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East County Magazine News Service


November 9, 2011 (San Diego’s East County) – Cedar Creek Falls, which has been closed to the public since a  fatality accident last July, will remain closed until at least April 1, 2012.  The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) announced a delay in the reopening that had been slated for yesterday.

The decision has drawn mixed reactions among East County hiking enthusiasts.

“The Cedar Creek Falls trailhead, trial and falls will remain closed as the Forest Service is continuing to work with partner agencies and interested public groups to develop measures that provide for the safety of visitors and quality of resources base,” said Brian D. Harris, public affairs officer at Cleveland National Forest. 

For many years, the spectacular waterfall remained a closely guarded secret among local outdoor enthusiasts. But with the advent of Facebook and YouTube, word spread. In recent years, Sheriff Search and Rescue services were kept busy saving hikers who suffered dehydration on the rugged trail or injuries from jumping into the watering hole nick-named the Devil's Punchbowl. 

Earlier this year, the Forest Service completed “improvements” to the trail designed to make it less steep and more easily accessible—a move authorities hoped would lessen the need for rescues. Instead, the new trail led to an increase in the number of hikers, including many teens and college students.  Residents in Ramona, near the trail head, complained of parking problems and trash.  Veteran hikers complained of overcrowded at the falls. 

Then in July, an El Cajon teenager died after reportedly becoming separated from a group and falling over the top of the waterfall. 

The Forest Service says it is moving forward to develop a management plan and will conduct an analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  The NEPA analysis is set to be completed in late March.  The USFS will also determine whether or not to require permits for hiking the trail in the future, as well as studying other alternatives. The closed area includes the trailhead at Thornbush Road, the trail to and from Cedar Creek Falls from the Thornbush trailhead, the trailhead area at Saddleback (located on Eagle Peak Road), the trail form Saddleback, and the Cedar Creek Falls site. Closure extends for a quarter mile on both sides of the trails and falls.

Laura Cyphert of Lakeside, an avid hiker and co-founder of the East County Community Action Coalition, is disappointed by the extended closure. “I think there is an inherent risk in all outdoor activities,” she told ECM.  “I think it would be beneficial to place signs warning hikers of the risks, but I do not agree that it should be closed to the public. If the death of a hiker was grounds for closure, they would also need to close the Grand Canyon.”

Marc Arndt, who runs the website http://sandiegohiker.net, said he is not a fan of Cedar Creek Falls due to problems he observed on his sole hike to the falls from the Julian side--way back in 1998.  “The crowd there was so big, and drinking, and unpleasant, I’ve never been back,” he recalled, noting that such problems are really not new.  But he added, “I hope the Forest Service is able to come up with a plan for April, otherwise they can plan on making rescues (and sadly, recoveries) every weekend.”

Elena Pena, who hiked the new trail last summer and wrote about her experience for ECM, said she is “a little bummed that they had to push the closure to next year.” She wondered why the Forest Service couldn’t resolve the problems during the four months the falls have already been closed. But she acknowledged that she saw “people who weren’t appropriately dressed to hike down the trail, girls and guys in their bathing suits, hiking down in sandals and not carrying enough water.”  She also observed people violating the posted alcohol ban. 

“How much would it cost,” she wondered, “to pay for a security guard to check people at the trailhead before heading down? I think having someone there to check would discourage people who just do the hike to go party.” Pena also suggested placing trash cans along the way for people to dispose of trash and reduce litter.  “I honestly feel like the death of the teen…was the final straw after already having all these issues to worry about, as well as complaints from neighborhood residents,” she concluded.

ECM editor Miriam Raftery had been looking forward to visiting Cedar Creek Falls. “I have bad disks from an old accident and avoided Cedar Creek in the past due to the steepness,” she said, adding that she’s managed other long hikes. “I was grateful to the Forest Service for making this beautiful attraction more accessible to those with somewhat less agility, and had been looking forward to finally being able to see this inspiring place. I hope the Forest Service will do the right thing and recognize that this is a treasure for all San Diegans and indeed, all Americans. Cedar Creek Falls is the jewel in our backcountry. Keep it accessible for visitors who follow the rules, and leave other places such as Mildred Falls for those seeking more rugged, solitary experiences.”

She added, “What’s needed most is a ranger to monitor the site during busy times and assure that rules are being followed.” A small admission fee, if necessary, could cover the cost, she noted.  A water fountain partway down the trail, or at least a shaded rest area, could minimize dehydration and decrease rescues. “Tragedies occasionally do occur in wilderness areas," she acknowledged.  Yosemite has had several deaths at its waterfalls by people who disobeyed clearly posted signs, but the National Park Service doesn’t punish the vast majority of visitors who follow the rules.”

ECM photographer Dennis Richardson has been hiking to Cedar Creek Falls since the 1960s.  “To make a dangerous place like Cedar Creek Falls inviting to the careless public by making the trail easy to travel was a wrong choice made by the Forest Service,” he said, adding that the new trail brough in “gang types, violence, graffiti, trash, crime, and now the falls [area] has become an attractive nuisance which resulted in a long closure.”  He fears that if the new trail remains open, “law enforcement officers will need to be patrolling the area on a daily basis” and that fences, barricades and restricted area signs will ultimately be posted, “prohibiting people from the freedoms we have enjoyed for generations.”

He recalled that in the 1980s, when Barona Indians closed access off at Four Corners and a locked gate was installed on the east side on Eagle Peak Road, access to the falls became difficult.  He believes the Forest Service should block the new trail and replant with native vegetation.  “Let Cedar Creek Falls be for the advanced hikers,” he concluded, “the outdoorsmen who are willing to hike all day to get there and those who treat nature with respect.”