5. Three Sisters Falls

Visit one of San Diego County’s biggest waterfalls on one of its most popular waterfall hikes. On a winter morning after a storm, there’s nothing quite like the view of this giant three-tiered waterfall springing from a dry-looking mountainside. Three Sisters Falls and the nearby Cedar Creek Falls have become bucket-list hikes for many San Diego hikers. But while Cedar Creek requires hikers to get a permit ahead of time, Three Sisters is still open to anyone who shows up. During wildflower season, expect to see poppies and wild mustard to add to the waterfall scenery.

San Diego hiking
Three Sisters Falls is a three-tiered waterfall nestled in a mountainside. Photo by Liz Thomas

Consider leaving your pets at home

While technically open to dogs on leash, the Three Sisters Trail (like the nearby Cedar Creek Falls) have become notorious for taking the lives of innocent pets dragged on hikes by their owners. Even on cooler days, the surface temperature near the ground can be 20F degrees warmer than what a human may feel while hiking. I would highly recommend saving your dog hikes for something more gentle on your pet.

No shade, so bring water

I’ve visited this trail several times and am always astounded by how warm it gets, even in the morning in January. The Forest Service recommends bringing a gallon of water per person, and I’d throw in some electrolytes and plenty of sun protection. A reverse hike (like the Grand Canyon), you’ll be dropping down to this waterfall. All the climbing is on the return — after legs are already tired from walking half the trip. As a result, this is one of those San Diego hikes where rescues are common. I’d advise checking the Forest Service Palomar Ranger District on warm days. The rangers will often close the trail down for extreme heat when temps reach 95F degrees or more.

San Diego hiking
A sign post marking an intersection at Three Sisters Falls warns of the necessity of carrying extra water. Photo by Liz Thomas

The best trails to get to the waterfall

From the large parking area, take the wide, flat dirt trail (an old ranch road) for half a mile to a wooden post. This marks the intersection with the Eagle Peak Trail. Make a sharp left to get your first views of the top of Three Sisters Falls. Sometimes, the junction sign is missing, so I always look for the distinctive V-shaped notch across the valley to make sure I’m headed in the right direction.

The trail descends along the dry creek bed of Boulder Creek through oaks and ferns. Soon, you’ll reach the new section of the trail that bypasses what was formerly a steep, almost canyoneering-esque route to the waterfall. Now, the well-designed path skirts around the hillside. After a few short switchbacks, you reach the smooth granite slab right below Middle Sister Falls. The last 50 feet across the slab can feel tricky and exposed, especially when wet. If you feel comfortable crossing it, you’ll be at the pool below Middle Sister. The water tumbles 50 feet to a pool, and you can see Lower Sister Falls below.

San Diego hiking
The Middle Three Sisters Falls during a drought year. Photo by Liz Thomas

Don’t underestimate this hike. Despite its length of four miles, I’ve always found it a lot more physically demanding than it appears on paper. Take your time on the return and remember to drink plenty of water!

About the author

Liz Thomas

Liz Thomas

Professional hiker and guidebook author

Liz Thomas is thru-hiker and guidebook author best known for breaking the women’s self-supported record on the Appalachian Trail. She’s the author of the National Outdoor Book Award winning Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-hike, which won the National Outdoor Book Award in 2017. When she’s not backpacking, Liz is a motivational speaker who has presented on Capitol Hill, corporate retreats, national non-profit donor events, and colleges and universities including Yale and MIT. You can find her at www.eathomas.com or @lizthomashiking and Facebook.

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