Cottonwood Creek Falls

Waterfalls are relatively hard to come by in San Diego County, and most are only interesting for brief periods of time when we’ve had a lot of precipitation. As such, the few falls there are tend to get pretty crowded in the rainy season. Cottonwood Creek in the Laguna Mountains is home a small set of falls with a series of cascades and small pools. While less spectacular than Cedar Creek Falls or Three Sisters Falls, Cottonwood Creek Falls is correspondingly usually less crowded. The potential crowds are also lessened by the fact that the route to the falls is an unofficial and unmarked trail.

With all the recent rain, we decided it was prime time to check out Cottonwood Creek Falls. We parked on the west side of the highway, near the large protruding rock in the middle of the dirt turnout. We carefully made our way across the highway, just north of where the guardrail ended, where a power pole stood.

Once at the power pole, we could discern a vague path heading down towards the canyon below. The path roughly followed the course of the power lines above us.

The path quickly became overgrown. Thick brush crowded our heads, forcing us to duck lower as we continued on. Droplets of water sprayed our heads as we brushed the wet branches.

We abruptly came upon a large stand of prickly pear cactus that we fortunately saw before we ran into it. The path was narrow, but we managed to squeeze by without getting stabbed.

We squeezed through a narrow passage of manzanita and laurel sumac. A few hundred feet from our starting point we came to a “T” junction and turned left.

The trail quickly became better established, and we no longer had to stoop to avoid the thick brush.

The growth was still very thick though, so we didn’t have particularly stellar views. But it was a beautiful clear day, and the temperature was quickly warming up, so it was nice just to be out on the trail.

We were going decidedly downhill into the canyon, and knew all the effort would be on the return route. Once we started to hear the sound of rushing water in the distance, we knew we were getting close. Around .67 miles we spotted a small cairn to the left and a small use trail heading down towards the sound of water. We turned off and followed the use trail.

The use trail wasn’t particularly well-defined, but we spotted a wide dirt road down below and made our way to it, winding our way through small rocks and large stands of white sage.

We came to the dirt road and turned left. We could hear the creek on the opposite side of the road, but it was pretty well overgrown so we didn’t see the water right away.

We followed the road north for a short distance.

Finally, around .8 miles, we came to the base of the falls.

There was a long series of small cascades, and you can explore up the canyon as far as your rock scrambling skills allow. We spent some time climbing around on the rocks, carefully avoiding the inconveniently stabby cacti that grew along the rocks, taking pictures, and enjoying the relaxing sound of rushing water.

When we were done, we retraced our route and returned the way we had come.

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From I-8 east take the Sunrise Highway exit and turn left onto Sunrise Highway (S1). Follow Sunrise Highway for approximately 2 miles to where you find large dirt turnouts on both sides of the road. Park at either one of the turnouts. Begin the hike on the east (right) side of the road, just north of the two turnouts where you see a power pole. map

Total Distance: 1.7 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Total Ascent: 500 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed
Bike Friendly?: Not suitable for bikes
Facilities: None
Fees/Permits: None

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View route or download GPX from CalTopo

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