Distance: 4.0 miles | Hiking time: 3 hours | Difficulty: 7/10 | More info.
Cleveland National Forest is home to some of San Diego’s most revered hiking trails, campgrounds and backcountry destinations, not least among them is Three Sisters Falls. Head out to Three Sisters Falls during the winter or springtime when the falls are flowing for a hike you won’t soon forget.
The trailhead is located on a dirt section of Boulder Creek Road southwest of Julian. The trail is not an official trail, which means that there are no facilities available, including restrooms, trash pickup or parking. The locals who live in the area use the road, so be respectful and park well off the side of the road so as not to obstruct traffic.
Also read: Three Sisters Falls Springtime Hike
There are two trails that lead away from Boulder Creek Road. The trail to the right is for off-road vehicles. Not sure where it leads, but I am sure it doesn’t lead to Three Sisters Falls. The gated trail to the left is marked by a small sign notifying visitors that the trail is not maintained and asking that they please pack out their trash.
Pass the gate and continue along the trail where you will pass a lone group of old oak trees sitting atop a small hill. Beyond the hill, at about the one mile mark, the trail splits off in two directions. Straight ahead is a lesser traveled trail that leads to Eagle Peak, a popular spot for rock climbing and sport climbers. Three Sisters Falls trail takes off sharply to the left, where the fast descent down into the valley begins and you can get your first glimpse of the falls.
The trail is steep and gets progressively steeper and more technical as you near the bottom of the valley. Loose dirt and gravel combine with the force of gravity, making the terrain tough to navigate. At times, and in places, ropes are available to aid with your descent. When I was there in August, however, there were no ropes to be found, so don’t rely on them to get you past the more dangerous spots.
Large boulders line the river valley floor. From here, you can either boulder hop up river or follow one of the trails along side it, for around 1/2 mile to the base of Three Sisters Falls.
When the river is flowing, the pools beneath the falls offer a cool and refreshing spot for a swim. Some of the more adventurous hikers will take to the falls for an exhilarating slide down the slippery rock face before splashing into the pool below.
When the river is dry, the pools get green and stagnant. Sadly, they are also a collection point for litter that’s been left by some less respectful visitors.
If you feel like doing a little climbing and scrambling, you can work your way up and even past each of the three falls. It can get a little sketchy up there, so be aware of your fitness level and don’t exceed your own climbing capabilities.
At the river’s edge there are many places to sit and relax in the sun, or kick back in the shade for a snack or a picnic and lighten the load a bit for your hike out. It’s a tough one, so take your time.
Hiking out of the valley requires following the same route out as in. Gravity is not your friend in either direction on this trail, so take it slow and avoid over exerting yourself.
Three Sisters Falls Hike Retrospective
This was a challenging hike, especially considering that we hit the trail at about 11:00 am on blistering hot August morning. By the time we were ready to start our ascent out of the valley it was 1:00 pm and the temperature was hovering around 100 degrees. We were warned by a park ranger at the campground where we were staying that of all the times to choose this hike, we had probably chosen the worst. He was right.
Folks, heed my warning. Avoid this place during the hot summer months. The heat is no joke and neither is the hike out. There’s very little shade on the trail once you leave the valley floor, and it takes a lot longer to get out of the valley than it does to get in.
Aside from the heat, the amount of trash on the trail was remarkable. I’m always amazed at how little respect people have for the environment, but this was astounding. Discarded water bottles were the most common sight. They could be found everywhere along the trail, on the hillside, in bushes and in the pools beneath the falls. I even picked up a freshly dropped bag of half-eaten trail mix on my way out near the Oak Trees at the top of the trail.
Finally, California is in a drought and we haven’t had any significant rain here in San Diego for some time, so the falls were dry. Only the pools beneath them had water, and it was green, mucky and filled with litter. The big reward and cool waters of Three Sisters Falls was not to be had on this day, though we already knew that before we headed in.
I would love to return to Three Sisters Falls in the future when it’s a bit cooler and after we’ve had some rain. Perhaps then I will be able to give this hike the glowing review it probably deserves. Until then, it stands at a solid “meh” on my list of San Diego’s hiking trails.
- Don’t be fooled by the hike in. The hike out is substantially more challenging.
- Avoid this hike if you are out of shape or if the temperature is in excess of 80 degrees.
- Drink a lot of water before you leave your car, and bring no less than two liters per person if you want to avoid a helicopter escort.
- Wear hiking shoes or trail runners, or you’re asking for trouble.
- Leave the valley when there is still plenty of daylight. The trail can be easy to lose and people have gotten lost as a result.
My Runkeeper Stats
- Miles: 4
- Time hiking: 1:54:14
- Calories burned: 461
- Max elevation: 2903 ft.
- Min elevation: 1988 ft.
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