Best Hikes in Cleveland National Forest (CA)

Cleveland National Forest Overview

Cleveland National Forest is the southernmost national forest in California. It is divided into 3 separate Ranger Districts: Trabuco (northernmost, near Irvine), Palomar (near Escondido), and Descanso (east of San Diego). Cleveland National Forest is often overlooked for other outdoors areas of Los Angeles but because of its lower elevation and warm climate it makes for a good place to visit all year-round. The best season for hiking is during the cooler fall, winter, and spring months. Many trails travel through the open chaparral and get very hot in the summer. Summer hiking should be done in the early morning hours on designated trails that offer shade. Below are outlined some of the best hikes in Cleveland National Forest for you to enjoy! 

Nearest Metro AreaSan Diego, CA
Area Size425,580 acres
EstablishedJuly 1, 1908
Hiking Trails340 miles

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Trailhead Traveler’s Recommended Best in Cleveland National Forest

(*** = best hikes in Cleveland National Forest)

Black Star Canyon Trail*** – 6.8 miles out and back

The trail starts off on a dirt road and then follows Black Star Creek toward the falls. The last portion of the hike requires boulder hopping up the stream bed to reach Black Star Canyon Falls. This hike is best experienced after heavy rain, as high flow is usually in the rainy season and can be only a trickle during summer and fall. 

Cedar Creek Falls Trail*** – 5.6 miles out and back
Cedar Creek Falls (Devil's Punch Bowl) in Ramona - San Diego, California
Cedar Creek Falls (Devil’s Punch Bowl) in Ramona, Photo by Christy Woodrow

Cedar Creek Falls is a spectacular waterfall plunging 80 feet into a large pool of water. The trails to Cedar Creek Falls lead hikers through the beautiful backcountry hills of eastern San Diego. The falls typically do not run during the summer months when the pool at the base of the falls is stagnant and filled with algae. 

Garnet Peak Trail – 2.4 miles out and back
From Garnet Peak
From Garnet Peak, Photo by Rob Malouf

Short and rocky climb to the top of Garnet Peak with incredible 360 degree views of the surrounding area. 

Holy Jim Trail – 10.4 miles out and back
18 Santiago Peak Summit Views (6) - NW, 5,495' Modjeska Peak, 2nd Highest In Orange County
Santiago Peak Summit Views, Photo by The Fun Chronicles

Popular hike in the area offering beautiful scenery and year-round shade. There is also the option to continue further to Santiago Peak; although the summit isn’t noteworthy with no clear views. Holy Jim Falls is the highlight of the trail only 1.5 miles in.

Lawson Peak + Gaskill Peak Trail – 7.2 miles out and back

This is a great hike to 2 beautiful summits. Both are a bit overgrown but nothing too intense and there is some rock scrambling near the tops but the views are incredible. Not a hike you would want to pass up. 

Three Sisters Waterfalls Trail*** – 4.5 miles out and back
Beginning of the trail to Three Sisters Falls, Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture

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.

Featured Image: Hikers on the Cleveland National Forest in the San Diego River Gorge Calif., Photo by Forest Service, USDA

Don’t forget to stock up on the essentials before you plan your next hiking or camping trip! We have recommendations on: