Three Sisters Falls Hike - Cleaveland NF, CA

Three Sisters is my favorite local hike from San Diego. It's only 4 miles round trip, the hike is challenging, yet interesting with several sections steep enough to require climbing with a rope, there are prominent waterfalls, and a great swimming hole.


Hike Info

Date: 4/12
Miles: 4 roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 1000 ft
Trail Type: Out and back
Trailhead: Google Maps


The Hike

Some drawbacks of this hike are: it can get very crowded (especially on weekends), there is a lot of trash hikers will leave everywhere, and it can get really hot in the summer. This is not an easy hike, and the day we hiked it someone broke their leg and was airlifted out! As long as you are relatively fit, bring lots of water, and are ready to get dusty, you're in for a great hike!

Leaving San Diego around 7:30AM, the final miles on the bumpy dirt road completely caked my car in dust. The drive only took about 1.5 hours, but the road gets pretty windy once you exit the freeway. The TH is easy to find, there will be lots of cars lined up along the side of Boulder Creek Road. We suited up and started hiking on the flat, dusty trail. We hit the trail at 9:20AM.

At the start of the trail at 9:20AM

The wide dirt trail continues on for about 15 minutes

Gradually narrows as it starts to descend into the canyon

After we passed a short shady section through some bushes, we emerged out onto the open face of the side of the mountain 30 minutes into the hike. The trail here was sandy and loose, making it quite the leg workout to maintain traction and control. There is a new rope anchored here which was not here the last year when I hiked this trail, but it made the climb down much easier on the leg muscles since you didn't have to worry about losing control and sliding all the way down.

Vanessa using the rope to climb down the steepest section of the trail
Looking back up at the sandy portion of the trail following the steep section

After the particularly steep and exciting part of the trail, the waterfalls were getting closer and closer.

You can see the three sisters falls in the background

You can see the three sisters falls in the background

Some shady relief and lots more greenery as we near the bottom of the canyon

Some shady relief and lots more greenery as we near the bottom of the canyon

About 10 minutes after the first rope, there was one more section of the trail involving a rope, and this one was more of a vertical drop than a incline.

Elaine down-climbing a short steep rock section

Looking up at Vanessa handlining next to some cool tree roots

As soon as we could hear the stream, we made our way towards it and started climbing on the many rocks around and in the river. It was fun picking our own path, and we could have easily continued up the entire river like this. There is no designated trail, and will you often meet forks in the trail that cross onto both sides of the stream. As long as you follow the stream up towards the waterfall, it doesn't matter which path you choose.

Boulder-hopping up the river

Not much wildlife except some hawks and lots of these lizards

Passing a rockfall cave


Even with the boulder hopping up the stream, we reached the first waterfall an hour and 15 minutes into the hike. The water here was quite still and shallow, and we quickly continued up past it onto its two other sisters.

The first waterfall was slow moving and we were tempted to slide down

The first waterfall was slow moving and we were tempted to slide down

We had to climb up the slick rock on the left side of the first waterfall and cross the flowing water at the top. Be careful here, this is where Elaine slipped in her footing and dunked her entire foot in! The second waterfall was flowing a little stronger, but the pool here still was not suitable for swimming.

Second of the three sisters waterfalls

Second of the three sisters waterfalls

Climbing up the steep dirt section along the right side of the waterfall, another short rope has been added to help you up this portion.

Using a rope to help climb between to the top waterfall

Austin making his way up the slick rock to the last waterfall

And then it was a short walk up to the final and last waterfall! The slick rock can be slippery if you don't have the right shoes or if your soles are even a little wet.

This was the strongest flowing waterfall, and even though the water was ice cold, we had to get in. No shoes required to wade around in this pool.

The pool had a soft sandy bottom, perfect for jumping into

Standing under the pounding, frigid water

After drying off, we climbed up the right side of the waterfall to get to the very top. This was the most precarious section of the entire hike, and I felt like I had to do it barefoot to get a better grip on the rocks. This section is the most dangerous, and be sure you can climb back down if you choose to go all the way to the top.

We had lunch here and enjoyed drying off a little at the top. We could see hoards of people starting to come in in flocks, and we could see the line of people waiting for the first rope all the way back at the sandy, steep portion.

Eating lunch from the very top of the last waterfall

Eating lunch from the very top of the last waterfall

It was the perfect temperature for hiking today - partly cloudy and 63F high. However for those of us that were still wet, the wind was quite chilly at the top of the waterfall. We decided to pack up and start heading out before the crowds got too long.

We passed lots of people headed in, and even a guy who had his adorable dog poking his head and paw out of his backpack. Most of the dogs we saw were carried in because some portions are so steep and sandy.

Looking up at Elaine making her way up the steep section

Looking up at Elaine making her way up the steep section

The entire 2 miles back were mostly uphill, and we were all out of breath by the time we reached the very top. A great leg workout!

The final flat stretch before reaching the parking lot

The final flat stretch before reaching the parking lot

As we reached the parking lot, we saw a US Forest Service worker unloading his truck. He asked us if there were a lot of people jumping into the pools, and we told him yes. He then told us that someone broke his leg and the helicopter was on his way to airlift him out. We wished him luck before he started jogging down the hiking trail with bags in both hands.

While we were loading up our cars and saying goodbye, we saw an ambulance, a K-9 vehicle, and two fire trucks pull in. Realizing we were about to get blocked off, we hurried and pulled past the TH right as another emergency vehicle pulled up. After about 10 minutes of driving, we saw the helicopter on its way in. Poor guy!

Overall it was a great way to spend the morning hiking with friends, and I was so glad to have woken up early to beat the crowds and the heat. When we arrived at the first waterfall, there was no one around, and by the time we left the falls, it was so loud and crowded. It was also sad to see all of the trash people threw everywhere. Pack it out guys! If you haven't done this hike and are in SoCal, I highly recommend it!

Other useful links:
Couple of travels
Foodie Loves Fitness
Urban Hike
Borregowrangler on Ousa