Kitchen Creek Falls

20160313_DSC1103-EditKitchen Creek Fall

People tend to get pretty excited about waterfalls, especially in San Diego where fresh water in any form is pretty rare. Kitchen Creek Falls isn’t the biggest or most impressive set of falls you’ll ever see, but this is still a fun little hike. It’s not as busy as some of the larger falls in the area (like Cedar Creek or Three Sisters), and if you head out early there’s a decent chance you’ll be able to have some time to yourself to enjoy the serenity of the creek. Like most waterfalls in San Diego, timing is everything. You’ll want to go during the wet season to ensure some flowing water.

We headed out early on a cool March morning. Fog shrouded the highway as we drove out, and we were wondering if we’d brought enough layers. We also anticipated encountering some PCT thru-hikers on the trail since most of them were setting off from the border during March and April. This section of the PCT was about two to three days in for most of them.

We found the parking area with no difficulty and posted our Adventure Pass. Thanks to the US Forest Service’s web site, we could actually be certain it was necessary. Directly across the road from our parking spot was a large oak tree. As we approached, we spotted the tell-tale PCT trail blaze affixed to the trunk and knew we were in the right spot. We crossed a small ditch and found the trail running parallel to the roadway. Turning left, we set off.20160313_DSC0968-EditKitchen Creek Fall

The trail quickly turned away from the road and we were alone on the trail. The sun was hard at work burning through the thick cloud cover and we knew we’d be shedding layers before long.20160313_DSC0972-EditKitchen Creek Fall

We could hear the traffic on I-8 as we approached. Just below the embankment, chain link fence appeared and guided us towards an underpass to the left.20160313_DSC0976-EditKitchen Creek Fall

We passed through a metal pipe gate, carefully closing it behind us, although there was no indication of what we were keeping in (or out).20160313_DSC0977-EditKitchen Creek Fall

The trail turned again, making its way under the massive twin bridges of Interstate 8 above us. We could hear cars passing overhead, but the noise was somewhat distant and muffled, adding to the surreal feeling of the foggy early morning.20160313_DSC0981-EditKitchen Creek Fall

To our left ran Kitchen Creek, full of overgrown brush and trees, but no water in this section. On the upper bank not far from the trail we spotted a huge mound of piled sticks: a wood rat den.20160313_DSC0984Kitchen Creek Fall

Upon emerging from the underpass the trail began a gentle climb through some oak trees.20160313_DSC0987-EditKitchen Creek Fall

The trail leveled out when we were about even with the tree tops. In the distance, the tall Laguna Mountains began to emerge from the clouds.20160313_DSC0991-EditKitchen Creek Fall

At .45 mile we passed through another gate.20160313_DSC0994-EditKitchen Creek Fall

We soon left the noise of I-8 behind as the trail wound around the hillside. Tall brush on either side of the trail included the usual mix of chaparral and sage scrub. Some lovely stretches of towering manzanita provided some shade.20160313_DSC1009-EditKitchen Creek Fall

Around .9 miles the trail turned left. We’d been going gently uphill already, but here the grade became a bit more pronounced.20160313_DSC1018-EditKitchen Creek Fall

We found a few wild sweet pea flowers in bloom.20160313_DSC1027-EditKitchen Creek Fall

As we continued to wind around the mountainside, the I-8 bridge we had passed under came into view.20160313_DSC1030-EditKitchen Creek Fall

As we continued up another hill, we heard some singing and the intermittent barking of a dog ahead of us. From atop a large boulder on the trail, a small furry canine face peered down at us. On the other side of the rock we met our first PCT thru-hiker of the day: Michael, and his furry companion Gepetto.20160313_DSC1035-EditKitchen Creek Fall

They had found one of the few areas along the trail wide enough to support a small campsite, and appeared to be getting ready to break camp and begin their day. We stopped and chatted for a few minutes, and Michael’s sheer joy at being on this adventure was contagious. (Seriously, check out that guy’s smile!) He told us “We’re just going to take our time and go as far as we can. We have no set itinerary or plans.” I thought about my immediate post-hike plans of going home and preparing for another week of work and couldn’t help but feel envious.

We wished our new friends luck on their journey and continued on our way. By now the clouds had mostly dissipated from around us. To the west, they were still receding.20160313_DSC1044-EditKitchen Creek Fall

The trail narrowed a bit as we continued, providing an unfettered view of the drop off to our left. The ground was quite firm here though, so unless you’re scared of heights it’s an easy trek.20160313_DSC1063-EditKitchen Creek Fall

Finally, a little beyond the 2.1 mile mark we found the turn-off we were looking for. Just beyond a PCT marker as the trail bent sharply right, we spied a narrow use trail on the left. We left the PCT and headed into the brush along the use trail.20160313_DSC1067-EditKitchen Creek Fall

The trail was narrow and overgrown in spots, but easily discernible. We were headed north towards the canyon where Kitchen Creek flowed.20160313_DSC1074-EditKitchen Creek Fall

We came to the edge of the gorge and were able to see down to the creek below. While it wasn’t exactly raging,there was clearly some water flowing. We continued downhill to the right as the trail descended somewhat steeply.20160313_DSC1078-EditKitchen Creek Fall

There were a couple of different routes that appeared to lead down to the creek. We took the first, and what later appeared to be the sketchiest, path down. We managed to avoid injury and finally reached the creek bed. A rainbow of colorful rocks surrounded us, enhanced by the refreshing stream of cool water that flowed over the gleaming granite.20160313_DSC1083-EditKitchen Creek Fall

The falls were just upstream of where we had descended. While the water level was fairly low, there were still some spots where water cascaded down the rocks into a small pool below. We were pleased to have found any water at all.20160313_DSC1084-EditKitchen Creek Fall

We put down our gear and set about exploring the area. The water-polished rock was extremely slick, and I found that taking off my shoes and socks and going barefoot provided much better traction. To make it more fun there were a handful of prickly pear cactus along the edge of the creek as well, waiting for my unprotected feet.20160313_DSC1091Kitchen Creek Fall

We took our time wandering over the rocks, avoiding cacti, and taking pictures.20160313_DSC1104-EditKitchen Creek Fall

It was a beautiful day and the sound of running water made for a peaceful and relaxing respite. Eventually, we put our shoes back on and hiked out the way we had come.

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Take I-8 east to the Buckman Springs Road exit. Turn right onto Buckman Springs Road, then turn left onto Old Highway 80. Proceed approximately 2 miles to an unmarked parking area on the right, shortly before the Boulder Oaks Campround.  map

Total Distance: 4.7 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Total Ascent: 912 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes not allowed
Facilities: None
Fees/Permits: Adventure Pass Required

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View route or download GPX in CalTopo

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