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31 Jul 2018
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Best of San Diego

When the San Diego area brings the heat, there is nothing better than some cool, refreshing water to dip your toes into. For the adrenaline seekers and sports enthusiasts out there, sometimes the beach watersports just don’t cut it. We’ve got you covered, with the Top 7 San Diego Waterfall Hikes. Get your action in with a hike and reward yourself with a beautiful waterfall view. 

Top 7 San Diego Waterfall Hikes at a Glance

  1. Cedar Creek Falls
  2. Three Sisters Falls
  3. Green Valley Falls
  4. Kitchen Creek Falls
  5. Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve
  6. Cottonwood Creek Falls
  7. Maidenhair Falls

Mileage, Elevation Gain and Details

#1 - Cedar Creek Falls

  • Distance: 5 mi
  • Elevation gain: 1,000 ft
  • Permit required for access

Dubbed “San Diego’s Most Famous Waterfall Hike”, Cedar Creek Falls recently transitioned from being a party spot destination for hikers into a more tranquil experience thanks to a permitting system that was put in place around 2014. Cedar Creek Falls is still highly trafficked, even with the permitting system in place, so it is recommended that you get there early.

The hike is downhill on the way to the falls and uphill on the way back. There is relatively little tree cover on the hike, so remember to bring plenty of water. Those who want to catch the waterfall in action should avoid the summer months, when the streams are likely be dried up.

#2 - Three Sisters Falls

  • Distance: 4.2 mi
  • Elevation gain: 1,076 ft
  • Dogs on leash are welcome

This multi-tiered waterfall hike offers gorgeous views, but isn’t for the faint of heart. While this trail is marked as moderate by many hiking sites, some have cautioned that it is difficult because there is a bit of scrambling involved and the path can get rather narrow through some parts. This hike is best suited for experienced hikers, and is probably not the best choice if kids are tagging along.

Many parts of this trail offer little tree cover, so bring plenty of water. If you do decide to bring your pup, make sure you are hiking early enough to get them down the mountain before the sun gets too hot, as the ground heats up quickly and can burn their paws.

#3 - Green Valley Falls

Manzanita Tree Grove in California

  • Distance: 5.2 mi
  • Elevation gain: 695 ft
  • $8 day use fee

To see the Green Valley Falls, we recommend hiking from Green Valley to Paso Picacho. This loop equates to a 5.2 mile hike, but you can always choose to do an out-and-back just to the waterfalls, since the falls are just around 0.2 miles into the hike.  After making your way through a thick grove of manzanita trees, you will come to a serene waterfall. Green Valley Falls and Paso Picacho offer excellent wildflowers, and you may see some wildlife on your trip.

#4 - Kitchen Creek Falls 

  • Distance: 4.6 mi
  • Elevation gain: 813 ft
  • Dogs on leash are welcome

Kitchen Creek Falls is a moderate hike that will offer users access to a series of waterfalls and various pools of water. This hike is relatively kid friendly due to its moderate elevation and dogs are welcome on leash. Kitchen Creek Falls is in the Cleveland National Forest and is good for birding and checking out the wildflowers.

#5 - Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve

Los Pensaquitos in California

  • Distance: 6.8 mi
  • Elevation gain: 147 ft
  • Dogs on leash are welcome

Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve is a moderate, relatively flat 6.8 mi hike, perfect for adventurous families. This hike is well known, so expect to see quite a few hikers and mountain bikers on the trail. Dogs are welcome, but many have said snakes and ticks are prevalent in the area, so pay close attention to your furry friend.

#6 - Cottonwood Creek Falls

  • Distance: 1.7 mi
  • Elevation gain: 500 ft
  • Dogs on leash are welcome

Cottonwood Creek Falls offers small waterfalls, cascades and pools of water during periods of heavy rainfall. This short hike is moderate, with 500 ft of elevation gain. The trail can be a little tricky to follow occasionally, due to growth and unclear markings, so be sure to bring a map and a compass. Cottonwood Creek Falls is a great place to plan an early lunch picnic, with plenty of room to play and scramble near the small falls. 

#7 - Maidenhair Falls

Big Horn Sheep

  • Distance: 4.9 mi
  • Elevation gain: 971 ft

Maidenhair Falls offers stunning waterfalls when there is rainfall in the area. This out-and-back trail requires a good deal of scrambling, but many say that they would still label it moderate. It’s a great birding trail, and you may even see some big horn sheep at the top. The trail gets pretty hot, and some spots offer little to no shade, so be sure to bring a hat and plenty of water. Dogs are not allowed on this trail, so be sure to leave your furry friend at home for this one.

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