Chasing Waterfalls In San Diego

by on November 18, 2010 · 7 comments

in Environment, Health, San Diego

waterfall adobe falls

Lower section of Adobe Falls, Mission Valley. Photo by Aaron Linsdau.

These nature hikes offer wet, wonder-fall rewards

By Aaron Linsdau / San /  Nov 18th, 2010

Remember the song “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls?” In San Diego County, don’t necessarily follow that advice. Countless weekends can be enjoyed by searching out local falls. Some are found right in the middle of the city and are easily accessible. Others require more driving and serious hiking. All are best enjoyed after heavy rains.

San Diego is a semi-arid region, so finding flowing water requires more time than in other parts of the country. But feeling the cooling mist of a cascade, and swimming in the base of a falls makes the effort worthwhile. Here’s where you can chase waterfalls:

The San Diego River Watershed drains more than 400 square miles, discharging into the Pacific at Ocean Beach, according to the Project Clean Water Website. The watershed fills the San Diego River, producing several waterfalls along its course. The Penasquitos watershed generates one significant waterfall in the preserve and simultaneously ends up in Penasquitos Lagoon and Mission Bay. Below is a selection of falls accessible in San Diego.

Cedar Creek Falls

Likely the most popular and best known falls in San Diego County, the 90-foot-tall Cedar Creek Falls has been visited by generations of San Diegans. The pool of water at the base of the falls is adequate for a large number of visitors who enjoy tumbling sheets of water.

The 2.3 mile hike down to the falls is best done earlier in the morning, as the sun generates punishing heat in the canyon and saps all but the heartiest of hikers. The steepness and intense heat of the hike make this trail unsuitable for small children or pets.

The falls and pool can be accessed from either Ramona or Julian. Purchase a $5 Adventure Pass when driving in from the Julian side.

The Julian approach can be reached by driving along State Route 78/79 toward Julian. Turn on Pine Hills Road and merge into Eagle Peak Road and, then park at the end of the road. Follow the marked trail down to the falls. (Reviews of the hike and falls)

Mildred Falls

Located at the head of the Cedar Creek canyon, Mildred Falls has the distinction of being the tallest in the county. At 100 feet, the falls continuously funnels the Cedar Creek drainage, creating a gentle shower of water. In all but the driest years, the waterfall can be seen at a distance just a few hundred yards down the Cedar Creek Fall trail from Julian.

Follow the directions for the Julian approach to Cedar Creek Falls to the parking lot and begin tramping down the same access trail. After several hundred yards, look north and Mildred Falls will be revealed. The afternoon light brushes the south-facing canyon wall with warm shades of sunset yellow. Again, this trail is difficult and best suited for adults.

Adobe Falls

Located in Mission Valley across Interstate 8 from San Diego State University, a multi-tiered pair of waterfalls channels the San Diego River. Adobe Falls is only a seven-minute hike up a short hill in the middle of Mission Valley. The splashing water provides a reprieve from the incessant roar of I-8.

The waterfalls can most easily be accessed by parking at the end of 5800 Adobe Falls Road adjacent to the designated San Diego Open Space. Walk around the fence and take the dirt road leading down to the river. Splash across the shallow water and follow the dirt road toward SDSU for four minutes. Continue another three minutes up the trail after the road ends to the Adobe Falls rock formations. Another minute of more challenging rock scrambling reveals the upper falls. The hike to the lowers falls is not difficult, though the ability to ignore graffiti is needed.

The upper portion of the falls can be seen in a Google Maps satellite view .

Penasquitos Canyon Falls

Within city limits, the beauty and relative silence of the waterfalls in Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve is a gem. Jointly owned and maintained by San Diego City and County, the preserve is an outdoor haven for hikers inside the metropolis. In the western third of the preserve is a waterfall running over mixed rock. This cascade tends to be reliable throughout the year, though during the driest months, it will only be a trickle.

There are multiple approaches to the falls. A flatter and longer route begins at the trailhead on Vista Sorrento Parkway. A steeper and more direct trail head is at the end of Del Vino Court on Del Mar Mesa. A map showing the falls is available from the Friends of Los Penasquitos Canyon Reserve.

Mission Trails Regional Park

The small waterfall in the Mission Trails Regional Park is fickle, only animated for a few days after small rainstorms and truly active after a serious deluge. But, finding the small falls in the Oak Canyon section of the park is worth the effort. The Equestrian Staging Area provides the most direct access. An easy 45 minute hike along multi-use trail is the most direct route to the rocky hills just south of state route 52.

The Equestrian Staging Area is located off the Mast Boulevard exit off State Route 52. Turn west off the exit and park in the dirt lots clustered around horse corrals. Follow the rolling trail west, turning north just beyond the power lines. Near the intersection of the multi-use and hiking trails is the waterfall flowing along the rocky creek.

About the author: Aaron Linsdau has backpacked across Yellowstone National Park in the dead of winter, climbed an active volcano in Guatemala and trekked 100 miles across Greenland. In his exploration of the world, he has traveled to five continents. He has been exploring the San Diego region for more than 20 years and actively writes and photographs for his Website ( He writes with the goal of getting readers off the couch and going out to experience their greater world. He has edited several documentaries featuring his photography.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Wireless Mike November 18, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Just being nitpicky, but Adobe Falls is on Alvarado Creek, not the San Diego River. Alvarado Creek joins the San Diego River at Grantville.


dave rice November 18, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Cedar Creek is definitely a punisher hike-wise, but well worth the journey. Me and my backwoods brethren would make the trek a couple mornings every summer, spend the day cliff diving into the pool at the base, then head back once it was cool enough to climb out of the canyon…I heard the ash from the 2003 fires was so heavy that it took the swimming hole out of commission for a while, but apparently it’s back in action. Very cool.


dmitryb December 2, 2010 at 11:34 pm

Are there any waterfalls that are in commission this time of the year (December)?


david May 1, 2011 at 1:32 pm

you might want to add Black Canyon waterfalls north of Ramona


nikki March 13, 2014 at 7:06 pm

cedar creek is no longer a punisher since they carved the trails. Due to an abundance of mishaps you need a special permit that is NOT the one you can get at REI… they only let 75 permit holders in per day.

3 sister is definitely the BIG punisher… Im an avid hiker of difficult trails and my thighs were hurting big time on the way to the falls…. lets not get started about the trip back up.

A few things… make sure the water is flowing or else its a big disappointment, I suggest checking YELP. Also, bring LOTS of water, even if you think your over doing it or its too much— trust me, this is NO joke. Try only being 1/4 of the way back up and having your last drop of water??? Annnnd its about 100 degrees mind you since that sun and that bottle have totally been cookin’.


SDSU Police Department July 13, 2014 at 12:59 pm

The “Adobe Falls” hike exists on land that is owned by San Diego State University. Unfortunately, there have been an increasing number of incidents in this canyon recently (including illegal activity and serious injuries requiring medical rescue).

The SDSU Police Department is making it a priority to prevent and mitigate these public safety issues. Police officers will be actively patrolling this canyon. Hiking this area is not sanctioned and trespassing on this land is a violation of California penal code section 602.

Please find other sanctioned paths to hike…there are plenty in our beautiful city.

SDSU Police Department


Frank Gormlie June 10, 2015 at 8:49 pm

Don’t forget that this article was written in 2010 – a very wet year for San Diego – and has not been updated vis a vis effects of the drought.


Leave a Comment

Older Article:

Newer Article: