I hate to break it to you, San Diego, but y'all are what I call "city folk." Where I come from, we don't have graffiti sprayed across our hiking trails. We don't have to look for parking to enjoy the wilderness, and we especially don't have to buy memberships to go swimming.
Before you rush to your fancy, big-city computers to rabidly inform me that we have access to a great, free-of-charge ocean to swim in, let me remind you that the ocean actually hates us. Sharks, undercurrents, territorial surfers and sharknados are only a few of the factors conspiring against the casual ocean swimmer. I'm also certain that all swimming pools are actually thinly veiled urine baths. I suspect this because I know what I do in pools.
Swimming holes, on the other hand, not only epitomize the summer-camp experience; they also provide some of the most scenic, enjoyable environments in which to swim. And they fulfill city folks' desire to shed their bourgeoisie anchors, since anything described as a "hole" is undoubtedly country. (P.S. I'm pronouncing the "g" in "swimming" as a formality here.)
However, swimming holes in San Diego County aren't common, so I entrusted my friend Nathan Young to help me find some. He's earned the honor of being my appointed outdoor guru because he practically knows Jerry Schad's invaluable guide Afoot & Afield by heart. And he's got a pretty good beard.
The Cedar Creek Falls trailhead is at the end of a suburban street in Ramona (about an hour drive from North Park). We arrived around 10 a.m., and the temperature was already in the 80s. Groups of college kids huddled in the parking lot, lathering sunscreen on the parts that their neon muscle-tanks or trucker hats didn't cover. A sign informed us that we needed a $6 permit to access the falls, which we purchased by phone, although it'd probably be easier and more convenient to take care of that beforehand at recreation.gov. Once we had the permit, the super-intimidating old-lady volunteer let us through the metal corral that led to the trail.
Suffice to say, our adventure didn't start off as the ruff 'n' tumble country adventure I had hoped for. The 2.5-mile hike leading down to the falls was deceptively simple. The trail was well-maintained and remained at a steady grade the entire time. Apart from some spectacular views, one might even find it dull.
But as we got closer to the falls, distant shouts of jubilation quickened our pace. We emerged from the trees to the most picturesque swimming hole I've ever seen: Sheer cliffs surrounded the forest-green water, creating a natural amphitheater, similar to that scene in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves when Robin Hood's bathing nude in the waterfall—a reference I'm sure only my mom will appreciate.
By then, the temperature had risen to nearly 100 degrees, making the frigid water feel like Heaven. Families and people of all ages paddled around in the water or sunbathed on the rocks. A couple of brave souls jumped from surrounding cliffs, despite warnings not to. It was a laid-back atmosphere, and even the teenagers seemed quietly reverent of this private oasis.
Despite the fun of the swimming hole, the hike out was totes the suck: all uphill with little shade in brutal heat. Add our exhaustion from swimming and it was, like, "STFU, nature" by the end.
There's an ominous, bullet-riddled sign at the Three Sisters Falls trailhead in Descanso that warns of rugged terrain and strenuous hiking conditions. Considering that Nathan had to cancel on our hiking date, this is exactly the sign I didn't want to see while attempting the hike solo. Given that I'd just traversed eight miles of harrowing gravel road in my ill-equipped, big-city Toyota Corolla, the sign seemed like a bad omen. I asked myself: Was risking my life to research a puff piece for a CityBeat special issue worth it? The answer to that, my friends, will be determined by how many Facebook likes this story receives.
Now, that sign was not kidding with all its scare-talk: The hike to Three Sisters Falls was rough. It was using-ropes-to-scale-dirt-cliffs-rough. The trail disappeared during the last third of the hike, leaving it up to me to find my own way around boulders the size of cars. I even saw a fox. It scared me.
But the struggle was worth it. Smoothed-out valleys surrounded the three levels of pools, each connected by a jaw-dropping waterfall. It was unlike anything I've ever seen.
I dove into the middle pool, so awed by its great majesty that I didn't even pee in it.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @theryanbradford