Three Sisters Falls Trail
Cleveland National Forest is home to some of San Diego’s most revered hiking trails, campgrounds, and backcountry destinations. Not least among them is the Three Sisters Falls trail.
Located in Cleveland National Forest in San Diego County, California, Three Sisters Falls is a challenging but rewarding hike. The trail takes you through a picturesque valley with stunning views of the surrounding mountains. The trailhead is accessible via Boulder Creek Road, and the hike to the falls is approximately four miles roundtrip. Visitors should be aware of the difficulty of the trail and the potential hazards, especially during hot weather.
If you’re looking for a challenging and rewarding hike in San Diego, the Three Sisters Falls trail might be just what you’re after. Head out to Three Sisters Waterfalls during the winter or springtime to get the most out of your visit.
Getting to the Three Sisters Falls Trailhead
The trailhead is located on a dirt section of Boulder Creek Road southwest of Julian. Since the trail is unofficial, there are no facilities available, such as restrooms, trash pickup, or designated parking areas. Area locals use the road too, so be respectful and park well off the side to avoid obstructing traffic.
Two trails 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 trail is gated and marked by a small sign informing visitors that the trail is not maintained and asking that they please pack out their trash.
After passing the gate, you will come across a lone group of old oak trees atop a small hill. Beyond the hill, at about the one-mile mark, the trail splits off in two directions. Straight ahead, a trail leads to Eagle Peak, which is a popular spot for rock climbing and sport climbers. The Three Sisters Falls trail descends sharply to the left. Here, you’ll catch your first glimpse of the falls 1000 feet below.
The Hike to Three Sisters Falls
The trail becomes increasingly steep and technical, with loose dirt and gravel making the terrain difficult to navigate. At times, and in places, ropes are available to aid with your descent. I visited in August and there were no ropes available to assist with navigating the more dangerous spots. For this reason, you shouldn’t rely on ropes being present for your descent.
Large boulders line the river valley floor. At this point, you can choose to boulder hop up the river or follow one of the trails along its side. From this point, you’ll reach the base of Three Sisters Falls in approximately half a mile.
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, the pools are also a collection point for litter left by previous 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. Climbing and scrambling past each of the three falls can be precarious, so be cautious if you decide to attempt the climb.
Numerous spots are available at the river’s edge to sit and relax in the sun. It’s also a good spot to retreat into the shade for a snack or a picnic, which may help ease the difficulty of the 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.
Looking Back on a Challenging Hike
This was a challenging hike, especially considering that we hit the trail at about 11:00 am on a 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. A park ranger at the campground where we were staying warned us that of all the times to choose this hike, we had probably chosen the worst. He was right.
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 were not to be had on this day, though we expected that before we headed in.
Final Thoughts on Three Sisters Falls
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 the list of my San Diego hiking trails.
Avoid this hike 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.
- Don’t be fooled by the hike down. The hike out is substantially more challenging.
- Avoid this hike if the temperature is over 80 degrees.
- Drink a lot of water before you leave your car, and bring no less than two liters per person with you if you want to avoid a helicopter escort.
- Leave extra water in your car in case you’ve run dry on the trail.
- Wear sturdy hiking shoes with good traction.
- Leave the valley when there is still plenty of daylight. The trail is easy to lose and people have gotten lost as a result.