Of four falls in the upper San Diego River drainage, only one is accessible to casual hikers: Cedar Creek Falls, a.k.a Devil’s Punch Bowl. Another, called Mildred Falls, can be seen on the way to Cedar Creek.
Various not-quite-legal hiking routes to Cedar Creek Falls have been forged. I will first make mention of the only sole, approved route. Begin by going West on Interstate 8 towards El Cajon. Merge onto the 67 towards Lakeside. The highway will take you through Ramona, a fast-growing township that dates back to the 1800’s. Its historic buildings, now filled with antique shops, line the portion of the 67 passing through. Note that at Ramona’s other end, the 67 turns into the 78. 20 minutes from that exchange, you will come to Santa Ysabel. I highly recommend you pull-over for Dudley’s Bakery! There, breakfast and lunch are served daily, you can stock up on food for the day, and stock up on gourmet bread loaves for the week! Santa Ysabel also has a gas station, the last one for many miles. I should mention, too, that about halfway between Ramona and Santa Ysabel, there is a chicken farm. At the roadside beside it stands a bright red shack you just can’t miss. The eggs sold there are double-yolk and at an irresistible price!
From Santa Ysabel, the 78 Highway immediately ascends up a mountain side from behind the gas station. Continue to drive it for about 15 more minutes to Pine Hills Road, which intersects Highway 78 just west of Julian, and turn right (south). After 1.5 miles, bear right on Eagle Peak Road. After 1.4 more miles, veer right again, staying on Eagle Peak Road. Now you face 8.2 miles of progressively poorer road, parts of which become slippery and muddy in wet weather. In the end, you come to a four-way junction of roads and a forest-service sign announcing the old road -- now a riding and hiking trail -- toward the falls. Everything within miles of here was swept over by the October 2003 Cedar Fire, but the sage and chaparral vegetation is rapidly regenerating.
As you head downhill by foot, look up the canyon in the north (Ritchie Creek canyon) to see Mildred Falls, arguably San Diego County's highest at more than 100 feet. The old road winds farther west, offering a splendid view of the V-shaped upper San Diego River canyon, then turns south on a long descent to the river bed. At 1.4 miles into the hike, take the spur road that goes left (southeast) over a low saddle into the Cedar Creek drainage. Descend to the bank of the creek and continue following the old road and trail down to the shallow, reflecting pool at the brink of the falls, about two and one-quarter miles from your starting point. Be extremely cautious here, as the rock is very slippery and the water swift. By clambering up the slope to the north, it's possible to get a glimpse of the 90-foot-high cascade and the cottonwood-framed "punchbowl" at the bottom -- some 50 feet across and perhaps 20 feet deep. The punchbowl is indeed swimmable, but over the years, several fatalities have occurred at the falls due to behavior such as daredevil diving and unprotected rock climbing, with alcohol often a factor.
You will undoubtedly find many others visiting the punchbowl at any given time of the year as it is a very popular destination. You will also find that most have not come down the route you have. There is another way which, personally, I find a lot less dangerous and a tad bit shorter. Starting the Ramona way also means you miss out on cheap eggs, delicious bread, and a far more scenic route. Also to consider, it is not an officially marked trail however visible and popular it is.
Soon after entering downtown Ramona on Highway 67, take a right on 10th street, which then becomes San Vicente Road. Follow it to the San Diego Country Estates. Turn left (just past the golf clubhouse) on Ramona Oaks Road, then right on Cathedral Way and finally a right onto Thornbush Road. There is a small parking area on the left before getting to the trailhead. The hike begins opposite the water tower on Thornbush Road. The trail to the falls is rather straightforward from there. It points directly to the canyon where the punchbowl sits. You may have to wade through a shallow stream depending on the time of the year.
As you head downhill by foot, Mildred Falls, on the right, is also visible from this side of Cedar Creek. There is no trail to it, unfortunately, and I, myself, have nearly died trying to make a way. It is possible, as my husband and I eventually stood beneath it, but I stress it is extremely risky. Add at least 4 more hours to the trip, start much earlier in the day, and double your supplies of everything if you can’t resist trying, too. You WILL have to wade back and forth through water and dodge abundant poison oak all the way to the base of Mildred. If you simply want a bit of a closer look, a mile into the canyon is doable. There are dozens of abandoned cars littering the riverbanks, even some that date to the 40’s when the road above was in navigational state.
Although the Cedar Creek hikes are moderate in difficulty for experienced hikers, that rating might only apply on a cool day. This is a reverse hike from either trail, meaning its 2 miles downhill which will require you to walk 2 miles uphill on the return. Plenty of people get into trouble on the return, simply because they forget to bring along plenty of drinking water for the sweaty, uphill climb back to the trailhead in afternoon heat. Return home the same way you came for either Ramona or Pine Hills.
The Palomar Ranger District, Cleveland National Forest, has jurisdiction over the area covered by the hike described here. Their telephone is 760-788-0250. The author of the original version of this article, Jerry Schad, and myself, the editor and contributor, Krystiana Brzuza, assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.
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