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Kitchen Creek clamber

Hike to the top of a waterfall 150 feet above the pool below.

Beautiful, gnarled old manzanitas along the trail
Beautiful, gnarled old manzanitas along the trail

Kitchen Creek Falls is found in a remote canyon off the south flank of the Laguna Mountains that is easily accessed by the well-maintained Pacific Crest Trail. During the wet season, water from higher elevations flows into Kitchen Creek over bedrock slabs and falls into a small pool. The creek continues to flow south down to Lake Morena. Along the trail are abundant wildflowers in spring and early summer.

From the Boulder Oaks parking area and campground, site of a defunct store, carefully make your way across Old Highway 80, following the signs for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) to begin your hike. Follow the trail to the left and down to cross beneath I-8. At this point you are in the riparian zone along Kitchen Creek. It is dominated by cottonwoods that provide abundant shade during the summer months. This is a good spot to see many birds and other wildlife, including mule deer.

Once you pass under the twin I-8 bridges, the trail begins a sharp rise to the right through a series of switchbacks on a north-facing slope. Wildflowers are abundant along this section of trail in the spring and early summer. Once to the top of the switchbacks, pass through a spring-loaded gate (leave it closed behind you). The trail levels out a bit and will gradually rise through chaparral surrounded by manzanita, ceanothus, prickly pear, cholla, and other common chaparral species. After about a mile, there will be an expansive scenic view down onto this portion of the Kitchen Creek watershed. Even in a very dry year, the numerous cottonwoods along the creek make it appear to be a green oasis.

As the trail continues to climb, the overview of the riparian zone becomes even more stunning. At about 2.2 miles into the trip, the PCT takes a turn to the right and continues up the back side of the ridge. At this point, look for a poorly marked trail off to the left. There is a split granite rock formation pointing to the sky that the trail skirts around before it starts to descend. It is poorly maintained here as compared to the PCT, so be careful of loose rocks and spiny yuccas reaching out into the trail that may impale the unobservant hiker. This trail continues to get steeper and eventually the hiker finds himself scrambling to get down to the level of the top ledge of the falls. The bedrock sheets here provide good traction when dry, but when wet, they are extremely slippery since they are polished by the running water. Note that in dry years, the stream may dry up completely late in the season. So, the best time to visit would be in the spring or early summer when wildflowers are out and the sounds of the waterfall guides you to its location. Return to your car by the same trail.

  • Distance from downtown San Diego: 52 miles. Allow 1 hour driving time. From CA-163 north, merge onto I-8 east toward El Centro. Drive 49 miles and exit at Buckman Springs Rd. Turn right (south) at the first stop sign and left (east) at the second stop sign. Proceed for 2 miles to the Forest Service Campground (Boulder Oaks) and parking for the Pacific Crest Trail. A National Forest Adventure Pass is required. Facilities available. Dogs on leashes allowed.
  • Hiking length: About 5 miles out and back. Allow 4 hours.
  • Difficulty: Moderate; requires some scrambling near the falls. Total elevation gain is about 900 feet. There is minimum shade. Wear sunscreen and carry plenty of water.
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Beautiful, gnarled old manzanitas along the trail
Beautiful, gnarled old manzanitas along the trail

Kitchen Creek Falls is found in a remote canyon off the south flank of the Laguna Mountains that is easily accessed by the well-maintained Pacific Crest Trail. During the wet season, water from higher elevations flows into Kitchen Creek over bedrock slabs and falls into a small pool. The creek continues to flow south down to Lake Morena. Along the trail are abundant wildflowers in spring and early summer.

From the Boulder Oaks parking area and campground, site of a defunct store, carefully make your way across Old Highway 80, following the signs for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) to begin your hike. Follow the trail to the left and down to cross beneath I-8. At this point you are in the riparian zone along Kitchen Creek. It is dominated by cottonwoods that provide abundant shade during the summer months. This is a good spot to see many birds and other wildlife, including mule deer.

Once you pass under the twin I-8 bridges, the trail begins a sharp rise to the right through a series of switchbacks on a north-facing slope. Wildflowers are abundant along this section of trail in the spring and early summer. Once to the top of the switchbacks, pass through a spring-loaded gate (leave it closed behind you). The trail levels out a bit and will gradually rise through chaparral surrounded by manzanita, ceanothus, prickly pear, cholla, and other common chaparral species. After about a mile, there will be an expansive scenic view down onto this portion of the Kitchen Creek watershed. Even in a very dry year, the numerous cottonwoods along the creek make it appear to be a green oasis.

As the trail continues to climb, the overview of the riparian zone becomes even more stunning. At about 2.2 miles into the trip, the PCT takes a turn to the right and continues up the back side of the ridge. At this point, look for a poorly marked trail off to the left. There is a split granite rock formation pointing to the sky that the trail skirts around before it starts to descend. It is poorly maintained here as compared to the PCT, so be careful of loose rocks and spiny yuccas reaching out into the trail that may impale the unobservant hiker. This trail continues to get steeper and eventually the hiker finds himself scrambling to get down to the level of the top ledge of the falls. The bedrock sheets here provide good traction when dry, but when wet, they are extremely slippery since they are polished by the running water. Note that in dry years, the stream may dry up completely late in the season. So, the best time to visit would be in the spring or early summer when wildflowers are out and the sounds of the waterfall guides you to its location. Return to your car by the same trail.

  • Distance from downtown San Diego: 52 miles. Allow 1 hour driving time. From CA-163 north, merge onto I-8 east toward El Centro. Drive 49 miles and exit at Buckman Springs Rd. Turn right (south) at the first stop sign and left (east) at the second stop sign. Proceed for 2 miles to the Forest Service Campground (Boulder Oaks) and parking for the Pacific Crest Trail. A National Forest Adventure Pass is required. Facilities available. Dogs on leashes allowed.
  • Hiking length: About 5 miles out and back. Allow 4 hours.
  • Difficulty: Moderate; requires some scrambling near the falls. Total elevation gain is about 900 feet. There is minimum shade. Wear sunscreen and carry plenty of water.
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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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