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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The first part of the hike is easy to follow. The informal route to the waterfall is excessively steep, badly eroded, and an accident waiting to happen. The route along the creek passes through thickets of poison oak.
With a permit from Cleveland National Forest, backpackers can camp in the gorge. The nearest campground is William Heise County Park in Julian.
From Highway 78 west of Julian, drive south on Pine Hills Road. Continue 1.6 miles to Eagle Peak Road, and turn right. After 1.1 miles, turn left onto Boulder Creek Road, and keep right to remain on Boulder Creek Road after 1.5 miles. After another 5.8 miles of dirt road, find the parking area for the trail at a hairpin turn.
Learn about new trail guides, outdoor news, and events in the free Modern Hiker Newsletter. All original content and guaranteed not to flood your inbox -- new issues usually come every 2-3 weeks.