11 Best Hikes in Southern California: Falls, Ruins, Peaks

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Looking for abandoned creepy places, breathtaking views, and stunning waterfalls? Say no more. After hiking in Socal my entire life, I’m going to share with you what I believe to be the eleven best hikes in no particular order. 

Here’s a quick rundown of the places: 

  1. Cedar Creek Falls: Most Beautiful SD Falls
  2. Shoemaker Canyon Rd: LA’s Nuclear War Escape Tunnels
  3. Annie’s Canyon: SD’s #1 Slot Canyon
  4. Eaton Canyon Falls: Most Popular LA Waterfall
  5. Big Horn Mine & Vincent’s Cabin: Ruins of The San Gabriels
  6. Three Sisters Falls: Most Popular SD Waterfall 
  7. Vanalden Caves in Santa Monica Mnts
  8. Mount Lowe Peak: Swing Above The Clouds
  9. Big Falls: HUGE 500ft Cascade
  10. Torrey Pines: Beach & Cliffs in 1 Hike
  11. Murphy Ranch: Abandoned Nazi Ruins

Let’s get started! 

 

1) Cedar Creek Falls: San Diego’s Most Beautiful Waterfall

cedar creek falls

Distance: 5.6 miles

Difficulty: Moderate 

Elevation Gain: 1049 feet

Best time to visit: Late spring

$6 Permit required

Full Post, Map, & Directions: Cedar Creek Falls

Cedar Creek Falls is, in my opinion, San Diego’s most beautiful waterfall. The 80 foot cascade towers over everything in its surrounding area, and the orange tint on the cliff walls only add to its beauty. 

When you’re at the base of the falls, it feels like you’re standing before a giant or a skyscraper. It’s a really humbling experience. 

If the breathtaking view isn’t enough of a reason to visit, the waterfall’s swimming hole is enormous and deep. Although cliff jumping is not allowed, swimming definitely is. Therefore, expect a crowd on the weekends. 

Visiting the falls requires a $6 permit, which I highly suggest you purchase weeks in advance by clicking the link here. It’s 6 bucks per car, not per person. 

Thanks to the permit, the waterfall is graffiti free and trash is almost nonexistant. Keep in mind this hike becomes excruciatingly hot in the summer, and the waterfall is more likely to be dry, so try to visit in the spring! 

 

2) Shoemaker Canyon Rd: LA’s Nuclear War Escape Tunnels

Distance: 5 miles

Difficulty: Moderate 

Elevation Gain: 1404 feet

Best time to visit: spring, winter, fall

Full Post, Map, & Directions: Shoemaker Canyon Rd

During the midst of the Cold War in the 1950’s, Los Angelinos feared a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union (rightfully so). 

Due to the limited number of roadway exits out of Socal, the people in LA decided to build a road through the San Gabriel Mnts in order to safely get to Nevada. 

However, the high cost of building the road along with persistent conservationists finally put an end to the project. Today, the road and its two tunnels have become very popular hiking destinations. 

The parking lot is home to the Shoemaker Viewpoint, which offers amazing views of the San Gabriel River, Iron Mountain, and Heaton Flats. The entirety of the trail consists of trekking along on a dirt road, with the second tunnel marking the end of the hike. 

If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can explore the inside of the two bonus water drainages underneath the road which offer a different perspective of the valley below. 

If that’s not enough, you can look for the long-forgotten Shoemaker Mine. I’ve yet to find it, but maybe you’ll have better luck. 

 

3) Annie’s Canyon: San Diego’s #1 Slot Canyon

annie's canyon

Distance: 1.4 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Elevation Gain: 100 feet

Best time to visit: any time

Full Post, Map, & Directions: Annie’s Canyon

Annie’s Canyon is a beautiful slot canyon located between a fwy, neighborhood, and San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Preserve. During the weekend, you can undoubtedly expect a crowd. 

The trail’s beauty is enhanced by the wildflowers which call this place home. You can expect to be walking alongside the marsh for the majority of the hike, then arrive at a recreational park near the end, with the entrance to the slot canyon on your right. 

The setting immediately transforms before your eyes. 

30-foot sandstone walls begin to close in on you in a mesmerizing way, and the wavy horizontal lines carved into the sandstone give off the impression of painted brush strokes.

At one point the canyon becomes so narrow that most people will have to turn sideways. 

Explore a small cave then make your way up the ladder to arrive at the top of the slot canyon where you will be rewarded with a beautiful view of the reserve. 

 

4) Eaton Canyon Falls: The San Gabriels’ Most Popular Waterfall 

eaton canyon falls

Distance: 4.4 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Elevation Gain: 521 feet

Best time to visit: Late spring

Full Post, Map, & Directions: Eaton Canyon Falls

A 40-foot cascade calls Pasadena its home. Formerly known as Canon Precipicio or the Precipice Canyon by the Spanish, Eaton Canyon was once used for irrigation purposes.

Rusted iron pipes lay scattered throughout the place as vivid reminders of the canyon’s amazing history.  

Nowadays it’s the most sought-after waterfall in the San Gabriel Mountains. Unlike most waterfall hikes, the first part of the trail requires walking through the Eaton Wash, where the creek exits the mouth of the canyon. 

Once inside the canyon, the trail crosses the creek multiple times as it weaves its way toward your destination. 

As the Spanish name suggests, the narrow canyon walls are steep and rugged. However, the inside of the gorge is quite scenic. 

An abundance of vegetation, including the water-loving trees, White Alders, and Western Sycamores, give the canyon a woodsy and ethereal type of look, especially during sundown or foggy weather. 

If you visit after it rains, some parts of the creek can get up to 3 feet deep, so watch your step. 

 

5) Abandoned Ruins of Big Horn Mine & Vincent’s Cabin

big horn mine

Distance: 4 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Elevation Gain: 587 feet

Best time to visit: Any time

Full Post, Map, & Directions: Big Horn Mine Trail

Deep in the Western San Gabriel Mountains, an abandoned giant mine is still accessible for hikers. The founder, Charles T. Vincent, built a cabin about a mile away from the mine and is also currently standing.

127 years later, both structures have become popular hiking destinations. What differentiates this mine from the other 300 LA prospects is its massive size and the fact that you can still explore the inside. 

The trail begins off of the 2 hwy, weaving its way through a dense pine tree forest while boasting breathtaking views of San Antonio Peak, the highest peak in the San Gabriels. 

The remaining part of the Big Horn Mine structure can be thoroughly explored before heading into the portal. Unfortunately, part of it was washed away by mother nature. 

Microspikes and trekking poles are HIGHLY suggested if you plan on visiting after a heavy snowstorm, as three sections of the trail become extremely narrow. Should you slip, it’ll be a long way down. 

Inside the mine, tunnels split off into various directions, huge pits big enough to swallow multiple cars lay scattered throughout the mine, and the only sound is that of water droplets falling from the ceiling. 

Big Horn Mine

As you make your way back to the parking lot, take a short detour to visit Vincent’s Cabin located in a small clearing. Vincent lived in this cabin when Grizzly Bears roamed the area. 

Not surprisingly, he was attacked by 3 bears. He managed to shoot two and claimed the third kill with his knife. Unfortunately, he later succumbed to his injuries in an LA hospital where he confessed to killing three men in Arizona. 

 

6) Three Sisters Falls: San Diego’s Most Popular Waterfall

Distance: 4.1 miles

Difficulty: Moderate-Hard

Elevation Gain: 980 feet

Best time to visit: Late spring

Full Post, Map, & Directions: Big Horn Mine Trail

This massive three-tiered cascade has won over the hearts of San Diegans. 

While most waterfalls stand upright, the roughly 150 foot Three Sisters Falls flows down the canyon in a much more gradual descent. 

The start of the hike requires trekking down to the canyon floor, much like Cedar Creek Falls. Hence, the hard part is reserved for the end. Believe me, the way back is a workout! 

I don’t suggest taking your pooch during the summer months as it gets excruciatingly hot in this area. Pack extra water and a hat, and expect huge crowds on the weekends, so get there super early!

The top two tiers contain swimming holes deep enough for cliff jumping (which is allowed) while the bottom tier looks more like a natural water slide measuring roughly 30 feet in length.

Although I’ve seen one person slide down, I don’t suggest it, as it’s very easy to hit yourself on the rock slide.

Getting to the top tier requires some rock scrambling and careful footing, but if you’re the adventurous type it shouldn’t be too difficult. Plus, you’ll be rewarded with a slightly less crowded 25-30 foot cascade. 

The middle tier (shown in the 1st pic) has the tallest waterfall, measuring roughly 50 feet, and is also the most popular of the three. If you live or are visiting Socal, Three Sisters Falls is a must do!

 

7) Vanalden Caves in The Santa Monica Mountains

vanalden caves

Distance: 2.7 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Elevation Gain: 515 feet

Best time to visit: Any time

Full Post, Map, & Directions: Vanalden Caves

The Santa Monica Mountains are home to some awesome sandstone caves, which can be accessed via a short and easy hike. 

The trail begins on a dirt road with amazing views of the valley and the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests to the north, while the vast Santa Monica Mountains and the ocean can be seen to the south. 

Towards the end of the hike, you’ll hop onto an actual trail located to the right side of the road and quickly descend to the canyon floor. 

The trail leads you over a dry creek bed underneath the forest canopy. Shortly thereafter, you will see the caves tucked away into the corner of the canyon. 

The cave is roughly 30 feet deep and 14 feet tall. Unfortunately, lowlifes have already covered the caves with graffiti. 

A short trail continues up the side of the mountain and leads you to the top of the caves, where big holes in the ceiling allow you to peer inside from above. 

These caves are an adventure unlike any other in the Santa Monica Mountains. 

 

8) Mount Lowe Peak: Swing Above The Clouds


Distance: 3.2 miles

Difficulty: Easy – Moderate

Elevation Gain: 295 feet

Best time to visit: Any time

Full Post, Map, & Directions: Mount Lowe Peak

Named after the ingenious man responsible for the ruins at Echo Mountain, Professor Thaddeus Lowe, Mount Lowe Peak boasts breathtaking panoramic views of the valley, Mt Wilson, Strawberry Peak, and as far as Catalina Island. 

The hike begins at Eaton Saddle via the Mount Lowe Rd, but a much longer trailhead beginning at the Cobb Estate is also available. 

The views aren’t the only reason hikers visit Mount Lowe.

The peak is home to an iron frame frequently used to hold a pair of swings. Hence, you can literally swing away above the clouds. 

Unfortunately, the swings are either frequently removed or stolen, but persistent hikers constantly reinstall them. 

Paying a visit when the swings are present at the peak is a hit or miss. However, I’ll show you how to increase your odds of visiting at the right time.

You’re going to need Instagram for this. In the explore page:  

  1. Type Mount Lowe in the search bar and hit enter. 
  2. Tap the Places tab on the right side of the screen 
  3. Choose the link that says Mount Lowe. This will take you to all the pictures people have taken at Mount Lowe
  4. Hit the Recent tab on the right side of the screen
  5. Look through the most recent images. The swing(s) are more likely to be at the peak if the majority of the recent images show a swing(s).

Mount Lowe is known for getting snow in the winter months and as an ideal peak for enjoying sunsets. 

If you visit super early in the morning, there’s a very good chance you may end up above a sea of clouds. 

 

9) Big Falls: Massive 500 ft Waterfall in San Bernardino 

big falls trail

Distance: 0.7 miles

Difficulty: Easy 

Elevation Gain: 112 feet

Best time to visit: Any time

Full Post, Map, & Directions: Big Falls

One of the biggest waterfalls in Southern California is located in the little mountain town of Forest Falls in San Bernardino County. 

The colossal 500 foot giant, which consists of 10+ tiers, is so giganteus it can be seen from the road as you’re driving up to the parking lot. 

Unlike most waterfalls, Big Falls retains a decent level of water throughout the entire year. Even though the official trail is only an easy 0.7 miles long, you can expect multiple waterfalls and plenty of water. 

Some people like to make their way to the upper tiers, which are bigger than the ones at the bottom. However, getting to the top requires boulder scrambling. If you’re not comfortable with heights or climbing, I suggest playing it safe and sticking to the main trail. 

 

10) Torrey Pines: Beach & Cliffs In One Trail


Distance: 3.1 miles

Difficulty: Easy 

Elevation Gain: 338 feet

Best time to visit: Any time

Full Post, Map, & Directions: Torrey Pines

Torrey Pines State Beach Loop is unlike any other hike for one primary reason; the trail includes both walking on the beach and trekking through the cliffs and pine trees. 

You can begin the trail at either the beach or cliff parking lots. 

While on the beach, you can expect to walk along huge sandstone cliffs towering hundreds of feet above the sand. These cliffs are very unstable. Hence, visitors are urged not to get too close, as parts of the cliff can come crashing down. 

Once you begin making your way up the cliffs, you’ll notice the entire trail consists of sand, yet the endangered Torrey Pine, native only to this beach, can be found everywhere you look.

The cliffs contain various lookouts, each offering amazing views of the cliffs and the ocean.  

Best Tip: Make sure you plan your visit during low tide, otherwise you won’t be able to walk on the beach. 

 

11) Murphy Ranch: Abandoned Nazi Ruins 

Distance: 2.6 miles

Difficulty: Moderate 

Elevation Gain: 633 feet

Best time to visit: Any time

Full Post, Map, & Directions: Murphy Ranch Trail

Deep in the Santa Monica Mountains, under the cover of the forest canopy, eerie Nazi ruins are waiting to be explored by the next adventurous hiker. 

During World War 2, a couple by the name of  Winona and Norman Stephens were fully convinced Hitler would win the war. Therefore, they purchased a ranch under the pseudonym, Murphy. 

Their goal was to build a self sustaining ranch, which explains the powerhouse and water tank on the premises. 

Fortunately for us, they were horribly wrong and the ruins have now become another interesting hiking destination.

Most of the entrances to the inside of the structures have been blocked, but the outside can still be explored. 

To get to the ruins, you can take the more gradual paved road or the brutally inclined 524 concrete steps.

When it comes to hikes involving mountain ruins, don’t hesitate too long to check them out, as many of them are completely demolished, regardless of the hike’s popularity. 

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Hello, There!

I’m Phillip, and just like you, I feel very passionate about California and the outdoors. After many years of exploring amazing and hidden places, I thought I’d share them with you. Life goes by fast so get out there and enjoy it.  

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