Cedar Creek Falls Trail, located in Cleveland National Forest, is a 5.6-mile out-and-back hike leading to a seasonal waterfall that plunges more than 80 feet into a large pool.
Also known as the Devil’s Punchbowl hike, this backcountry trail involves a descent to get to the falls with an uphill hike on the way back. However, the waterfall itself is spectacular, and the swimming hole it falls into is a popular swimming spot during the summer months.
- Trail type: Out-and-back
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Length: 5.6 miles
- Elevation gain and loss: 1,049 feet, -1,049 feet
- Trailhead Coordinates: 32.99551, -116.75608
- Location: Cleaveland National Forest
- Season: Best during winter, spring, and early summer
There are two ways to reach Cedar Creek Falls. The easier and more popular way is to use the trailhead in Ramona.
To get there, you’ll need to take Highway 67 into Ramona and turn right on Dye Road. Continue down Dye Road for about two miles before it becomes Ramona Street. In another half a mile, it’ll turn right and become Warnock Street.
Turn right on San Vicente Road and follow it for another 4.8 miles. Follow that for about 3 miles until you reach Thornbush Road. Turn right onto Thornbush Road and continue for another third of a mile before reaching the trailhead.
Parking is abundant in this area. There’s a parking lot and plenty of spots on either side of the street near the trailhead. The trail itself is very popular, so expect it to be busy still.
Also, note that you’ll need a permit before hiking this trail — more information on that later.
Cedar Creek Falls is among the most famous waterfalls in San Diego County. It feeds a smaller, rocky pool that many hikers take advantage of during the warmer months.
You’ll begin your hike at the trailhead checkpoint, where park officials will ensure that you have the appropriate permit.
From there, you’ll proceed down some gentle switchbacks for about the first two miles. Along the way, you’ll be treated to views of the surrounding hills and mountains as you descend into a canyon.
The trail, it’s worth noting, is well-maintained and easy to traverse. There are also plenty of mileage signs letting you know how far you are from the falls.
There’s little shade along this trail, especially during the first couple of miles. That could make it much more strenuous — and potentially dangerous — during the heat of the summer.
As you descend into the canyon, you’ll notice the surroundings become greener and lusher. Once you reach the end of the switchback section, you’ll reach the “bottom” of the riverbed area.
This area features a different environment of shady green vegetation and plenty of trees, making it a good respite after the shadeless hike down. The trail to the falls from here is well-marked with clear directions.
As you get closer to the falls, there’s a chance that you might run into one of the area’s seasonal rivers. In the spring — or after a good rain — you may have to stone-hop or wade across them.
Overall, it’s an easy hike, mostly because it’s downhill to start. Just remember to bring enough water for the hike back up.
You’ll probably hear the falls area before you reach it. Once you do, you’ll be treated to the spectacular sight of one of San Diego County’s only waterfalls. The falls feed a large swimming hole known as “Devil’s Punchbowl.”
This is a great spot to sit and have a snack before the more grueling hike back up. If you don’t mind getting your clothes wet (or bringing swim clothes), you can take a dip in the pool or “punchbowl” at the bottom of the falls. The water is generally cold but refreshing.
As one of San Diego’s most popular backcountry hikes, there’s a good chance that the actual falls themselves will be crowded. This is especially true on the weekends.
It’s important to note that, since a 16-year-old boy from El Cajon died in 2011, cliff-diving is no longer allowed at Cedar Creek Falls. You’re not allowed to climb on any of the cliff areas or rocks surrounding the falls, either.
Once you’re ready to head home, you’ll have to retrace your steps back to the trailhead. Just remember that you’ll be traversing back uphill, and the last two miles will be gradual switchbacks without any shade.
Because of the aforementioned death and other accidents, access to Cedar Creek Falls from the Ramona trailhead is controlled. In other words, you’ll need to purchase a permit to hike there.
Permits, which cost $6, allow up to five people per hiking group. You can purchase them at https://www.recreation.gov
Make sure that you bring plenty of water before embarking on this hike, especially during the warmer months. Stories of hikers needing to be airlifted out of the area are all too common. While you should bring water, note that alcohol is not allowed at the falls or on the trail.
Also, keep in mind that although dogs are allowed on the trail, it can be a strenuous and hot hike that can take a toll on your pet. It’s recommended that you leave your pups at home if the temperature approaches 80 degrees or above.