Distance (round-trip)

4.5 mi

Time

3.5 hrs

Elevation Gain

1100 ft

Season

Spring
Winter

Weather

UPDATE (7/12/2017): Cleveland National Forest may close access to this trail during heat advisories (temperatures of 95 degrees or greater). Be sure to follow weather reports for the area days in advance (Ramona, Descanso), which is good practice no matter where you hike. Or better yet, call the Palomar Ranger District in advance of your visit to get an update on current conditions: (760) 788-0250. 

For a long time, I’ve debated whether or not to cover Three Sisters Falls for Modern Hiker. Sure, it’s an incredibly popular destination made justly famous by beautiful scenery. It is debatably the most beautiful waterfall in San Diego County. On the other hand, it is a magnet for irresponsible use, attracting unprepared hikers who occasionally find themselves ending their hikes with an expensive helicopter ride to an urgent care facility.

This hike has become a major problem due to numerous injuries, rescues, and occasional fatalities. Perhaps you can appreciate the dilemma: Do I create another enticement that draws hikers to Three Sisters Falls, thus exacerbating the problem? Or, is this a platform for me to inspire and educate at least a few visitors to come prepared for what they will face?

Three Sisters Falls (14)

Boulder Creek

The answer is ultimately both. Any further encouragement will probably add more volume to the already copious traffic down to the trio of cascades deep within Boulder Creek Gorge. However, you’d better believe I am going to load this write-up with all of the safety information you need and may not have known you needed. While I understand the magnetic pull of this magical destination, I cannot abide visitors who show up not knowing what they’re in for.

Three Sisters Falls (2)

The route to Three Sisters Falls is a user-created path that descends straight down a badly eroded, dangerously steep slope. When the trail does bottom out, it continues along another user-created trail through thickets of poison oak. While temperatures within the gorge are generally mild throughout the winter, summertime temperatures often exceed 100 degrees.

Three Sisters Falls (1)

Many hikers arrive at the trailhead around 11 am or noon when temperatures are just beginning to approach their peak. Some of these hikers come equipped for a good time, and nearly everybody who visits this trail seems to have some kind of story about a hiker in flip flops carrying absolutely no water while lugging a 12 pack of beer over his or her shoulder. These unsuspecting folks have little trouble on the descent, which doesn’t tax the body’s resources or cause hikers’ core temperatures to spike. These hikers spend the day climbing around the falls, lounging in the pools, and indulging in substances of varying legalities.

Three Sisters Falls (20)

The “trail”

Around 4 or 5 pm, these hikers decide to pack it up (at least partially – I fished several beer cans out of the creek when I visited) and head back to their cars. What they face is a steep, slippery, uphill climb during the hottest part of the day following hours of dehydrating alcohol consumption and sun exposure. It should come as no surprise then, that nearly every week during the summer at least one person gets rescued from the gorge due to heat related injuries like heat exhaustion, dehydration, or heat stroke. Other hikers get injured due to the dangerous trail conditions. Still other hikers make wrong turns and end up going down Boulder Creek Gorge only to get lost in the vegetation.

Three Sisters Falls (3)

Cuyamaca Peak following a March storm

These outcomes are completely avoidable if you come prepared for this hike. We HIGHLY RECOMMEND (note the all-caps, bold, italicized text for emphasis) that you heed the following advice when considering your visit to Three Sisters Falls:

  1. Avoid visiting during the summer. Temperatures here are often excessive and cruel, and Boulder Creek often runs dry during the summer anyway. Do you really want to climb down a dangerous trail during a hot day only to find stagnant, algae covered pools with no waterfalls?
  2. Get an early start. The earlier the better. First off, you’ll beat the crowds. Second, you’ll avoid climbing out again at the hottest part of the day. This also means you can avoid having a helicopter ride to the nearest ER to get intravenous fluids and unspoken judgment from the paramedics.
  3. DO NOT BRING YOUR DOG. Yes, you will probably see dogs on the trail, but that doesn’t mean these dog owners have made a wise decision. Dogs overheat much faster than humans. And, while dogs are usually adept at handling all kinds of terrain, the slippery descent and climb into and out of the gorge may prove to be too much for them.
  4. Bring a lot of water, electrolyte supplements, and salty snacks. Also, drink them and eat them. Frequently. This will help you stave off dehydration.
  5. Find another place to party. Do not bring beer. It will dehydrate you. Do not get high. That will dehydrate you too. Substances will impair your balance, putting you at risk for one of gravity’s practical jokes.
  6. Bring sturdy shoes with a strong grip. The trail gets more treacherous every day, and your footwear could be the difference between a slow, gentle descent and a rapid, rugged descent. No flip flops please.
  7. DO NOT BRING YOUR KIDS. For the same reasons why your dog will struggle, your children will also struggle. Do you really want to destroy hiking for your children by dragging them down a dangerous trail in the heat?

    Three Sisters Falls (8)

    Chaparral whitethorn (ceanothus)

So, yes. I just spent 850 words trying to scare you into being careful on this hike. I could easily spend another 850 words doing so. Please spare us both the tedium of extended warnings and take my word for it: BE CAREFUL. This is one of the more dangerous routes in San Diego County. If you are not prepared, you can be badly injured … and if you make all the wrong choices, you could become irreversibly, incontravertably, and irrevocably dead.

Three Sisters Falls (6)

Engelmann Oaks

From the trailhead (note that big red stop sign with all the warnings), pass over the barrier and commence your hike along a wide, undulating dirt road. This trailhead also provides access to Eagle Peak, which gets a fraction of the visitation for the sin of not being a waterfall.  After 1 mile, a side trail splits off from the road bearing left to head into Sheep Camp Canyon. You’ll see the falls from this vantage 1000 feet below. Even from here, they are an impressive sight, provided there’s water flowing.

Three Sisters Falls (9)

Three Sisters Falls from 1000′ up

The trail winds its way around a usually dry drainage under the shade of oaks recovering from the 2003 Cedar Fire. After coming around a bend, the trail reaches a crest and comes upon the edge of Boulder Creek Gorge. Here begins a steep, slippery, badly eroded descent that ought to be put out of its misery as soon as possible. Cleveland National Forest continues to work on a plan that will replace this dangerous route with a gently descending, officially-sanctioned, and professionally engineered route that traverses the canyon’s eastern wall. This new route will avoid the bottom of the gorge, thus removing the danger from poison oak.

Three Sisters Falls (11)

The wretched trail to the bottom of the gorge

Just before the bottom, the “trail” comes to a drop off that you must scale with the aid of a rope. Please note that your dog, who lacks opposable thumbs and thus cannot use a rope, will not thank you for the predicament you’ve put it in if you’ve decided to bring them along for the trip. It should also be noted that the Forest Service pulls dead dogs out of this canyon and the nearby hike to Cedar Creek Falls with depressing regularity during the summer months.

Three Sisters Falls (18)

The Lower Sister

Three Sisters Falls (17)

The Middle Sister

Once at the bottom, turn left to follow a vague, user-created path over boulders and through thickets of poison oak. After 2.2 miles, the path enters a large bowl near the base of the falls. The first two falls, the Lower and Middle Sisters, are visible, but the upper falls are not clearly visible from this vantage.

Three Sisters Falls (16)

The Upper Sister

The smart thing to do at this point would be to content yourself with lounging around the base of the lower Sister. If you can’t resist the temptation to find the Upper Sister, you can carefully scramble up granite slabs, preferably on the left (east) side of the lower Sisters to arrive at the circular grotto into which spills the 15 foot waterfall. Once again, be careful here. I am a fairly able and confident scrambler when it comes to boulders, and I managed to tweak my ankle on this section after slipping and bending my leg to slow my fall. I could have easily broken it had I not known how to arrest myself. Even now, I think it was stupid of me to try to reach the Upper Sister. I don’t recommend trying it.

Three Sisters Falls (13)

Small cascade on Boulder Creek

The return route retraces your steps, but keep in mind the difficulty of what’s ahead. The climb will be challenging. The temps will be warmer. You will have used up a lot of energy descending and fooling around by Three Sisters Falls. The return route is why we give this hike a “strenuous” rating, even though experienced hikers might find this rating laughable. With care, patience, and caution, you’ll return to the trailhead, hopefully with a smile on your face.

Scott is an L.A. native and San Diego transplant who pulls every trick in the book to get out on the trail. His first book, a revision of Afoot and Afield San Diego County, is now out.





Water Features

Waterfall

Trail Map

3 Comments

Alma Pigeon Aug 18, 2017 15:08

I know is not recommended to hike there in August, but has anyone hiked 3 Sisters in the past week. If so can you share your experience and condition if falls.

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Casey Schreiner Jun 20, 2017 14:06In reply to: Steve

All good tips, Steve. Thanks!

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Steve Jun 20, 2017 14:06

A good writeup. I think it's valuable to put in all the scary stuff early. I do this trail at least once a year (three times this year), and *every* time I go, I see people woefully under-prepared, even to the point of effectively being completely unprepared. But, at this point, the hike is all over Facebook, so the Internet needs good resources.

If people are turned off by the scary stuff, they are probably better off not doing this one. And I'm not being an elitist. It's not impossible, and requires no special skills, but it's not a joke either. Definitely not a "Starbucks and Chill" hike like Cowles Mountain or even Woodson (Potato Chip) that you roll up to mid-morning with your pals from yoga class. This is a serious hike and the sign isn't just trying to scare you away.

Do: Bring at least 2 liters of water. More is better, but two is minimum. If your hiking hobby hasn't progressed to the point that you already own a Camelbak or such, you probably shouldn't be out there yet.

Bring real shoes. I've done this in cross-trainers, but at this point, it's deal to have some kind of boots or at least trail shoes. Something with grip and that won't tear your feet up on steep descents/ascents.

Be in shape. You don't have to be an athlete, but you need to be not fat. Put Three Sisters as one of your fitness goals for next year.

Go with somebody who has done it before.

Go in the Fall/Winter/Early Spring.

Don't go in July or August. Good lord people. Google "Descanso Weather". If it's in the 90s, it's even hotter at the falls, and chances are you have no business out there.

Don't bring your dog. I don't care if your dog has gone on other hikes before you. Your dog won't like this hike, and chances are if you brought him, and you thought your dog *did* like the hike, you're not a very good dog whisperer.

Don't show up at noon unless you plan to stay all day and hike out around sunset. You're basically going to end up hiking in and out in direct sunlight.

Don't go if it's been raining within the last few days. The trail will be muddy and the rocks will be slippery.

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