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The triple set of waterfalls dubbed the “Three Sisters” is an amazing San Diego County feature not many have seen. In full flood, these cascades put on a show reminiscent of Yosemite’s show stoppers — except at a reduced scale. Since some of the upstream drainage of Boulder Creek comes from Cuyamaca Reservoir, regulated releases of water there can greatly affect the volume of water flowing over the falls.

Although the round-trip hike measures only four miles from the nearest road, visiting the falls is a task for expert hikers, not beginners. Take along drinking water, and be prepared for some strenuous climbing, both up and down, on marginal pathways and on no trail at all near the falls themselves.

To get to the trailhead from San Diego, exit Interstate 8 at Highway 79 (Descanso exit) and drive north. After 1.3 miles turn left on Riverside Drive. Continue 0.6 mile to the main crossroads (post office, etc.) of the hamlet of Descanso. From there take Oak Grove Drive 1.6 miles to the intersection of Boulder Creek Road on the right. Follow Boulder Creek Road north for 13.0 miles (first half paved, then dirt) to a hairpin turn where unpaved Cedar Creek Road joins from the west. Park there, taking care not to block traffic, and post a National Forest Adventure Pass on your car (the parking area and falls lie in Cleveland National Forest territory).

On foot now, follow the remains of an old ranch road (not Cedar Creek Road) due west for 0.7 mile to a saddle, where an old mining road on the left slants southeast and descends into Sheep Camp Creek. You can both see and hear the falls from this saddle.

Descend southwest on the mining road for 0.4 mile, cross Sheep Camp Creek, and switch back onto a narrow path cut into the south slope. After about 0.3 mile, the trail veers sharply left and passes over a saddle in the divide between Sheep Camp Creek and Boulder Creek.

Next, you negotiate an abrupt drop of 500 vertical feet through chaparral on a primitive — and in places excessively steep and slippery — trail cut by hikers’ footsteps. At the bottom you can either forge a route through the brush and angular rocks along the left side of the creek or (if the water level is not too high) rock hop and wade toward the falls. Great masses of poison oak, intermixed with wild grape vines, lie along the banks. Be very cautious of slippery rocks.

When you reach the base of the waterfalls, all the previous thrashing about will have been worth it. The “middle sister” is impressive, with water sliding 50 feet down a smooth channel worn in the bedrock into a kidney shaped pool about 80 feet long and at least 10 feet deep. Watch your footing — it’s deceptively easy to slip on the smooth rock and perhaps be seriously injured. It’s difficult and dangerous to climb up to the uppermost waterfall, though some agile climbers have done it.

This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.

Three Sisters Falls
Boulder Creek, west of Cuyamaca Peak, cascades down a spectacular triad of waterfalls.
Distance from downtown San Diego:
55 miles
Hiking length: 4 miles round trip
Difficulty: Strenuous

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Comments

Brad Feb. 17, 2008 @ 4:11 p.m.

I just did this hike after a recent rain storm and the falls were amazing! Be ready for a tough hike, though. You even have to use a rope tied off to a tree to repel down and up a section.

-Bradly

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Ramonamama Jan. 20, 2009 @ 3:37 p.m.

Even though the date of this article is Jan 2008 the description of this hike was written before the fire that went through the area in 2003. There is nothing on the slopes. Gone is the chaparral after the saddle above Boulder Creek. That whole hillside is exposed to the sun and unfortunately it is also the steepest part of the hike. Because of the steepness you find yourself on your bottom going down the trail in some parts due to all the lose dirt. Don't hike it you are scare of heights or you aren't steady on your feet. The trail dumps you into a wash for the last couple hundred feet before you hit the floor of the canyon. The wash is full of rocks and in some places you have 8-10 foot dropped you have to maneuver. The tallest and steepest part has the rope that Bradly talks about. The good news is that is the last section before reaching the bottom. The trail veers to the left along the creek. It is where I sat down, realizing that what I went down was crazy. I having a bummed knee realize that I wasn't going to have the energy to get up to even the lowest of the falls since I was still several hundred feet from the pool and ahead were tons of car size boulders to climb over to get to that lower pool. So my son made the trip while I waited for him to return to where I stationed myself along the creek. He said it was really pretty but tough to get up there.

This hike is definitely not for beginners. Climbing back out was the toughest thing I have ever done. Majority of the hikers we met up that day were shirtless guys and tank top girls in their 20's and that was a January day. I can only imagine climbing this in the summer.

My suggestion if you want to go, go on a cool day where the air temps are 50's, 60's and overcast, anything hotter than that makes the trip unpleasant. Give yourself all day to explore the pools (we didn't). Take more water then you think you might need and don't forget something to eat, you burn a lot of calories going not only up but down that steep hillside. Have extra waters in the car for when you get back.

Mr. Schad's book says it takes three hours for this round trip. Us it as your guideline as it takes twice as long going up the two miles then it was going down.

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JeanetteMcGraw April 26, 2010 @ 6:34 p.m.

Lost my wedding ring in the parking area, if anyone finds a white gold wedding ring w/ diamonds, pllleeaassee email or call 760-908-8889 / jeanette.mcgraw@yahoo.com. Lost it there on 04/25/10 :( Doesnt have an engraving.

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nan shartel May 26, 2011 @ 10:36 a.m.

beautiful place...thx for the reminder Jerry ;-D

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Reader Staff July 6, 2011 @ 5:53 p.m.

Please note:

There is a Cedar Creek (not Cedar Creek Road) on the La Jolla reservation, and if you've ended up there it means you haven't followed Jerry's directions and have landed on Palomar Mountain and not in the Santa Ysabel area.

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