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Hot day? Hop in the Harper Creek pools

Vegetation, views, and more on this Cuyamaca-area hike

A meadow runs alongside the Sweetwater River.
A meadow runs alongside the Sweetwater River.
Tracks left by a deer along Harper Creek.
Thick riparian vegetation and oak woodland hide Harper Creek
Views of Stonewall Creek

Harper Creek has a series of shallow bathing pools, making it a popular place to enjoy dipping your toes or jumping in this cool mountain stream on hot days. Although both Harper Creek and the Sweetwater River were dry in August 2014, in a normal year both the river and its tributary creek have abundant flowing water, at least in the spring and early summer. The best time to enjoy wildflowers on this hike is from February through June, although there is something blooming practically throughout the year.

The Harper Creek series of pools are about 1.5 miles from the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Visitor Center. Go south on the Cold Stream Trail from the visitor center day use parking lot through a forest of Jeffrey and Coulter pines interspersed with huge inland live oaks. In about half a mile the trail crosses the Sweetwater River and ascends the bank to join the East Side Trail. Turn left on the East Side Trail and head northeast as it crosses the grassy meadow that flanks the Sweetwater River. Among the non-native annual grasses that cover the meadow will be sand asters, goldenbush, golden yarrow, goldenrod, lupines, mariposa lilies, cream cups, California columbine, tall buckwheat, and many other colorful native wildflowers with blooms, depending on the season and rainfall.

Harper Creek, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

In about 0.75 mile, the East Side Trail enters Harper Creek drainage and continues for a quarter of a mile on the west side of the creek before crossing it. A well-trod use trail leads to the pools that are close to 0.1 mile on up the creek from that point. The Harper Creek trail passes through an oak woodland with scattered inland live oaks mixed with numerous chaparral shrubs, including whitethorn lilac, holly leaf red berry, California wild rose, Palmer lilac, and mountain mahogany. These can put on a colorful show even in the absence of flowing water in the creek. Be on the lookout and avoid poison oak that might be present near the water with an oil urushiol or resin on all surfaces. The extremely variable plant can fool people in that it can look like a small tree (as found in Black Canyon), a climbing vine, or it can grow in thickets, but it can be identified by its leaves, mostly in threes with the terminating leaflet having a short stem. The leaves can be glossy or matte finished with the color ranging from bright green to red. There are small white flowers that, when fertilized, develop cream-colored berries. No matter how attractive do not touch as the urushiol oil can cause rashes or dermatitis upon contact. A safe habit for any age is to follow “leaves of three, let it be” until you can identify this plant. Once you enjoy the pools, return the way you came.


Distance from downtown San Diego: 49 miles. Allow 1 hour driving time. From I-8 E, exit at SR79/Descanso and drive north about 9 miles to the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Visitor Center. Trailhead parking is just south of the visitor center. Day-use fee required.

Hiking length: 3 miles out-and-back.

Difficulty: Easy. Elevation gain/loss about 200 feet. Facilities and water available at the visitor center. Horses are allowed but no dogs or mountain bikes.

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A meadow runs alongside the Sweetwater River.
A meadow runs alongside the Sweetwater River.
Tracks left by a deer along Harper Creek.
Thick riparian vegetation and oak woodland hide Harper Creek
Views of Stonewall Creek

Harper Creek has a series of shallow bathing pools, making it a popular place to enjoy dipping your toes or jumping in this cool mountain stream on hot days. Although both Harper Creek and the Sweetwater River were dry in August 2014, in a normal year both the river and its tributary creek have abundant flowing water, at least in the spring and early summer. The best time to enjoy wildflowers on this hike is from February through June, although there is something blooming practically throughout the year.

The Harper Creek series of pools are about 1.5 miles from the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Visitor Center. Go south on the Cold Stream Trail from the visitor center day use parking lot through a forest of Jeffrey and Coulter pines interspersed with huge inland live oaks. In about half a mile the trail crosses the Sweetwater River and ascends the bank to join the East Side Trail. Turn left on the East Side Trail and head northeast as it crosses the grassy meadow that flanks the Sweetwater River. Among the non-native annual grasses that cover the meadow will be sand asters, goldenbush, golden yarrow, goldenrod, lupines, mariposa lilies, cream cups, California columbine, tall buckwheat, and many other colorful native wildflowers with blooms, depending on the season and rainfall.

Harper Creek, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

In about 0.75 mile, the East Side Trail enters Harper Creek drainage and continues for a quarter of a mile on the west side of the creek before crossing it. A well-trod use trail leads to the pools that are close to 0.1 mile on up the creek from that point. The Harper Creek trail passes through an oak woodland with scattered inland live oaks mixed with numerous chaparral shrubs, including whitethorn lilac, holly leaf red berry, California wild rose, Palmer lilac, and mountain mahogany. These can put on a colorful show even in the absence of flowing water in the creek. Be on the lookout and avoid poison oak that might be present near the water with an oil urushiol or resin on all surfaces. The extremely variable plant can fool people in that it can look like a small tree (as found in Black Canyon), a climbing vine, or it can grow in thickets, but it can be identified by its leaves, mostly in threes with the terminating leaflet having a short stem. The leaves can be glossy or matte finished with the color ranging from bright green to red. There are small white flowers that, when fertilized, develop cream-colored berries. No matter how attractive do not touch as the urushiol oil can cause rashes or dermatitis upon contact. A safe habit for any age is to follow “leaves of three, let it be” until you can identify this plant. Once you enjoy the pools, return the way you came.


Distance from downtown San Diego: 49 miles. Allow 1 hour driving time. From I-8 E, exit at SR79/Descanso and drive north about 9 miles to the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Visitor Center. Trailhead parking is just south of the visitor center. Day-use fee required.

Hiking length: 3 miles out-and-back.

Difficulty: Easy. Elevation gain/loss about 200 feet. Facilities and water available at the visitor center. Horses are allowed but no dogs or mountain bikes.

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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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