Hiking Three Sisters Falls Trail
San Diego is home to three significant portions of the Cleveland National Forest. This area of forest holds about 460,000 ares of mountainous and and valley recreational opportunities. Although waterfalls in Southern California are few in number, they can be found. Three Sisters Falls is one of the few San Diego waterfalls. This trail in particular has been been gaining in popularity over the years. The hike features three cascading waterfalls that flow down through Boulder Creek.
It’s estimated that the three cascades total approximately one hundred fifty feet in height altogether. On a good water year, the middle sister fall cascades approximately fifty feet. The third sister is notoriously known for being a natural water slide. People slide about thirty feet down to a large natural pond at the bottom of the cascades.
Three Sisters Falls is located along Boulder Creek. This creek is highly seasonal and is at peak flow in the late winter to late spring. Winter rains and snow feed water into the basin from the creek’s origin near Cuyamaca Lake to the east. The creek itself runs through the foothills and valleys and eventually connects with the San Diego River below Cedar Creek Falls. From the Three Sisters trailhead there are incredible views of Cuyamaca Peak to the east and El Cajon Mountain to the west.
Although this trail can be crowded, San Diego’s foothills always give a great opportunity for viewing wildlife. Some of the area’s larger wildlife can be encountered here such as deer, coyotes, bobcats, and the rare mountain lion. Snakes can be very common. While hiking down in the valley, take an occasional look up towards the sky. Larger birds of prey like eagles, falcons, and hawks can be spotted. During the spring the trail is usually lined with wildflowers.
On A Personal Note:
This is an amazing trail for San Diego standards. On a good rain year the creek can really get flowing. Three Sisters Falls has been growing in popularity over the last several years. To avoid the crowds, aim to hike this trail during the week if possible. With the increase in popularity also comes hikers that don’t practice trail etiquette. When my wife and I hiked this trail we came across several groups of people blasting loud music through portable speakers. Please remember to practice Leave No Trace Principles while out on the trail – that includes leaving the speakers behind.
Keep in mind there is about fifteen miles of a dirt road in order to get to this trail. Immediately after a rain this road can become washed out and may not be suitable for all vehicles. I saw one car in particular have to turn around. Since this trail is within the Cleveland National Forest, an Adventure Pass or America The Beautiful Pass is required. I was a little disappointed to see that many of the vehicles had no recreational permit displayed at all.
Looking for a trail with similar views? Check out Cedar Creek Falls. This trail of similar distance and difficulty leads to a punchbowl waterfall along the San Diego River. Don’t forget your permit.
Do you have any updates to the hiking trail or want to share your hike/pictures? Please leave a comment below.
- Overall Difficulty: 70% 70%
- Overall Views: 100% 100%
Three Sisters Fall Trail Quick Facts:
- Elevation: 2893 feet.
- Elevation Gain/Loss: 891 feet.
- Estimated Distance: 4.5 miles.
- My Actual Distance: 4.01 miles.
- Estimated Time: 2-5 hours.
- My Time: 1 hour 57 minutes moving; 2 hours and 15 minutes total.
Three Sister's Fall Trail Directions:
Don’t forget an Adventure Pass or an America The Beautiful Pass. The parking lot is composed of dirt and is of decent size. On weekends the lot fills up very quickly and parking will need to be done along the shoulder of Boulder Creek Road.
Three Sisters Fall Trail Pictures:
Who Who Three Sisters Falls Trail Is For:
Many hikers expend their water and energy at the waterfall not taking into account the hike back up to the parking lot. Temperatures in the middle of the day during the summer can easily exceed over one hundred degrees in the valley. Prepare accordingly and consider doing this hike with someone more experienced if choosing to do this trail. Bring ample amounts of water.
Advanced Hikers: This trail is a wonderful hike for advanced hikers. It will be on the easy side but the views are great.
Expert Hikers: Aim to hike this trail during the middle of the week when it’s not as busy. Otherwise, the crowd factor may be a bummer for some. Definitely check this trail off the San Diego bucket list of hikes.
Same. It’s always a good idea to be aware of what type of hiking level you’re at.
Best Time Of Year To Hike Three Sisters Falls:
Three Sisters Falls is best hiked from mid winter to late spring after the winter rains and snowfall fill San Diego’s watershed. When the temperatures start to warm up in early spring the hillsides can have some wonderful blooming wildflowers. Depending on the total rainfall accumulation for the year, by summer the waterfall usually is all but a trickle by summer. By the time fall rolls around, the creek may not be flowing at all. Many people still opt to do this trail to go swim in the pool.
The hike down to the valley can have very hot temperatures. There have been multiple reported rescues and fatalities from along this trail. Temperatures at the trailhead can be deceiving because the elevation is able to capture the westerly sea breeze. Down in the valley temperatures can be extremely hot with no air movement. The Forest Service routinely closes access to this trail during stretches of extreme heat.
Always remember to check the weather before heading out on a hike.
Three Sisters Falls Trail Conditions:
The trail to Three Sisters Falls is in very good condition and is maintained by the United States Forest Service and through general use. The only water crossing is down in Boulder Creek for getting to the other side of the valley. There is a smaller seasonal creek that runs into Boulder Creek from near the trailhead. This portion of the trail offers a small amount of shade for a very short portion of the hike. Otherwise the trail is completely exposed to the sun. Poison oak is frequent along shady portions of the trail. Do not wander off the trail because in certain areas, the vine grows right up to the trail. Rattlesnakes are common. As a reminder, this is an out and back trail. Getting to the waterfall is a decline down into a valley. Getting back out requires a steep ascent back to the parking lot.
In 2018 the Forest Service revamped the trail. Prior to the new trail, rock scrambling into out out of the valley was required. The new trail is cut out into the side of the valley and is very straight forward. However, watch your footing. Slipping off the side of the trail could result in a tumble down several hundred feet. The safest route up to the third sister is by crossing Boulder Creek and then going up. Use caution, the rocks can be very slippery. Many people also slide down waterfall into a pool at the bottom. Do this at your own risk. There have been injuries doing so.