Spotlight Trail: Three Sisters Falls

Spotlight Trail: Three Sisters Falls


Elevation Change

1000 Feet


5.5 miles

Pets Allowed

Strongly Discouraged



Hike/Ride Time

Full day


Moderate to Strenuous

Best Seasons

Spring, Winter


Boulder Creek Road, Santa Ysabel CA

Ranger District

Palomar Ranger District - (760) 788-0250

Gaining in popularity, this often crowded, yet challenging hike takes hikers through several ecosystems before leading to the main event - three large waterfalls wedged between tall, rocky mountains. Recently having undergone some new development, hikers will find a safer and more direct route to the falls, which alleviates the requirement to rock/mountain climb, lowering injury risks and casualty rates. Those who are interested in extreme hiking, mountain climbing, rock traversing, or otherwise challenging hikes will still appreciate elements of this trail, particularly if hiking to the third waterfall or traversing the rocky bottom. Those who are new to hiking, or are hiking the trail for the first time, should attempt to complete this in the cooler winter or spring months and allow ample time for the trip down and back out. It is not uncommon to see several heat related air rescues on any given day during the summer months. If you choose to hike this in hotter weather, start early and take at least a gallon of water per person. 


Special Features: While the Three Sisters Trail provides wonderful scenery for bird watching and scneic, wide ranging vistas of the Cuyamaca, Sunshine, and El Cajon mountains, it is perhaps best known for the 3 dynamic waterfalls it is named after. During the winter and spring seasons, or during a wet year when the Cuyamaca Reservoir is full, Boulder Creek can experience heavy water flow, resulting in higher than average falls. In prime conditions, the “middle sister” is impressive, with water falls cascading 50 feet into a kidney shaped pool estimated to be about 10 feet deep. Be careful treking this area - the years of water runoff has left the large boulders incredibly smooth, making slips and falls common. Expect water levels to fluctuate with the season. During much of the summer, or in times of drought, the waterfalls and pools can be more of a trickle and a pond, with little in terms visual appeal or swimming potential. If hiking in the spring months when nature is in full bloom, poppies and wild mustard light the horizon with color, while peregrine and prairie falcons prepare their nests for incoming chicks.


Hiking Up 3 Sisters

Views of the new versus the old trail


Difficulty: With the opening of the new trail system in March 2018, hikers can now trek down to the falls without the hazards and injuries common with rock climbing, boulder jumping, or steep cliff traversing. Hiker injuries, heat exhaustion, and emergency rescues happen often here, almost once daily during the summer, making hiker preparedness a priority. Despite the decommissioning the old trail, Three Sisters is still listed as moderate to strenuous due to areas of rocky/unstable terrain, extreme heat risk, and no shade and is suggested for those in good physical condition. Hikers should be prepared with at least a gallon of water and avoid hiking during the heat of the day. This hike is not suitable for small dogs, children, pregnant women, or those with health issues.


Pets: While dogs are great hiking buddies, it is not advisable to bring pets along for this trip. Aside from requiring ample supplies, water, shade, food, and paw protection, many dogs are incapable of traversing the rocks to make the descent. Small dogs can be especially cumbersome as they often need to be carried over the rough spots, taking away an extra hand and limiting the stability of the hiker. Heat stroke and even death have been reported in pets visiting this trail. Also common are burned paws since scorching ground temps can exceed 120 degrees. Please leave your dogs at home and remember to never leave them in a hot vehicle. 


Water Requirement for the Trail


Water requirements for the trail are often much more than hikers come prepared with


Supplies: Every hiker in the group should be prepared with two liters of water, or a gallon on hot days. Do not under estimate the importance of water on this hike, as heat exhaustion caused by dehydration is extremely common. Sturdy hiking boots, and light colored clothing to repel heat are also recommended. Avoid wearing black or dark clothing that can trap heat and consider bringing a broad-brimmed hat and sunscreen for sun protection as there is no shade on the trail. Be sure to pack plenty of snacks and food to ensure sustainable energy, as the inexperienced hiker can take as long as 8 hours to finish this hike. The best snacks for the trail are ones that will provide you with high energy, such as fruit, granola, peanut butter, bagels, power bars, fruit bars, trail mix, or beef jerky. Take extra food, water, and supplies with you in case your hike takes longer than expected. It is also smart to have supplies with you in case someone gets lost or injured. This can include extra clothing (in case you get wet), a first aid kit, flashlight, and Motrin. Do not expect cell coverage in this area, so hikers should be self-sufficient.


Important Notables: Whenever possible, avoid using the ropes that may still be along sections of this trail. Ropes are neither placed, nor maintained by the forest service, and as such their reliability and security cannot be guaranteed. This is where sturdy hiking boots with good ankle support will be helpful as manuvering up or down the rocks will take stability, core strength, and focus. The most common injuries for hikers are heat exhaustion and heat stroke brought on by dehydration and prolonged exposure to heat. There have also been accidents related to snake bites, trips and falls caused by loose rocks, ankle sprains, and burns caused by sun exposure. Stay alert for the first signs of heat exhaustion in others - confusion, headache, fatigue, dizziness and vomiting. Also note that there are currently no bathrooms or trash cans at this location, so please come prepared. Pack out any trash or keep it in your backpack until you get down the mountain. Expect little to no cell reception in the canyon.


three sisters moment of serenity

The start and end of the trail provides a moment of calmness with great views 


Directions: As with many rural areas on the Cleveland, you can expect a long drive to a secluded location on somewhat rough and rocky terrain. Three Sisters Falls is roughly halfway in between the town of Descanso, and the town of Julian, off a narrow graded dirt road (Boulder Creek). The drive will take roughly 45 minutes to an hour (with a good portion going through agricultural areas) from almost any area of San Diego. Be prepared for a long drive with few options for gas or convenience stores. If coming from highway 78 near Julian (where highway 78 becomes highway 79) visitors will want to continue east (towards Julian) and turn right on Pine Hills Road. This road is also signed for numerous local camps, including YMCA and Girl Scouts, and is therefore easy to spot. From the turnoff, follow the road for 1.6 miles and make a right turn onto Eagle Peak Road, which intersects with Boulder Creek Road. From the Eagle Peak/Boulder Creek Junction follow Boulder Creek for 5.8 miles to the trailhead. If approaching from interstate 8 east exit at the 79 North off-ramps toward Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and Descanso. From Descanso proceed to Boulder Creek Road and follow it for thirteen miles to the trailhead. Currently, a parking lot and trailhead sign is being installed, so look for small signs of a trailhead (cars, a large gate, a fire danger sign).


3 Sisters Trail Map


If you do not feel you are ready for the intensity of this hike, please reference our Recreation Trail Guide for other options.