Normally by the time early summer arrives, water flowing down the larger canyons of San Diego's backcountry slows to a trickle. This post-El Niño summer season is proving to be the 10- or 20-year exception. Perhaps nowhere else is this reversal of trends more dramatically illustrated than in Boulder Creek, a tributary of the San Diego River. Water spilling from Cuyamaca Reservoir continues to flow down the narrow canyon of Boulder Creek, reaching at one point an amazing three-tiered cascade known as the Three Sisters waterfalls.
Three Sisters waterfalls
The falls are accessible by way of a short (two miles one way) but challenging hiking route through lands newly incorporated into the Cleveland National Forest. Get an early start, wear sturdy boots and sun-shielding clothing, and take plenty of drinking water -- three quarts per person for hiking the route on an average summer day.
The starting point is the intersection of unpaved Boulder Creek and Cedar Creek roads, 10 miles south of the community of Pine Hills near Julian, and 15 miles north of Descanso. Whether you approach from either the north or the south, count on at least 1.5 hours' driving time to get to the trailhead from most parts of metropolitan San Diego. You'll need to obtain and post a National Forest Adventure Pass on your car for the privilege of parking (call 619-673-6180 or 760-788-0250 for information).
From the trailhead, follow the remains of an old ranch road (not Cedar Creek Road) due west for 0.7 mile to a saddle, where a deteriorating old mining road on the left slants southeast. Make a sharp left on the mining road, descend 0.4 mile, cross Sheep Camp Creek, and switch back onto a narrow path going west along the creek. After another 0.3 mile, the trail veers sharply left and passes over a saddle in the divide between Sheep Camp Creek and Boulder Creek. Down below, in the V-shaped gorge of Boulder Creek, you'll both see and hear the falls. Perhaps you may want to stash some of your water at the saddle for pick-up on the return.
Next, you negotiate an abrupt drop of 500 vertical feet on a primitive trail cut by hikers' footsteps through the dense chaparral. Near the bottom of this passage are a couple of slide-on-your-butt sections. At the bottom, starting in oak woods, forge a path along the left side of the creek. Take care to avoid contact with poison-oak, which grows conspicuously here.
When you reach the waterfalls, all the previous trouble 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 perhaps 10 feet deep. Watch your footing -- it's deceptively easy to slip and fall on the smooth rock and be seriously injured. Six weeks ago the cascading water was so swift and violent that I avoided taking a dip in the pools. The flow will likely slacken through the summer, barring any unusual thunderstorm activity.
After the fun is over, you face an unwelcome, sweaty climb of nearly 1000 feet to get back to your car. This is where the extra water will come in handy.