Temperatures in the river gorge frequently reach well over 100 degrees. While hiking out to the local swimming hole for a refreshing dip may seem like a good idea on a hot summer day, each year dozens of hikers regularly succumb to heat exhaustion while trying to hike back out to the trailhead. Several heat-related fatalities have occurred on this trail. In the summer, the waterfall does not flow, and the little water that is in the pool is usually stagnant and green with algae, so its really not worth risking your life for.
Cedar Creek Falls is an extremely popular hike, and for very good reason. The hike itself offers breathtaking views of the San Diego River Gorge and surrounding mountains, and the destination is an idyllic swimming hole at the base of an 80 foot waterfall. As there’s a considerable lack of freshwater playgrounds in San Diego, its easy to see why this uniquely beautiful spot gets so much attention. The drawback, however, is you will likely have to share this gem with others during your visit, especially if you go on a weekend. The swimming hole is often erroneously referred to as the Devil’s Punchbowl. The real Devil’s Punchbowl lies to the east on private property along Boulder Creek.
There are two routes one can take to Cedar Creek Falls. This write-up details the San Diego River Gorge Trail which begins in a residential area in Ramona. The other possible route begins in Julian off of Eagle Peak Road.
Regardless of which route you take, you’ll need to get a US Forest Service permit before you begin. The permits cost $10 and are good for up to 5 people. You can get your permit ahead of time by visiting www.recreation.gov and printing out the permit. If you neglect to get your permit ahead of time, you can still use your smart phone at the trailhead to obtain your permit online (there’s a scannable QR code posted at the trailhead), which may take up to 15 minutes. If you use this option, make sure you take a screen shot of your permit since there may be no cell reception near the falls where you would need to show it. The number of permits issued each day is limited, so if you’re visiting on a weekend or holiday its best to plan ahead and get it early to avoid disappointment.
Why such formalities? Because as with most heavily regulated things in the world, its because a small group of people had to go and ruin it for everyone. Several years ago, Cedar Creek Falls was something of a trouble spot. Rescues were regularly required when ill-prepared hikers would venture down to the Falls, carrying 12 packs of beer instead of water, spend the day drinking and swimming in the pool, then attempt to hike out of the gorge in the late afternoon heat. In addition, numerous dogs were injured or died of heat stroke on the trail due to high temperatures and lack of water. Access to the Falls was finally closed in 2011 when a teenager fell from the cliffs above the falls and died.
The trail was reopened a year and a half later, and the permit system and a number of new rules were introduced at that time. Chief among the rules is no alcohol allowed, and no climbing or jumping from the rocks and cliffs is allowed.
Despite the drama and politics around this hike, it is a truly beautiful spot and you should not be dissuaded by its reputation. If you can hike Iron Mountain, you can do this hike. Just make sure you engage a little common sense and prepare yourself (and your friends if you’re taking a group) for the excursion:
- Bring sufficient water! Individual needs will vary, but 3 liters per person is a reasonable starting point.
- Check the weather – Yes, swimming in the pool on a super hot day is refreshing, but you will have to hike up over 1000 feet in the hot afternoon sun when you’re done. Pick a cool day for this hike.
- Don’t wear yourself out swimming and playing at the falls, the hard part (hiking out) is still ahead.
- Think twice about bringing your dog. You think it’s hot for a human? Try wearing a fur coat! Seriously, many dogs have died on this trail due to heat stroke… please think hard about whether its appropriate to bring your dog on this hike. If you do bring your dog, make sure you have large quantities of water for him as well.
- Be aware that the water flow is very seasonal. We hiked this at the end of March and there was barely a trickle. By mid to late summer the falls are normally dry and the pool is stagnant and full of algae.
- Climbing on the cliffs and jumping/diving into the pool is not allowed.
- Leave the alcohol and party favors at home.
- Don’t forget your permit!
We’d been putting off doing this hike for awhile, waiting all winter for some thorough rainstorms to swell the creek and produce a significant flow of water to enjoy. Unfortunately, the weather and our schedules never properly aligned. Eventually we decided that although it was dry, a rare weekday off work would have to suffice.
We set off down the trail in the early morning light. There had been a couple of cars at the trailhead already, but their occupants must have been far ahead of us already, for we didn’t see or hear anyone around. The only sound was the constant chatter and chirping of birds in the brush around us. We were surrounded by an almost uniform carpet of chamise and sage.
Before long, we started to see various wildflowers along the trail.
The trail was in excellent condition, even and devoid of rocks, it switchbacked gently down the hillside. Trail markers showing our current mileage were interspersed at regular intervals. I definitely felt we were getting our $10 worth.
While we had gotten an early start, it was already starting to get quite warm on the exposed hillside. Going downhill was quite easy, but I could see how its was possible for people to get in trouble hiking the return route in the full heat of day if they weren’t adequately prepared.
As our descent continued, we could see more and more of the lush, green vegetation that marked the course of the river below. It contrasted sharply with the dry hillsides that were already turning brown at the end of March.
We reached a large intersection with a wide dirt road. To the left was the route from Julian, and straight ahead was our path to the falls. This junction also marked the beginning of the official “permit required” area.
Continuing on, we reached another course of warning signs and could hear the sound of people talking and splashing in the water.
A few hundred feet later and we reached the rocky enclosure of the swimming hole. The cliffs towered above us, and a small trickle of water flowed down the rock wall before us. Despite the lack of water, this was truly a stunning spot and it was easy to see why this was such a popular destination.
Although we did this hike on a weekday, we had unwittingly chosen the week of Spring Break for our visit. So despite the early hour, there were close to a dozen other people already there enjoying the water, swimming and splashing and talking loudly. We decided to make the best of it and began chatting with some of our fellow visitors. One group of young men were here from Philadelphia, visiting their friend over Spring Break. They inquired about other well-known hikes in the area, including Potato Chip Rock, so we got to spend some time bragging about all the amazing hikes in San Diego.
Eventually we left the cool shade of the falls and began the hike back. As we left the River Gorge and began the ascent back up to the trailhead, it was indeed considerably hotter than when we’d hiked down just an hour before. We had plenty of water and had no trouble getting back to the car, but I certainly understood how an inexperienced or unprepared hiker could run into trouble on this trail.
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From Main St. in Ramona, take 10th Street to San Vicente Road. Follow San Vicente Road for approximately 6.5 miles, then turn left onto Ramona Oaks Road. Turn right onto Thornbrush Road, the trailhead will be at the end of the road. Note this is a residential area so please be quiet and respectful of your neighbors. map
|Total Distance:||6 miles|
|Total Ascent:||1100 feet|
|Dog Friendly?:||Leashed dogs are allowed, however dogs are NOT recommended if it is at all warm out. Numerous dogs die from heat stroke on this trail each year, please don’t let your pet be one of them.|
|Bike Friendly?:||Bikes allowed|
|Facilities:||Vault toilets and water faucet at trailhead|
|Fees/Permits:||A special day use permit is required to enter the falls area. $10 for up to 5 people.|