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The 5 Best Waterfall Hikes in San Diego

These five hikes offer the opportunity to explore gorgeous natural falls
Courtesy of AllTrails

When I moved to San Diego two years ago, I quickly learned that residents love their hikes. And why wouldn’t we? Hiking is great exercise. It’s the perfect way to clear your head and—let’s be real—an ideal environment for gossiping with your friends. 

But San Diego’s hiking culture stands out because, here, you can hit the trails year-round. Though spring’s typical rains may make us scowl at the sky, they also resurrect our soil, turning once dry and arid places vibrant and vegetated. The rain also replenishes the various waterfalls that pepper San Diego’s landscape, sprucing up the views on some of locals’ favorite hikes. Here are a few of the best trails for spotting waterfalls in San Diego. 

Hike at Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail near Mira Mesa featuring boulders up surrounding a stream at the top of the mountain
Courtesy of Friends of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve

Where to See Waterfalls in San Diego

Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail 

This long but low-effort hike offers a perfect opportunity to psychoanalyze every relationship you’ve ever been in as you reconnect with nature. On the way to the waterfall that trickles over volcanic rock, you’ll meander through one of the most biodiverse regions in Southern California, spotting giant California oak trees and hopefully a few red-tailed hawks and mule deer. Be sure to check the park’s website beforehand to ensure that the trails aren’t closed due to weather conditions.

Length: 6.7 miles 

Estimated time: 3 hours

Price: $3 parking fee (cash only)

San Diego waterfall hike at Oak Canyon Trail near Mission Gorge featuring brick wall up against the river and dead trees
Courtesy of Outdoor Project

Oak Canyon Trail

This moderately difficult trail looks its best after heavy rainfall, when a bubbling creek runs through the canyon and creates many small waterfalls that stream over the jutting, tiered rocks. You can bring your pup, but keep them leashed so as not to disturb the visitors jogging, biking, and bird-watching in the area. Because of the many rocks and uneven terrain, be sure to wear sturdy shoes that you don’t mind getting a little wet. 

Length: 3.3 miles

Estimated time: 1.5 hours

Price: Free

San Diego waterfall hike at Cedar Creek Falls near Alpine featuring a tall waterfall leading into a pond surrounded by boulders
Courtesy of AllTrails

Cedar Creek Falls

Cedar Creek Falls is one of the more well-known San Diego hikes. Studded with massive hills, the trail seems to beckon trekkers into a Lord of the Rings–style quest. You’ll begin by heading downhill to reach the waterfall, so be sure to bring enough water to sustain you on the way back up, especially on hot days. Follow the trailheads, which will lead you past large boulders, small streams, and maybe even some sunbathing snakes (always be on the lookout!) to the falls. The water cascades into a small pool, a perfect spot for swimming and cooling off. 

Length: 5 miles

Estimated time: 3 hours

Price: A $6 reservation permit needs to be purchased before arrival. The permit covers up to five people in a group.

Person in swim trucks jumping into the Green Valley falls, a San Diego waterfall hike near Mount Laguna
Courtesy of Pinterest

Green Valley Falls

If you want a low-commitment, high-reward trail, the Green Valley Falls provide a relaxed, scenic environment where many locals enjoy picnicking, sunbathing, bird-watching, and swimming in the several chilled pools at the bottom of the waterfalls. Get to the site early, as parking can fill up quickly. Check one of the four “Birds of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park” identification stations and see if you can spot an acorn woodpecker, a northern flicker, or a barn owl. Unfortunately, dogs are not allowed on this trail, so your pup will have to come along on the next adventure

Length: 0.5 miles

Estimated time: 20 minutes

Price: $10 parking fee

Aerial view of the Three Sisters San Diego waterfall hike near Pine Hills alongside the mountains
Courtesy of Facebook

Three Sisters Falls Trails

Named after the three different waterfalls you will encounter on this moderately intense hike, Three Sisters is for those who want more than just your average flat trek. There are a few areas along the popular path that require descending steep rocks, aided by ropes that have been bolted down, so take all the necessary precautions: Have enough water, shoes with grip, and a courageous attitude. While leashed dogs are allowed, ask your pooch ahead of time if they’re okay with doing some scrambling. The view of the waterfalls makes up for the rigorous journey it takes to get there, so relish in the beauty, splash some fresh water on your face, and stay alert to avoid slipping on wet rocks.

Length: 4.1 miles

Estimated time: 3–4 hours

Price: A California Adventure Pass must be purchased and displayed in the car to cover the cost of parking.

By Amanda Parmele

Amanda Parmele is a third year undergraduate student at UCSD and works at SD Magazine as a Photography/Visual Editing intern. She takes photos for her school newspaper, is a writing mentor, and loves surf photography, though she cannot surf to save her life.

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