Editor’s note: This is the second in a series about a new nonmotorized, multi-use San Diego River Gorge Trail that will lead to the popular Cedar Creek Falls in the Cleveland National Forest east of Ramona. This article was written before CalFire, U.S. Forest Service and sheriff’s crews responded to repeated calls for assistance from Cedar Creek hikers for six consecutive days in the past week. July 14 to 19.
Cedar Creek Falls has been called a “hidden gem” of San Diego County. No longer an insider secret, this spectacular waterfall cascades about 80 feet into a pool some call The Devil’s Punchbowl.
On hot weekends into the first part of summer, upwards of 40 people are there. The San Diego River Gorge Trail (leading to the falls from San Diego Country Estates) is the focus of conservation crews.
A new non-motorized multi-use trail is expected to be ready by late spring of 2011. According to ranger Debbie Hobbs, completed construction will include a trailhead equipped with a potable water source, vault toilet and parking area.
The trail has suffered serious erosion problems over the years due to an unsustainable design, she said.
“It is a very steep trail,” said Hobbs. “People invariably find they have not brought enough water for the trip back up.” The return trip finds hikers searching for footholds over steep inclines, loose rock and washed out areas.
The popular trail from the Estates leads to the San Diego River and Cedar Creek Falls. Each year hikers discover the route is more difficult than anticipated and numerous helicopter rescues are made. Rescues range from a sprained ankle to serious injuries, even death, caused by diving into the shallow water at the base of the waterfall or drowning. According to authorities, most rescues are in response to heat exhaustion.
Lt. Dave McNary of San Diego County Sheriff Department’s ASTREA helicopter rescue, there were eight rescues this year through spring. (Aerial Support To Regional Enforcement Agencies is a unit of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.)
“Three of the eight had to be hoisted out because there wasn’t anywhere to land,” said McNary. “Most of the rescues are for dehydration and overheating; we had one heart attack-related rescue. The trail was crazy a couple of weeks ago. It was packed in both directions.”
Ramona’s high desert location is noted for its hot and dry climate. Most people who live in the area know how hot it can get. Many people braving the near vertical climb in some areas coming back from the falls often underestimate the intense heat and amount of water needed for one to safely return from this popular swimming hole.
Cedar Creek Falls and the trails leading to it have the highest amount of rescues in the San Diego County Sheriff’s jurisdiction.
“It is our main hot spot,” said sheriff’s Deputy Dave Weldon, a pilot. “It can get over 100 degrees out there.”
Weldon said the hike down is fairly easy from the Julian side, but many newcomers to the falls don’t bring enough water for the grueling elevation gain, which is around 800 feet. “We’ve even rescued dogs from down there—from kids to old people all summer long.”
Rescues occur any month of the year. In 2009, the rescues began as early as April—two people and a dog—with the highest number of rescues, nine, in July, said Weldon. “We airlifted out a total of 20 people and one dog last year. Only two of those were lost hikers, the rest were heat exhaustion.”
The helicopters do passes in the area a couple of times a day to look for hikers in distress.
“We even find people lying on the trail that haven’t even called in yet. We consistently get people that have jumped off the falls or dive into the water and break their backs or necks—some have even died. They hit rocks on the way down or even the rock ledge that is under the water at the bottom.”
Help can be a long time coming. “It only takes us about ten minutes to get there, but someone has to first hike out and make the call.”
The Cedar fire in 2003 began just east of the falls. The inferno incinerated 280,000 acres. Without vegetation to hold back the dirt, heavy rains funneled silt into the creek. The swimming hole at the base of the falls became much more shallow than in previous years. A young man suffered a broken neck after diving into the shallower waters. In 2005, a man drowned in the pool. While the falls can be a threat, the trails leading to them claim more unsuspecting hikers each year.
“We’ve found victims lying facedown on the trails,” ASTREA pilot Tony Webber said.
The San Diego River and upper tributaries drain from the hills and valleys of Julian as well as the western slopes of the Cuyamaca Mountains. The waters from heavy rains or snowmelt rush over the Cedar Creek Falls on the way to San Diego’s El Capitan Reservoir.
Cedar Creek Falls, along with its pool, the punchbowl, is a favorite destination for hikers in the springtime. The towering falls are the best following a heavy rain or a couple of days after a heavy snow in Julian has melted.
Spring brings an incredible vista of wildflowers and photo opportunities along the way. Cottonwood, Cedar and Black Oak trees can be discovered closer to the creek, but the hike back provides no shade and the heat can be merciless.
The waterfall is not a year-round guarantee. The best view of the falls is during the winter months or early spring. May visitors have arrived to a bone-dry “pool” of rocks, but even visitors in June have been able to swim in this unpredictable pool.
Precautions: This writer suggests waiting for the improved trail before attempting the hike to the riverbed. If one chooses to brave the route as is, remember the hike is difficult. Cell phones are unreliable along the route, so help isn’t a mere phone call away.
Make sure someone knows of your plans and when to expect you back. Someone has to hike out to find service before help can be summoned. Wear sunscreen and a hat and bring more water than you think you need. Three to four quarts per person is recommended. Even experienced hikers have been caught unprepared.
Bring a lunch. You will need it to have the energy for the climb out. The trip to the falls is downhill over very steep terrain with unsteady footing. This means the return trip is uphill. The trail is very steep and very hot and not recommended for those who are out of shape. There is little shade and there are parts of the trail that seem as if one is hiking straight up. One person said it as if she was “climbing stairs in a sauna.”
This is not a trail for children—even dogs have a very difficult time due to the need of water and lack of shade. Watch for loose rocks, poison oak, rattlesnakes and mountain lions. Have fun, but be smart. It is dangerous to climb on the rocks around the falls. The pool at the bottom of the falls is not safe for jumping or diving.
Directions to the trailhead: Take the 10th street/San Vicente Road to San Diego Country Estates. Turn left on Ramona Oaks Road. Turn right on Cathedral Way and Right on Thornbush Road. There is a small parking area on the left before getting to the trailhead. The hike begins by the water tower on Thornbush road.
For more information, call the Cleveland National Forest Palomar Ranger Station at 1634 Black Canyon Road in Ramona: 760-788-0250.