SD For Free: 3 Sisters Falls Hike – Adventure in East County

  1. Location: East County

    The road to adventure bekons

  2. Best For: Hikers, trekkers, walkers, hecklers


The Three Sisters Falls trail is a moderate to difficult hike located north-west of Descanso in east San Diego County.  Although today is a rare day of heavy rain in San Diego and not advised for strenous hiking in the backcountry keep this hike in mind for sunnier days ahead, especially during the early spring when the falls are likely to be heavier due to more rain and melting snow-pack.

To reach the Three Sisters Trailhead from downtown San Diego (total trip about 65 miles):

  • Top of the trail

    Head East on Interstate 8

  • Take Exit 40 for CA-79 N/Japatul Valley Rd  and head north toward Julian
  • After 1.3 miles, turn left onto Riverside Drive
  • After 1 mile, Turn left onto Viejas Blvd/Viejas Grade Road
  • Take the 1st right onto Oak Grove Drive
  • After 1.6 miles, Turn right onto Boulder Creek Road
  • Welcome!

    Follow Boulder Creek Road for 12.9 miles to trailhead

    • Note that Boulder Creek Road is unpaved and has a number of sharp turns.  The trailhead is located on the left side of the road, at a hairpin turn to the south-east.  Park on the side of the road to access the trail.
(For directions from your address, here’s the Google Maps page with the trailhead marked.)

A view from the top of the trail

The trail is approximately 4 miles round-trip, but is a difficult hike despite the medium distance.  The trail begins at a high altitude with an old ranch road going west along a ridge to a saddle and then the trail turning left, to the south, and descending down a long hill.  The trail meanders through low scrub until reaching the bottom and then begins to ascend along a boulder dotted stream that carries the water away from the falls.

The hike up the stream can be done via small trails on either side of the stream, or by hopping from stone to stone in the stream, which is my preferred route.  After hiking for about 3/4 of a mile up the stream you’ll come to the first of the falls and have a view of all three (the middle one is about 50 feet high and falls into a sizable pool) rising up in front of you.  There are a number of good spots to sit and rest and a great opportunity to nap in the sun or enjoy a picnic lunch while resting for the return journey.

If you’re heading to Julian for a weekend, or a long trip for a slice of pie, it’s not a far detour to check out this hike.  If you’re interested in other hikes in San Diego County check out the excellent Canyoneer Hikes – free, guided, group hikes every weekend.

A lone oak greeting hikers

Have a great weekend and enjoy the cool change in the weather.  Take care!


John P. Anderson

John was an accountant in a former life and now devotes his time to child-rearing, reading, writing, and working to ensure that San Diego is truly America's Finest City. Interested in environmental issues, John enjoys connecting with others that want to improve the health of our world and community. You can find John at or on Twitter (@j_p_a_). Comments, suggestions, wisdom, and complaints are enthusiastically welcomed.


  1. avatarJohn Anderson says

    Andy – I don’t know of a specific restriction on bikes but don’t think it’d be possible to take one. The trail is really steep and pretty rough-cut. At one point you have to use a rope to descend a small (10 foot) stretch.

    CA-79 (the exit from the Interstate) is a gorgeous ride if you don’t mind sharing the road with some vehicles. Probably best on a non-weekend day when the traffic to Julian can get a little heavy, and a little fast, for my comfort.

    • avatarAndy Cohen says

      I’m talking mountain bikes, you’re talking road bikes (although I have both). No way in hell I’d ride that road on a bike. No room on the shoulder. Interesting note about that small stretch, though. Thanks.

      • avatarJohn Anderson says

        Ahh – correct. Road bikes indeed. When I’m hiking I’ll keep an eye out for mountain bikes in the future. I don’t have one so it’s usually not on my mind.

  2. avatarJohn says

    That first image sure looks inviting from a mountain bike point of view. As for the ten foot descent, I think the kids nowadays call that a drop off or a gap. All the better to fling themselves off of and break their little bodies. Just make sure you’ve got the go pro helmet cam running and you get the footage on youtube the next day. Give you something to tweet about from the hospital bed.

    • avatarJohn Anderson says

      John – Now you’re tempting me. The start of the trail does look prime for a bike but that’s a short stretch (about a half mile) before it drops off and narrows.

  3. avatarNadin says

    Just one note…make sure you take enough water, food is not a bad idea either. Take your cell, take a whistle. Pace yourself. It is a rough trail. Oh and it goes without saying, don’t go alone, and make sure you tell someone when you intend to be on the trail, and let them know when you are off.

    This is from years of EMS and listening to way too many rescues over the scanner.

    • avatarJohn Anderson says

      Nadin – great points all around. It is a pretty tough hike and since it starts high and ends high, you can’t really coast it in if you’re not feeling great.

  4. avatar says

    I made this hike waaay back in the mid-1970s, and it was hot, but there wasn’t any creek water or falls. Thanks for bringing this great trek back in our public consciousness, but as Nadin says, bring plenty of water. During the summer and late Spring, hikers are always having trouble on this rugged trail: falling, dehydration, exhaustion.

    • avatarJohn Anderson says

      The road was in really good condition (for a dirt road). The last 6 or so miles of the gravel was a little rougher but still not bad.

      I was out there 2 weeks back, on December 1st. The San Diego River Park Foundation just purchased some acreage along Boulder Creek about 5 miles before the trailhead for conservation and water monitoring, including a population of native trout.

    • avatarJohn Anderson says

      Scotty – I’m not sure if there is a permit / fee required. The sign at the trailhead doesn’t indicate a pass is necessary and the Cleveland National Forest official site page has a map (Palomar Ranger District) that does not indicate the parking area is a fee site.

      I haven’t had a pass or permit on the 3 times I have visited and haven’t had an issue but that may just be coincidence. I called both the Palomar and Descanso Ranger Districts to determine the official requirement, but didn’t get a response. I also called Palomar Mountain State Park and left a message – if I am able to get a definitive answer I’ll post it here.

      Sorry I don’t have an answer for you, but hopefully I can find out and get back to you soon.

      • avatarDaniel says

        I have hiked three sisters falls about a dozen times and have always been under the impression you needed a National Forest Adventure Pass. I’ve never seen anyone get a ticket but I have heard that the pass is required. Cost for a daily pass is $5 at your local sports store chain.

        • avatarJohn Anderson says

          Scotty & Daniel – Sorry for the delay in responding, I wanted to get a confirmation of the fee status for this trail before posting. I called the Cleveland National Forest office today (858-673-6180) and was informed that a pass / fee is not required to hike the 3 Sisters Trail.

          Additionally, this section of the Cleveland National Forest website has the same information (no pass / fee required).

          Hope this information is helpful and enjoy your weekend – a great time of year for this hike.

  5. avatarAle says

    Do you think that there will be enough water to see the falls during this month?

    My friends and I were really hoping to be able to hike up there and see them :)

    • avatarJohn Anderson says

      Ale – Best bet would be to call and ask, they should be able to give you an accurate response (858-673-6180). Either way the pools of water are generally always there, as is the stream leading to the falls. It’s a great hike anytime.

    • avatarJohn Anderson says

      Elva, the hike is quite difficult so probably only if they’re already experienced hikers. The hike starts high, then goes down, and then it’s back up again to reach the falls. This time of the year it will also be very hot so if you do go make sure to take plenty of water.