The diversity of San Diego County is impressive; in posh La Jolla it’s all about having a Rolex and a Rolls Royce, while just 30 miles east in Ramona it’s hay and horses that’s on everyone’s mind. Keep going a little farther east and you’ll find some impressive, expansive, and solitary back-country. This area is filled with hidden gems, but you have to know where to look, and in the case of these particular treasures, when. The where can be a little tricky, but the when isn’t. The best time is late winter or early to mid-spring. The seasonal rains bring a vital ingredient to the area: water. This water collects in streams, creeks, and rivers and flows downstream to form some surprisingly impressive waterfalls.
Finding the falls requires a good sense of adventure, some sturdy hiking boots, and a vehicle that you don’t mind driving on dirt roads. (Most cars should be fine, unless it’s right after a storm and the roads are muddy, or if you drive something with very low ground clearance.) There are at least six waterfalls in the area southeast of Julian; three are along the upper San Diego River and should only be explored after you feel ready for a real test of your skills. The other three, Mildred Falls, Cedar Creek Falls, and Three Sisters Falls, are easier to get to, though progressively less so.
Mildred Falls is the easiest to see, but is only impressive after some serious rain. Most of the time its presence is only indicated by a dark stain on a large rock face, but if the weather has been wet and you’re lucky, you may get to see a spectacular stream of water plummeting 100+ feet to the valley below. To get to it, just follow the driving directions at the end of this post, get out of your car at the end of the road, and look to the north.
While Mildred Falls is hit or miss, Cedar Creek Falls is usually a good bet this time of year. Getting there requires a 4.5-mile round-trip hike. On the way there, it’s mostly downhill, with some rather steep sections towards the end. Just remember you’ll have to hike all the way back up! From the trail-head (see driving directions below), go through the gate to the west and continue on the trail down the canyon. After about 1.5 miles, take the trail that goes up the ridge to your left. When the trail forks again, stay straight to head down into the the tree-lined valley below, then follow Cedar Creek a short distance to the falls. Be very careful here, the rock is slick and it’s a 90-foot drop from the top of the falls to the hard rock below. A nice view of the falls can be had from the top, and if you’re extra adventurous you can get to the beautiful pool at the bottom for an even better view, but it can be a pretty tricky getting down and isn’t recommended for most.
The Three Sisters Falls are even more spectacular than Mildred and Cedar Creek Falls. If you make it here, you’ll think you’re in Yosemite rather than San Diego County, if only for a moment. Unfortunately these falls are quite a bit more challenging to get to, requiring strong boulder-hopping skills and an affinity for poison oak. The Sisters consist of a series of three medium-sized falls with a large pool in the middle. The setting is dramatic but dangerous; the slick rock and steep cliffs can make getting to the middle pool quite a challenge, and getting down is even worse. But even if you don’t try to ascend the falls, you’re rewarded with serenity, beauty, and the knowledge that you’re witnessing something that few in San Diego will ever realize is here.
To get to Mildred and Cedar Creek Falls, take Highway 78 or 67 east from I-15 to Ramona. Continue east out of Ramona on Highway 78 towards Julian. About 6 miles past Santa Ysabel and a mile before Julian, turn right onto Pine Hills Road. Continue for 1.5 miles, then veer right onto Eagle Peak Road. In another mile and a half, keep right to continue on Eagle Peak road. This is where the road turns to dirt and may not be suitable for cars after bad weather. Follow the road about 8 miles to the end where there is a parking area and the trail-head.