Waterfalls, boulders, and beaches in Cougar Canyon

Hike into a lush desert riparian setting with waterfalls, pools, and shady trees.

Boulder Alley must be crossed to get to Cougar Canyon.
  • Boulder Alley must be crossed to get to Cougar Canyon.

Cougar Canyon is one of the delights of Coyote Canyon. It has willows, sycamores, and cottonwood trees in a lush riparian oasis where waterfalls cascade into deep pools surrounded by huge boulders and sandy beaches. The canyon descends precipitously from the crest of the San Ysidro Mountains, near the highest peak in San Diego County, and can be relied upon to have a bubbling stream from November through April.

Check with the park visitor center for road conditions, especially Boulder Alley. Most passenger vehicles will be able to travel as far as the first creek crossing at 3.7 miles. Do not attempt to cross if the stream has become a raging torrent, as it can after a storm. The road becomes progressively worse in the next 3 miles, with two more stream crossings at 4.6 miles and 5.5 miles. The notorious “Boulder Alley” is just beyond the third crossing. Do not attempt Boulder Alley without a sturdy, high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle. The Cougar Canyon Trailhead is another 3.8 miles ahead with a much improved road once entering Collins Valley.

If you parked your vehicle near one of the stream crossings, continue walking up the Coyote Canyon dirt road and take the Boulder Alley bypass road into Collins Valley. A possible short 1-mile detour, whether hiking or in your vehicle en route to the trailhead, is the turnoff right/east to Santa Catarina Monument at 6.6 miles. This detour adds 1 mile to the journey. The monument commemorates the Anza expedition encampments at the spring near here in 1774 and 1775. It also provides a great view of Lower Willows.

Continuing past the Santa Catarina turnoff, the road forks at mile 7.3. Go left/southwest toward Sheep Canyon. At the Sheep Canyon Campground turnoff at 9.2 miles, go left on the road into Indian Canyon, which will end in 1 mile. A well-marked pedestrian and equestrian trail leads south from the road’s end and in 0.6 mile heads into the Cougar Canyon wash. The trail up into Cougar Canyon itself is rather diffuse, with numerous use trails. Now is the time to explore and discover the wonders of Cougar Canyon on your own before turning back.

Cougar Canyon can be explored further, but it becomes very rugged with huge boulders and dramatic waterfalls the farther one goes. Eventually there will be a point where one will need climbing skills and equipment to go farther. Go as far as you feel safe, keeping a lookout for “the eye,” a rock painting or graffiti dating back to the 1970s when Cougar Canyon was a mecca for people on a spiritual quest. Perhaps it still is.

  • Distance from downtown San Diego: About 105 miles. Allow at least 2.5 hours driving time (Borrego Springs). From Christmas Circle, go 0.5 mile east on Palm Canyon Dr. Turn left/north onto DiGiorgio Rd. and drive approximately 5.3 miles until the pavement ends and the Coyote Canyon dirt road begins. Reset your odometer to 0.0 and drive up Coyote Canyon. Depending on road conditions and the type of vehicle driven up Coyote Canyon, options are parking at first, second, or third crossing.
  • Hiking length: Varies according to where the vehicle is parked. This recommended hike is 1.8 miles out-and-back from the trailhead; 7.6 miles from third crossing; 9 miles from second crossing, or 11.2 miles from first crossing.
  • Difficulty: Easy hike but it becomes more difficult depending on where you park. No drinking water or facilities at Cougar Canyon. Facilities are at Christmas Circle and a vault toilet at Sheep Canyon Campground, about one mile from the Cougar Canyon trailhead.

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Listen to this article! Do not attempt with non-4WD vehicles past 2nd stream bed, even if no water. Very soft sand. I stuck follow others and if it wasn't for a jeep with a heavy wench, I'd have paid a tow truck guy $300 to come get me out. it was night and we missed the "4WD Only" sign.

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