Local’s Guide: Cedar Creek Falls in San Diego

Cedar Creek Falls in San Diego

Cedar Creek Falls in San Diego is a popular waterfall hike. This seasonal waterfall is best seen in the winter/ spring after a good rain. In prior years, the waterfall is known to dry up late May and be practically non-existent in the summer. 

Cedar Creek Falls in San Diego has turned into one of the best waterfalls in southern California. Any time I’ve brought a friend here, they always leave saying “This is my new favorite San Diego hike.” It’s a very popular hiking destination, and for good reason. With that being said it’s important to come prepared for the hike and get your permit in advance. This is not a beginner hike. Cedar Creek Falls trail is a challenging 6 mile hike, but with good preparation it’s an enjoyable hike. 

This post will go over where to start (Cedar Creek Falls trailhead), what to expect on the hike, permit requirements, and tips for hiking Cedar Creek Falls trail. Take it from a local who’s been hiking in the area since 2015.

Quick Facts: Cedar Creek Falls in San Diego

  • Cedar Creek Falls Trailhead: Google Maps Link
  • Distance: 6 miles out and back
  • Elevation Gain: 1,050 ft
  • Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
  • Est hiking time: 3+ hours
  • Dogs not recommended
  • Parking: Free
  • $6 hiking permit required (recreation.gov)
  • AllTrails Link

Although AllTrails has this hike listed as 5.4 miles, I can speak from experience when I say it’s closer to 6 miles round trip. If you’ve used AllTrails before you know it’s not 100% accurate.

For another great waterfall hike in San Diego check out, Three Sister’s Falls (no permit required).

Cedar Creek Falls Trailhead

Cedar Creek Falls Trailhead
Cedar Creek Falls Trailhead

Google Maps Link

Cedar Creek Falls trailhead is located just past the parking lot/ bathrooms. You’ll drive through a residential area in Ramona to get there. Parking fills up quickly on the weekends and there’s overflow parking on the side of the road and in the nearby residential area.

Cedar Creek Falls trailhead is easy to spot. On the weekends during peak season (late winter/ early spring) there will most likely be a ranger at the trailhead or down by the falls checking permits. Make sure you have your permit printed and your ID to match the name. 

Cedar Creek Falls trailhead on satellite map
Cedar Creek Falls Trailhead- Google Maps Satellite View

What to Expect Hiking Cedar Creek Falls Trail

Cedar Creek Falls hiking trail is relatively easy to follow. I always have a map downloaded on AllTrails just for safety/ navigation purposes. After leaving the parking lot, you’ll quickly start hiking down towards the falls. It’s a very scenic hike when the mountains/ hills are all green and the wildflowers are blooming in spring. 

If you’re hoping to see wildflowers while hiking Cedar Creek Falls, I recommend waiting until late March but keep an eye on the weather. Late March/ April is when temperatures really start to rise in this area.

Hiking Cedar Creek Falls Trail
California poppy on Cedar Creek Falls Trail

The trail itself is made of packed dirt. There’s signage along the entire hike that lists the distance to the falls and to the parking lot. 

Shade structures on Cedar Creek Falls Trail
shade structures

You’re also going to come across multiple shade structures. Cedar Creek Falls hiking trail is entirely exposed, and these shade structures will be your saving grace on the way back up. After the second shade structure you’re going to lose cell service. 

River crossing at Cedar Creek Falls in San Diego
One of three river crossings in spring 2023

While hiking Cedar Creek Falls in San Diego, you’ll come across three river crossings. Depending on the recent rain, this “river” can be a trickle of water or a fast flowing current. As of mid February 2024 the river crossings are ankle to knee deep. Plan on taking your shoes off when crossing, or pack shoes you don’t mind getting wet. Trekking poles will provide additional stability while crossing the river.

After the first river crossing, the hiking trail turns into a mixture of sand/ loose gravel. I did the last mile barefoot because I didn’t pack hiking sandals/ water shoes. I decided to take my hiking boots off to keep them dry. 

Permit Requirement for Cedar Creek Falls in San Diego

Permits are required year round to hike Cedar Creek Falls trail. Weekends sell out 2+ weeks in advance during peak season. This is not a “hidden gem” by any means. Expect to see people on the trail at all times. I did this hike on a Monday morning at 7:30 am and saw at least 5 other groups while hiking. 

Permits cost $6 and can be purchased online through recreation.gov. You will need to create an account if you don’t have one already. Although Cedar Creek Falls is part of Cleveland National Forest, you do not need an Adventure Pass while hiking Cedar Creek Falls in San Diego. Parking in the lot is free. You just need the permit to access the falls themselves. 

Is Cedar Creek Falls dog friendly?

While the trail is dog friendly, dogs are not recommended when hiking Cedar Creek Falls. Dogs are more likely to experience heat exhaustion than their owners. San Diego Humane Society recommends leaving your dog at home when temperatures could exceed 70 degrees.

This hike is notorious for rescues due to heat exhaustion for both people and their pets.

A similar hike to Cedar Creek Falls based on difficulty and distance is Iron Mountain in Poway. Dogs, like people, need to build up to more difficult hikes. If your dog has not done a similar hike in terms of elevation gain, distance, and weather, then you’re better off leaving them at home.

For more dog hiking safety tips, you can read San Diego Humane Society’s post here.

Can you swim at Cedar Creeks Falls in San Diego?

Swimming at Cedar Creek Falls in San Diego

Swimming is allowed at the bottom of the falls and in the pool area. It’s the perfect place to cool off on a warmer day. I prefer hiking Cedar Creek Falls in San Diego during winter/ early spring so the water is always ICE COLD. I lasted about 5 minutes swimming but it was worth every second of it. 

Best Time to Hike Cedar Creek Falls in San Diego

The absolute best time to hike Cedar Creek Falls in San Diego is during winter/ spring when the waterfall is at its fullest! It’s also when temperatures are cooler.

I do not recommend hiking Cedar Creek Falls trail during summer. Temperatures can easily rise above 90 degrees making the hike back out a brutal one. In fact, heat exhaustion is the biggest reason why hikers need to get rescued from here. Check the weather before hiking!

10 Tips for Hiking Cedar Creek Falls trail

Views while hiking Cedar Creek Falls in San Diego
  1. Start early! The earlier the better to skip the heat and avoid the bigger crowds. 
  2. Pack extra water. Don’t underestimate the amount of energy it takes to hike the 3 miles back up to the lot. In my opinion, the hike doesn’t really start until you leave the waterfall. The 3 miles downhill is not a problem. It’s the 3 miles back uphill that will work up a sweat, especially on warmer days. Water and electrolytes will keep you hydrated. 
  3. Leave your dog at home. Although Cedar Creek Falls trail is dog friendly, I would not recommend bringing your dog. Dogs can overheat just like people. With the current river crossings being as high as they are, smaller dogs won’t be able to cross on their own. 
  4. Bring hiking sandals or trail runners. You’re going to want something on your feet when crossing the river. Trail runners are typically known to dry quickly and have good tread on the bottom. 
  5. Bring trekking poles. This will be a great help when crossing the river in addition to the trail runners. 
  6. Pack extra socks. You’re going to want something dry on your feet for the hike back out. 
  7. Check the weather. Always, always, always, check the weather before hiking. Ramona gets really hot during the summer. Do not hike Cedar Creek Falls trail in the scorching heat if you are an inexperienced hiker. 
  8. Assess your hiking ability. Don’t underestimate Cedar Creek Falls. While it may sound like an amazing hike, it is a challenging hike. Come prepared for the 3 miles uphill after the waterfall. 1,000 ft of elevation gain will have the average hiker working up a sweat. 
  9. Pack a full lunch. After swimming and burning some calories you’ll be ready to refuel. The whole hike takes about 3 hours. 
  10. Tell someone your hiking plans. There’s no cell service while hiking Cedar Creek Falls in San Diego.

Hiking Gear Used

Osprey Daylite Daypack $65. This is my favorite hiking pack for day hikes.It’s the perfect size and it has lasted me years. I’ve taken it with me to Mt Whitney and Half Dome. It fit my light jacket, ultra light towel, extra pair of socks, snacks, 3 liter hydration bladder, and my personal items (keys, wallet, first aid, knife, etc.)

Hydration Bladder. I highly recommend packing a hydration bladder when hiking Cedar Creek Falls trail. It’s lighter and holds more water than an insulated water bottle like a HydroFlask. They come in different sizes. When shopping around, look for a bladder with a big opening making it easy to clean and fill, like this Osprey one linked below.

Sunscreen & hat. Sun protection is extremely important when hiking Cedar Creek Falls in San Diego. There’s no shade on this hike. Heat exhaustion is what causes many inexperienced hikers to get rescued on this hike. 

Lightweight Towel. I love this towel because it’s so light and packs down small. It also doubles as my gym towel. Perfect for after a swim in the falls!

Trekking Poles (optional). Trekking poles will provide additional stability while hiking. This is important when crossing the river. As of mid April 2023 the river crossings were about thigh high for me (I’m 5’4”). These will also be helpful for the 3 mile climb back to the parking lot. 

2024 UPDATE: the three river crossings range from ankle to knee high.

Water shoes or hiking sandals (optional). These are optional but would definitely help when crossing the river. I didn’t pack any and took my boots off while crossing to keep my shoes dry. I ended up losing a boot in the river. It took me an extra hour of wading in the river to find it. Learn from my mistakes. 

If you’re new to hiking check out my Hiking Gear List for Beginners.

Final Thoughts

Cedar Creek Falls in San Diego is a fantastic hike. Early spring and winter are the best times to go while temperatures are cooler and the waterfall is at its fullest. Make sure to come prepared with plenty of water for yourself and your dog if you decide to bring them. I don’t recommend you bring your dog because this hike, much like Three Sisters Falls, is notorious for dog and people rescues due to heat related illnesses. 

As long as you’re prepared with the right gear, extra water, and in good hiking shape, then hiking Cedar Creek Falls trail will be something to remember. As always, happy hiking!

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