leave the Hwy 78 and get onto 10th street, which eventually becomes San Vicente Rd.
We then followed this road for just under 7 miles as it went through the San Diego Country Estates (featuring golf courses and some seemingly new housing developments) before turning left onto Ramona Oaks Road.
Next, we followed Ramona Oaks Rd for the next 3 miles before turning right onto Thornbush Rd.
Finally, we followed Thornbush Road past some residential neighborhoods to the road’s end, which was the trailhead for Cedar Creek Falls.
The entire drive was paved, and the trailhead itself had a modestly-sized parking lot as well as some limited street parking.
However, I can foresee that if it would get too busy, the parking can spill over to the residential area, which may displease the residents who would threaten to tow if traffic was blocked.
Overall, the drive from Escondido to this Ramona-side trailhead was roughly about an hour depending on traffic.
From Escondido to the Julian Trailhead (i.e. the Saddleback Trailhead)
We’d then follow Hwy 78 for the next 21 miles to Pine Hill Road (which was about a mile before the four-way stop in Julian).
Turning right onto Pine Hill Road (or left if you’re coming from Julian), we’d continue for about 1.7 miles keeping right at a fork with Eagle Peak Road (the left fork was to stay on Pine Hill Rd which we didn’t want).
After another 1.3 miles or so, we stayed right to remain on Eagle Peak Road (avoiding Boulder Creek Road, which branched left).
Then, we’d continue on Eagle Peak Road for the remaining 8 miles until we reached 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 was unpaved, and it became progressively narrower and bumpier.
The last mile might be scary for the uninitiated, but it wasn’t too bad as long as we took 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.
From the I-8 to Julian
Then we’d head north on Hwy 79 to the town of Julian.
From there, we could head west on Hwy 78 then turn left onto Pine Hills Rd and follow the rest of the directions above.