Hidden in the apex of a valley just below Sunrise Highway, near the town of Pine Valley, a small stream has worn its way down to the metamorphic bedrock that underlies much of the Laguna Mountains. Engorged to one degree or another by the current winter rains, the stream pulses with energy, alternately spurting over ledges or inclined slabs and pausing in placid pools. This is no Yosemite Falls, to be sure, but one of the many secret beauty spots tucked away on San Diego County's public lands. Known as Cottonwood Creek Falls, it should remain attractive through spring and early summer. By August or maybe September, summer's heat or Santa Ana winds will likely suck it dry.
Access to the falls (over land in the Cleveland National Forest) is by way of a brushy draw leading down from Sunrise Highway. Drive up the highway two miles from Interstate 8 and park in either of the large turnouts past mile marker 15.0. Don't forget to display a National Forest Adventure Pass on your car.
On the right (south) side of the road, follow a narrow, partly overgrown trail that descends beneath power lines. Soon, the trail widens to the semblance of an old road. In March or April, you should see fine displays of white-blossoming ceanothus, beard tongue, and woolly blue curls by the trailside.
As you approach Cottonwood Creek, about three-quarters of a mile down, turn sharply left and go upstream past some large oaks toward the cascades. After some rock scrambling and two crossings of the stream, you'll reach the uppermost fall, where the stream drops ten feet into a crystalline pool about head-high deep. By May or June the water will warm to a temperature suitable for comfortable soaking. After that, the flow in the creek will slacken, and unappealing growths of algae will appear in the water.