Cottonwood Creek Falls

Cleveland National Forest / Pine Valley / Mt Laguna, California, USA

About Cottonwood Creek Falls


Hiking Distance: 2 miles round trip; scramble
Suggested Time: 1 hour

Date first visited: 2016-01-23
Date last visited: 2016-01-23

Waterfall Latitude: 32.82033
Waterfall Longitude: -116.49119

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Cottonwood Creek Falls was a series of small waterfalls hidden away in the desert-like terrain near Pine Valley well downslope of Mt Laguna.

I think of this waterfall as kind of a miracle in that it paradoxically sits in an unforgivingly arid climate with cacti and other desert shrubs all around the area.

Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_081_01232016 - Cottonwood Creek Falls
Cottonwood Creek Falls

Indeed, while you may look at the photo above, you might think that this waterfall is nothing to be bragging about.

However, when you consider the environment it’s in, that’s what makes this spot quite special.

Timing a visit to Cottonwood Creek Falls

When Cottonwood Creek Falls would have good flow, it would most likely occur if Mt Laguna had accumulated enough snow so its snowmelt would sufficiently drain into Cottonwood Creek.

Therefore, that would leave a pretty narrow window in which this little oasis would come to life and provide that refreshing place to cool off from the unrelenting desert climate.

Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_067_01232016 - Julie standing before Cottonwood Creek Falls, which happened to have some water during our Winter 2016 visit
Julie standing before Cottonwood Creek Falls, which happened to have some water during our Winter 2016 visit

Our visit followed about two dry weeks since Mt Laguna had gotten a fair bit of snow from a series of strong storms in the first week of January 2016.

So while there was water in Cottonwood Creek during our visit, I’m sure the falls could have been a bit more impressive had the area received a few more of these strong storms followed by a visit not too long afterwards.

Possibility of solitude at Cottonwood Creek Falls

That said, this was one of those obscure waterfalls that seemed to be ignored by most of the visitors to this part of San Diego County.

This is especially the case since most people would typically visit Cedar Creek Falls or Three Sisters Falls.

Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_090_01232016 - For pretty much the entire time we scrambled to Cottonwood Creek Falls, we were all alone in this part of the desert
For pretty much the entire time we scrambled to Cottonwood Creek Falls, we were all alone in this part of the desert

In fact, we suspect that it tended to be ignored largely because this Cottonwood Creek Falls lacked any signs hinting at its presence.

This was further supported by the fact that we happened to be the only ones around when we made our late Saturday afternoon visit.

We’ve provided trailhead directions below to help get you started if you’re interested in discovering this little gem for yourself.

Scrambling to Cottonwood Creek Falls

Once we got to the proper pullout, we then crossed the Sunrise Highway to its east side adjacent to the guard rails.

Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_027_01232016 - This might have been the cactus patch where one thorn went right into the side of my boot during our scramble to Cottonwood Creek Falls
This might have been the cactus patch where one thorn went right into the side of my boot during our scramble to Cottonwood Creek Falls

Next, we followed the guard rails north (uphill) towards its end, where there was a power pole as well as a faint trail right beside it.

This trail descended through the prickly overgrowth and into the ravine itself.

The overgrowth and steepness of the terrain was only uncomfortable in the beginning as there was also a cactus patch adjacent to the trail in this stretch.

In fact, I might have gotten pricked by one of the thorns that went into the side of my hiking boot.

However, the further down we went, the wider and flatter the trail became.

Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_038_01232016 - Julie and I following the trail-of-use that seemed to meander alongside these power pylons, which got me thinking that perhaps this trail was created in order to erect such infrastructure, and perhaps that was how Cottonwood Creek Falls was 'discovered'
Julie and I following the trail-of-use that seemed to meander alongside these power pylons, which got me thinking that perhaps this trail was created in order to erect such infrastructure, and perhaps that was how Cottonwood Creek Falls was ‘discovered’

The trail would meander like this for the next 3/4-mile or so as it would follow the line of power poles towering above us.

I suspected that this trail (and the waterfall discovery) could probably be a result of power company workers setting up the infrastructure then chancing upon Cottonwood Creek Falls as the work trail was created.

We started to notice hints of Cottonwood Creek and its small waterfalls to our left as we were near the bottom of the descent.

Anyways, the trail would ultimately end its descent at a T-intersection, where we then turned left to go upstream along Cottonwood Creek to get up to its waterfalls.

Exploring around Cottonwood Creek Falls

After a few more minutes of hiking, we then were side-by-side with several of the small tiers of Cottonwood Creek Falls.

Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_072_01232016 - Looking upstream along Cottonwood Creek in search of the tallest of the Cottonwood Creek Falls
Looking upstream along Cottonwood Creek in search of the tallest of the Cottonwood Creek Falls

I’d suspect that each of the first few drops were on the order of 10-15ft or so.

The trail became rockier and flanked with cacti and other desert foliage the further upstream we went.

Eventually, we got up to perhaps the uppermost and most impressive of the waterfall series, which you see photographed at the top of this page.

That last (uppermost) tier was probably roughly 15ft or so tall.

I did manage to climb the steep slope adjacent to this drop of the falls just to see what else was further upstream.

Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_079_01232016 - Looking towards the uppermost drop of the Cottonwood Creek Falls though I did follow the 'streak' on the left of this picture to see if there were more interesting parts of the waterfall up there
Looking towards the uppermost drop of the Cottonwood Creek Falls though I did follow the ‘streak’ on the left of this picture to see if there were more interesting parts of the waterfall up there

However, it just seemed to be more rocks and desert foliage so for all intents and purposes, this was my turnaround point.

Julie and I happened to hear the croaking of frogs or toads near the last waterfall (though we couldn’t see them).

This illustrated both the fragility of the ecosystem here as well as how seldomly-visited this place seemed to be.

We returned the way we came, and overall, Julie and I had spent about a little over an hour away from the car.

The hike itself was said to be about 2 miles round trip.

Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_087_01232016 - Looking back from the uppermost drop of Cottonwood Creek Falls towards Julie scrambling towards me
Looking back from the uppermost drop of Cottonwood Creek Falls towards Julie scrambling towards me

It seemed to go by faster on the way back to the car than on the way down, but I suspect that was because we knew where we were going on the return.

When we were descending from the Sunrise Highway, we weren’t quite sure where we were going because there was nothing in the area that would have ever had us believing there could be a waterfall found here.

Authorities

Cottonwood Creek Falls resides in the Cleveland National Forest near Descanso 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, visit their website or Facebook page.

Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_001_01232016 - Looking back at the Sunrise Highway from the huge pullout marking the unsigned beginning of the hike to Cottonwood Creek Falls
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_004_01232016 - Looking back at the canyon downhill towards the I-8 from the pullout where we started the scramble to Cottonwood Creek Falls
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_016_01232016 - Julie about to cross the Sunrise Highway then head towards the north end of the guard rail on the opposite side of the highway en route to Cottonwood Creek Falls
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_018_01232016 - Once we got around the north end of the guard rail, Julie then passed by this nearby power pylon where we followed the trail further into the brush on the way to Cottonwood Creek Falls
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_019_01232016 - Looking back at the context of a faint scrambling path and the Sunrise Highway at the very start of our scramble to Cottonwood Creek Falls
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_021_01232016 - Julie following the faint trail through the thick prickly brush on the initial descent en route to Cottonwood Creek Falls
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_029_01232016 - Once beyond the initial descent from the Sunrise Highway, the trail flattened out and then it widened and became much easier to follow towards Cottonwood Creek Falls
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_048_01232016 - Looking down towards some of the Cottonwood Creek Falls from the trail
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_049_01232016 - Context of Julie continuing on the trail as it seemed to descend towards the valley before us
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_053_01232016 - This was the T intersection at the bottom of the valley we scrambled into from the Sunrise Highway, and now we turned left to go upstream along Cottonwood Creek towards the waterfalls
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_055_01232016 - Julie following the trail upstream towards the Cottonwood Creek Falls
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_059_01232016 - Julie approaching the lowest tiers of Cottonwood Creek Falls
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_061_01232016 - Julie dodging cacti and continuing further upstream alongside more of the waterfalls on Cottonwood Creek
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_062_01232016 - Looking down at one of the first visible tiers of Cottonwood Creek Falls
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_064_01232016 - Looking across another one of the drops belonging to Cottonwood Creek Falls
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_066_01232016 - Julie continuing to scramble her way further upstream in search of more waterfalls on Cottonwood Creek
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_070_01232016 - Looking back at the context of the remaining tiers of the Cottonwood Creek Falls that we encountered during our January 2016 visit
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_073_01232016 - Looking upstream at three of the drops belonging to Cottonwood Creek Falls
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_075_01232016 - Closeup look at one of the taller drops of the Cottonwood Creek Falls
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_077_01232016 - Finally ending up at perhaps the most impressive and uppermost of the drops comprising the Cottonwood Creek Falls
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_081_01232016 - Looking across the most impressive drop of Cottonwood Creek Falls towards some interesting desert boulders and cliffs on the other side
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_085_01232016 - Broad look across the most impressive of the Cottonwood Creek Falls
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_089_01232016 - Looking down over the brink of the Cottonwood Creek Falls
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_090_01232016 - After having our fill of the Cottonwood Creek Falls, it was time to head back to the trailhead and return to Julian as the sun was setting
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_097_01232016 - Julie following the power pylons as we ascended the trail to get back up to the Sunrise Highway and end our adventure to Cottonwood Creek Falls
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_104_01232016 - Julie hiking back up through the overgrowth on the way up to the Sunrise Highway and end of our Cottonwood Creek Falls adventure
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_105_01232016 - Almost made it back up to the Sunrise Highway after our Cottonwood Creek Falls adventure
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_107_01232016 - Julie going back up past the last of the power pylons adjacent to the Sunrise Highway
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_109_01232016 - Finally back at the Sunrise Highway just in time for sunset
Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_114_01232016 - Looking towards the setting sun in the direction of the I-8 freeway as we were about to leave the pullout that started and ended our Cottonwood Creek Falls adventure

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Since we stayed in Julian on the day we visited Cottonwood Creek Falls, we’ll first describe the directions from there.

In order to get to Julian from Los Angeles, see the Cedar Creek Falls page.

So from Julian, we left Hwy 78 east of the town, then turned right onto Hwy 79.

Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_003_01232016 - Looking back past a picnic table towards the I-8 freeway from the pullout near Mt Laguna for the Cottonwood Creek Falls scramble
Looking back past a picnic table towards the I-8 freeway from the pullout near Mt Laguna for the Cottonwood Creek Falls scramble

We then followed the twisty Hwy 79 for about 23 miles all the way to the on-ramp with the I-8 east.

Next, we drove east on the I-8 for a little over 7 miles to the exit for the Sunrise Highway.

Turning left onto the Sunrise Highway, we then drove up the mountain for about 2 miles where we stopped the car at a very large but unsigned pullout area.

This pullout area was just before the 15.5 mile post and it was after the 15.0 mile post.

Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_007_01232016 - Context of the picnic table and the giant pullout where we parked the car for Cottonwood Creek Falls
Context of the picnic table and the giant pullout where we parked the car for Cottonwood Creek Falls

So we had to start looking for this pullout after passing the 15.0 mile post, but we knew we went too far when we saw the 15.5 mile post.

We managed to park near a long rock (Ann Marie Brown’s California Waterfalls book said it had a graffiti-covered rock wall, but it appeared to have been cleaned up on our visit).

Another thing about this pullout was that there was a lone graffiti-covered picnic table with a nice view back towards the I-8 and Pine Valley.

She recommended parking near the elongated rock wall because the unsigned footpath for Cottonwood Creek Falls started right across the highway from that wall where the north end of the guard rail ended.

Cottonwood_Creek_Falls_015_01232016 - Looking back across the giant rock wall where Ann Marie Brown's book said it used to have graffiti on it, but it appeared to have been cleaned up during our visit
Looking back across the giant rock wall where Ann Marie Brown’s book said it used to have graffiti on it, but it appeared to have been cleaned up during our visit

Overall, this drive took us about 45 minutes.

Had we come from San Diego, the most straightforward route would be to take the I-8 all the way east to the Sunrise Highway.

Sunrise Highway was near the small hamlet of Pine Valley, where we would then take the Sunrise Highway north of the interstate up towards Mt Laguna for 2 miles to the very large pullout as stated above.

Short sweep examining what appeared to be the largest of the series of small waterfalls comprising the Cottonwood Creek Falls


Long video footage examining the uppermost (and most impressive) of the Cottonwood Creek Falls before scrambling downstream checking out each of the waterfall's other tiers

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Tagged with: cleveland national forest, pine valley, mt laguna, mount laguna, san diego county, california, southern california, waterfall



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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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