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San Diego County's Waterfalls

Few natural features attract more notice

The smaller scale and often intimate settings of these San Diego County waterfalls make them every bit as beautiful as their larger cousins in other places.

By: Scott Turner, Co-author of the 5th Edition of Afoot and Afield in San Diego County

Few natural features attract more notice from outdoor enthusiasts than waterfalls. The rush of water careening against polish rock into deep, tree-shaded grottos contrasts soothing sounds against the exhilarating effects of gravity. Although San Diego County's waterfalls do not in any way rival the more impressive cascades of Yosemite, the smaller scale and often intimate settings make them every bit as beautiful in their own ways.

Best Time to Visit

Given that San Diego lies within a semi-arid climate belt, waterfalls in the county are often dependent on recent rainfall. San Diego's heaviest rainfall months are generally December through March. During this time, Pacific storms drop the bulk of the county's annual rainfall. In addition to resurrecting summer's dormant vegetation, this water begins cascading into polished grottos. The best times to view the areas waterfalls are generally between February and March, which follows the peak rainfall times of December and January.

8 of San Diego County's Best Waterfalls

1. Los Penasquitos Falls

One of coastal San Diego's few perennial waterfalls. Penasquitos Creek tumbles over a volcanic outcrop in the center of Penasquitos Canyon.

2. Oak Canyon

This seasonal waterfall comes to life only following heavy rainfall, but when it does wake up, the water tumbles and crashes over a colorful jumble of metamorphic rocks in the upper reaches of this gently winding canyon.

3. Horsethief Canyon

Less of a waterfall than a series of gentle cascades that empty into a beautiful pull at the confluence of Pine Valley Creek and Horsethie Canyon. When the breeze ruffles the cottonwoods and sycamores overhead, there is perhaps no more peaceful place in the county. Note: you will need an Adventure Pass to park at the trailhead.

4. Cedar Creek Falls

The county's most popular waterfall. Cedar Creek tumbles 80 feet over a cliff into the sparkling waters of the "Devil's Punchbowl." Be warned that this is a difficult, often hot hike that should not be attempted between June and October.

5. Cottonwood Creek Falls

Another seasonal waterfall tucked into a hidden grotto south of the Laguna Mountains. The somewhat obscure trail leads to a tranquil series of cascades.

6. Green Valley Falls

The Sweetwater River tumbles over this multiple-tiered cascade on the south end of Green Valley Campground in Cuyamaca Ranch State Park.

7. Maidenhair Falls

A hidden, fern-bedecked grotto with a seasonal 20' waterfall in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

8. Borrego Palm Canyon

Not a single waterfall, but a number of smaller cascades found along the creek. The easiest to reach is a small waterfall that flows near the first palm grove.

A Safety Note on Waterfalls

Many of these waterfalls lie within the county's arid interior where summer temperatures routinely hit triple digits. Given that rainfall is extremely rare during these times, hikers should avoid seeking out waterfalls during the summer and fall months. Rescues due to dehydration and heat exhaustion during these times are common, and most of the rescues seem to occur when unprepared hikers seek out waterfalls.

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