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Cedar Creek Trail

Cedar Creek Falls Trail Guide

In This Guide
  • Video and Turn-by-Turn Directions for the Cedar Creek Falls Trail
  • How to Get a Cedar Creek Falls Trail permit
  • How to Get to Cedar Creek Falls Trail
  • Insider Tips and Recommendations for the Hike
Total Distance (?)6 miles (9.7 km)
Hike Time3 Hours (Total)
Difficulty (?)Moderate
Total Ascent (?)1,180 feet (360m)
Highest Elevation1,830 feet (558m)
Fees & PermitsPermit Needed
Dogs AllowedLeashed
Alerts & Closures (?)Cleveland National Forest
Park Phone858-673-6180

Cedar Creek Falls Trail is one of San Diego’s most popular hikes. The trail offers epic views of the San Diego River Gorge before you arrive at Cedar Creek Falls, almost the perfect waterfall, plunging 80 feet down into a bowl-shaped pool of clear water. It’s such a popular hike that you need a permit to do it. The extra work is worth it though, the experience is magical, but you need to avoid the crowds if you can. In this guide I’ll tell you everything you need to know to make the best of this hike.

Where is Cedar Creek Falls?

There are a couple of routes to Cedar Creek Falls, and this guide outlines the most popular route from Ramona. The drive to the trailhead can be confusing; you’ll drive through a residential neighborhood that looks like it just dead-ends into a cul-de-sac. Keep going and you’ll find the San Diego River Gorge trailhead at the end. Use this trailhead address:
15519 Thornbush Rd, Ramona, CA 92065

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The parking area isn’t that large, try to get here early before it fills up.
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There’s overflow parking along the road.
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Just above the parking lot is a toilet.
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Behind the toilets is a water fill.

How to get a Permit for Cedar Creek Falls

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Whichever way you hike in, you’ll need a permit to enter the area around Cedar Creek Falls.

Getting a permit for the hike is relatively easy, visit the trail page on Recreation.gov, select your date and group size, and pay. As you might expect, weekends can fill up and weekdays are usually wide opens. Every day they let 75 groups in, and groups can have up to 5 people in them. Volunteers or rangers will generally check permits at the trailhead, or at the falls.

It’s recommended that you print the permit and bring that with you. People who can’t pull it up on their phone (battery dies, etc.) will get a citation. Bring a photo ID as well.

And you might be asking, why a permit? The hike was always popular, and there are postcards of the spot dating to early 1900s. The area made a resurgence in the 2000s. Lots of people came, they weren’t respectful at the trailhead, trashed the trail, and partied at the falls. After a person died jumping off the falls, the area was closed. Today the trail is rebuilt and the permit system keeps access in check. I wouldn’t be surprised if more trails go in this direction as hiking becomes more popular.

When to Hike to Cedar Creek Falls

When you’re deciding on a time to visit, know that the falls are typically dry by the end of the summer, the pool dries up, and the heat is oppressive. The sweet spot is winter and spring when the hills are green, temperatures are reasonable, water is flowing, and the pool is full. Unless you leave before dawn, expect to share the falls with other groups of people who may be loud.

When the temperatures are extreme, the Forest Service can close the trail down. They also recommend not doing the hike if the forecast is over 90F.

Gear For the Hike

If you have hiking gear, it will be helpful on the Cedar Creek Falls Trail. The second best would be fitness clothes. Here’s what I would recommend.

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There are lots of signs warning you of the dangers here. Make sure you are prepared for the hike. Unfortunately the rescue helicopter pays a lot of visits here. Don’t be one of those people.

Lone Peak 5

Altra Lone Peak 5
For most people, the Altra Lone Peak is a solid choice that will leave your feet feeling great at the end of any hike. The feel is cushy and light, and if it had a car equivalent, this would be a Cadillac or Mercedes Sedan. The grip is great and they’re reasonably durable for this type of trail runner, which I think is better in most conditions than a hiking boot, and here’s why. The downside of this shoe is that it won’t last as long as something like the Moab 2 (see alternate footwear choices at the bottom of my gear page). I’ve been using mine for many miles and my feet always feel great. Watch my video explaining why they are a great shoe here.

Latest Price on Women’s ShoeREI | Amazon
Latest Price on Men’s ShoeREI | Amazon

Garmin Inreach Mini Beacon

Stay Safe Out of Cell Phone Range
If you’re not familiar with the Garmin InReach technology, it allows you to send and receive text messages where you don’t have cell phone signals. You can also get weather reports and trigger an SOS to emergency responders. Even if you don’t have an emergency, sending a quick message telling a loved one that you’re okay or are running late is well worth the cost. The Garmin InReach Mini (REI | Amazon | My Review) fits in your palm and weighs next to nothing.

Gaiagps

Gaia GPS Mapping App
Smartphones are not backcountry instruments, but almost everyone has one today. And they all have GPS onboard. So I recommend getting a good GPS hiking app like Gaia GPS that supports offline maps. Just make sure to put your phone in airplane mode so the battery doesn’t drain. GaiaGPS not only has smartphone and tablet apps, but also an online planning tool. You can drag the GPX hike tracks from my (or any) guides into the online map and they will sync to your phone. You can also check for wildfires, weather, snow, and choose from dozens of map types with a premium membership (HikingGuy readers get a big discount here). Note that I also carry a paper map with me in case the phone dies or gets smashed.

Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated September 2021.

My September 2021 Top Gear Picks

No company pays me to promote or push a product, all the gear you see here is gear I use and recommend. If you click an a link and buy gear, I get a small commission that helps keep the website ad and promotion free. There is no cost to you.

Cedar Creek Falls Trail Maps

Being a popular and permit-accessed route, the Cedar Creek Falls Trail is straightforward to follow and navigate. There are plenty of signs letting you know where you are. The biggest challenge is that the hike to the falls is downhill, and you have to climb about 1100 feet on your way out.

Click Here To View

Explore Map on CalTopoView a Printable PDF Hike MapDownload the Hike GPX File

If you try to download the GPX file and your browser adds a “.txt” or “.xml” extension to it, simply rename it as a “.gpx” file.

Fenix 6 Pro

How are you going to navigate this hike?
To start, you should always have a paper map and compass. And it helps to print this guide out or save it on your phone. I highly recommend a GPS as well. I use the Garmin Fenix 6 Smart GPS watch ( REI | Amazon | My Review) with maps (or the more affordable Garmin Instinct). The GPS smartwatch is nice because it’s rugged, works if your phone dies, and also has a billion other features like sleep tracking, workout recording, etc.

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There are many of these trail signs along the way letting you know how far you have left.
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The hike back out from the falls can be tough for some. Be in decent shape and use these benches on the trail if you need to.

Elevation Profile

Cedar Creek Trail Elevation
The hike to the falls is mainly downhill. When you get to the San Diego River crossing, you’ll have an imperceptible uphill to the falls. It’s important to save energy to hike back out to the trailhead. Note that this is a one-way profile.

3D Map

Cedar Creek Trail 3d Map
Here you can see the descent from the San Diego River Gorge trailhead down to the river, and then a short stretch up to Cedar Creek Falls.

Cedar Creek Falls Hike Directions

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Video Directions

Watch This Video In 360/VR Why 360/VR Is Great

Turn by Turn Directions

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The trail starts across the street from the toilets. Look for the trail board.
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Sign in on the register at the trail board where you’ll need to enter your permit number.
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Another big warning sign as you start your long downhill to the San Diego River.
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After a few minutes the trail curves around to the right and your views down into the San Diego River Gorger are breathtaking. The high pointed peak is Eagle Peak.
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You’ll pass a few of these shelters along the way, designed to give struggling hikers some shade.
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You’ll see lots of these mileage signs as you continue to descend.
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Stay on the main trail and avoid the cutoff trails. Portions of the trail are fenced in to protect the surrounding fauna.
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As you continue to descend, you’ll pass another shelter. There’s a flatter section after this that you’ll appreciate on the way back up.
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When you get to the halfway point, you will see the trees and lush vegetation down around the San Diego River.
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If you look past the trees you’ll also see the notch where the falls are (but not the falls).
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Soon you’ll approach the end of the descent and the river.
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Make your first crossing (out of three total) over the San Diego River. When it’s been raining this crossing may require walking through the water up to your knees. On this day, I could just hop over the rocks.
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Shortly after that you’ll reach the only real trail junction on the hike. Go straight through.
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The junction area is well marked.
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Pass through the fence and start the last short stretch to Cedar Creek. Everything past the fence requires a permit.
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The trail is very slightly uphill and easy to follow.
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This time we cross over Cedar Creek.
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And after a few minutes you’ll cross it again.
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The trail gets smaller and a little rockier as you hike with the creek on your right.
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When you get closer to the falls you can go straight up through the rocks, or take the easier trail off to the left.
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If you went left, you’ll see Cedar Creek Falls in the distance.
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Continue straight until you reach the rocks in front of the falls.

When you’re at the falls, you are allowed to swim,  but you aren’t allowed to climb up the sides, jump off the cliff, or drink alcohol. Please be respectful of the area and your fellow hikers. People came here to enjoy the natural beauty, not to hear other people play their music or talk loudly.

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Enjoy the falls, have a snack and some water, and hike back up the way you came. The hike back will take a little longer; it’s uphill. Unlike some other San Diego hikes, the gradient on the way back is smooth and gradual. Just pace yourself and you should be able to make it back in short order.

This guide last updated on March 29, 2021. Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.

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