CASCADE LAKE - The lure and understanding of waterfalls goes well beyond what meets today's human eye.
There's a history and emotion that can drown out any danger attached to these significant landmarks, despite being at the peak of their raging nature with this year's massive summer thaw of high country snow.
Few know the stories and charm behind the 200-foot Cascade Falls like Harold Ebright.
"It's been a good life up here. We used to go up there and fish between the top and Snow Lake - brook trout," said Ebright, who goes by "Shrimp" to those familiar with him.
Ebright, now 86, still hikes up to the falls once named White Cloud, Snow Falls and Modjeska. As a young boy, Ebright blazed a path at lake level that's difficult to find these days. Most people take the rocky, nearly mile-long trail accessed from the Bay View Campground.
In one of Tahoe's pioneering families, he spent his entire life at Cascade Lake and can't imagine living anywhere else - a place where the footsteps of Sierra Nevada conservationist John Muir and author Mark Twain have graced the granite-laced grounds between Camp Richardson and Emerald Bay off Highway 89.
Ebright's grandfather, Dr. Charles Brigham, settled the Cascade Lake area in 1880. He died in 1904 - but not before the homesteader hired author John Steinbeck as its caretaker. Steinbeck was known to have been so immersed in his writing, he was initially unaware when a tree crashed into the building during a storm, said U.S. Forest Service Ranger and historian Don Lane.
Like Ebright, Lane has never lost his fascination with the falls - especially in years when large ice fields release massive flows that widen the ribbon of the whitewater and span the granite cliffs.
The few that exist on the South Shore are frequented with a huge population base of visitors and locals. For one, more than 100,000 people have taken the journey up to Cascade Falls. The trail built 15 years ago is due for a $100,000 reconstruction this year. Runoff has created a drainage area on the ridge.
The 500-foot allure to Horsetail Falls is eye catching off Highway 50. Glen Alpine's 80-foot drop in the vegetation adds ambiance to the backcountry hike behind Fallen Leaf Lake to Susie Lake, Gilmore Lake, Mount Tallac or eventually Dicks Pass. And Eagle Falls - most commonly seen from Lake Tahoe - is a popular draw from the Vikingsholm parking lot on the north end of Emerald Bay, one of the most photographed places on Earth.
"You look at people at Eagle Falls and see the shift in their eyes. It's the wonderment. It's engaging," he said.
Waterfalls are a part of "nature's magical gift" to the 35-year veteran of the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
"With the scenery, they're seen as a powerful magnet. I think there's an enormous expectation that people want a national park experience. When you compare them to Yosemite, where the falls are 2,500 feet, we don't have anything like that. But I've trekked all around the world. This is equal in beauty to anything," he said, pointing to Cascade Falls.
"Sometimes you see a bear at the bottom," he said.
Dozens of visitors including those in two family reunions on the trail Thursday agreed.
Clarence Burton, 83, of Thousand Oaks took the haul yet again with his family and his lucky walking stick for the 40-person family reunion scheduled in Tahoe this week.
"I try to walk two miles a day. This is a good waterfall hike," he said, holding the stick with the names of his 11 children carved on it.
All types from all over have made the journey.
"There's nothing else like this in Arizona - the elevation, the grandeur," Susie Henry said. She, her husband Ben and sister Patty Murray romped around the falls like children on a jungle gym.
The flows branched off into three channels, with water flowing every which way. In one spot, the water covered the 10-foot-wide span of a rock tucked in the trees.
"The rocks tell the history of the runoff of the winter," Murray said.
The natural flow of things
Indeed, they do.
Lane said there's a profound history behind the geologic formation of the mountainous region including its area waterfalls, which travel the path of least resistance.
A large-scale erosion has taken place over time in the region west of Cascade Lake, revealing a softened edge over the ridges and a granite-based foundation covered by a glacial sentiment.
About 10 million years ago, faults thrust the Earth upward - creating 14,000 foot peaks that now stand between 9,000 and 11,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. In the Carson Range seen on the Nevada side, 19,000 foot peaks were believed to have formed.
The bowl formed from the ridge to Cascade Lake is the result of a glacial moraine, the legacy of an ice age ending 10,000 years ago. All the high alpine lakes including Snow and Azure lakes drop over Maggie's saddle and drain over the falls, creating a feast for the eyes of thousands of viewers.
-- Cascade Falls: 200-foot drop off Highway 89, south of Emerald Bay
-- Eagle Falls: 300-foot drop off Highway 89, north of Emerald Bay
-- Horsetail Falls: 500-foot drop off Highway 50, east of Strawberry
-- Glen Alpine Falls: 80-foot drop off Desolation Wilderness Trail southwest of Fallen Leaf Lake
Every year, Sierra Nevada visitors either take a tumble hiking to waterfalls or wading at the top. Park and forest officials warn to treat the forces of nature with caution by standing clear of the edge and out of the water's path as flows could be too strong to bear.