Early this morning I made another attempt – after several more over the last ten years – to find the elusive Sill Hill Waterfall. I didn’t reach the fall, and there were a lot of things “wrong” with this hike.
I was at the waterfall once and only once in the early 1990s, I don’t remember exactly what year. Then I had used Jerry Schad’s 1986 edition of Afield and Afoot in San Diego County – now very battered but still treasured.
I started on the right side of the map, at a sharp angle of highway 79 just south of Lake Cuyamaca. There is a little parking area there in the bend which is impossible to miss. I got as far as the blue arrow on the map, which was 2.4 miles of hiking, moderately uphill, and then downhill for a while. The waterfall is located approximately where the red arrow points. There is no trail to the fall – never has been. That’s partly why it’s such a treasured destination. It’s just about impossible to find – or to reach. But let’s start at the beginning.
Milk Ranch Road is a pretty well developed dirt road up the hill. There is no vehicle traffic since it is closed off by a locked gate down by the road. I left early in the morning, around 7:30.
As I hiked up the road, suddenly I had this distinct feeling “somebody” was looking at me. There was a burned tree trunk to the right up the hill that looked a lot like a Hitler soldier saluting. I must add that the fires in the early 2000s devastated what used to be a forest up here, and dead trees are everywhere, as you can see in these pictures.
After about two miles going steadily uphill I reached the 6-way intersection at a saddle. Here I am facing south toward the Azelea Spring Fire Road, which connects to the trail I took on July 4, 2012, described here.
Zooming the camera looking south, I could see Cuyamaca Peak, the second highest point in San Diego County, in the background. The mountain is covered by dead burned forest. The undergrowth is as tall as two men or more, and completely impenetrable.
Here is a more panoramic view, with thick brush visible in the foreground. Some young fir trees are poking through, and a few old ones survived, but it may take another century before these woods are covered by forest again like they were in the 1990s.
Turning north, there are vast meadows of dry grass, some of it chest high. You cannot see the ground through the brush.
As I reached the point where it was necessary to leave the road and head through the brush to find the waterfall, I looked west and contemplated entering the bush. When I first found the waterfall 20 years earlier, this was dense forest with not much coverage on the ground, good for reasonable walking, avoiding poison oak here and there. Now, I found it impossible.
Here is another view west, the direction I was supposed to go. There was no way I would be able to cover half a mile downhill in this terrain.
I carried a GPS, so I was sure I would find my way back, but first I’d have to get through this. It’s not like I brought a machete.
And then I got scared. All of a sudden I realized that there were a lot of things wrong with my situation.
I was more than two miles away from the nearest human beings (at the road) and all alone. It was the middle of July, and at 8:30 it was already hot, with flies buzzing around my face. Cuyamaca is mountain lion territory. It’s not wise to be alone, defenseless except for my hiking poles – which were strapped to my backpack – in mountain lion terrain. I am sure I was making plenty of clumsy noises, and I was smelling of fear, now that I realized how exposed I was. Then I looked down and noticed I could not see the trail through the thick grass. The summer heat would have rattlesnakes very active, and hidden perfectly under the brown and yellow shrubs, invisible to me. I had actually SEEN rattlesnakes on this trail previously.
Invisible rattle snakes, invisible cougars, and me all alone – I was freaking out.
Sorry, Sill Hill Waterfall, to conquer you I must:
- Come in the winter, when rattle snakes are slow, and flies are rare
- Come with several more people, two minimum
- Bring a machete
- Scare away mountain lions by the sheer ruckus our group makes
What was I thinking?
I hightailed out of there, watching carefully where I was stepping, and turning around and looking for furtive eyes stalking me in the brush from all directions. I was relieved when I safely reached the parking lot an hour later.
And then I saw this sign.