Best Hikes in Cleveland National Forest (CA)


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 we have outlined some of the best hikes in Cleveland National Forest for you to enjoy! 

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

Trailhead Traveler’s Recommended 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. 
Cleveland National Forest - Black Star Canyon Trailhead
  • Cedar Creek Falls Trail*** – 5.6 miles out and back
    • 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. 
Cleveland National Forest - Cedar Creek Falls

  • Garnet Peak Trail – 2.4 miles out and back
    • 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 (CLOSED)
    • 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. The trail is closed for now due to a 2018 fire but should reopen soon. 
  • 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
    • 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.

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