May 17, 2013
The waterfalls are exploding, but the window will be brief this year.
Without much snowpack, the chance to catch these alpine streams ripping down Tahoe's granite face is about to snap shut. It's been two years since Lake Tahoe has seen enough snow to carry its waterfalls into late summer.
"Two years ago, we were leading teenage backpacking trips and the kids were actually able to have a snowball fight in early August," said Tom Rodriguez, the Tahoe Rim Trail Association's director of trail use.
That year, the waterfalls were flowing through August.
This year, the waterfalls might not make it through June. Right now, however, they are in their prime.
And if waterfalls are the main attraction, wildflowers will be a nice bonus.
Wildflowers, like lupine and corn lilies, are attracted to damp soil and tend to grow around waterfall sites.
"This year, because it was a pretty dry year, those wildflowers will probably be done by mid to late July," Rodriguez said.
Be on the lookout for these brightly colored lupine or corn lilies, which look like corn stalks. They enjoy the damp meadows often found around waterfalls.
Rodriguez also reminds waterfall hikers to bring a filter or purification tabs if they plan on drinking from the streams. It may look clean, but there are definitely no guarantees.
Eagle Falls are perhaps the most accessible and well known of the major South Shore falls. They are located in Emerald Bay near the Vikingsholm. Weekend parking at Eagle Falls can be tricky with all the Emerald Bay traffic, but once a spot is secured it's a quick walk to see the upper and lower falls ripping along on the way into Lake Tahoe.
Upper Eagle Falls drops 40 feet, and lower 170 feet. Highway 89 separates the upper and lower falls, and there may be a nominal parking fee, so be prepared.
The hike from the parking lot, past upper Eagle Falls, takes hikers one mile uphill to Eagle Lake. From there, hikers can continue uphill and eventually meet up with the Pacific Crest Trail. It's a nice hike, albeit mostly a wicked uphill climb. The best waterfall viewing is back near the trailhead, but the hike offers some stunning views that rival those falls and a less-crowded atmosphere. Fontanillis, a 150-foot waterfall near Upper Velma Lakes, is also back there for those who make it five miles into Desolation Wilderness.
These falls can usually be seen as drivers make their way up the twisting road to Emerald Bay. The Cascade Falls trailhead can be reached from Bayview, the highest point on the road as it wraps around Emerald Bay.
The hike to the falls is about one mile and relatively flat. The 200-foot falls run directly into Cascade Lake and make for a dramatic hiking backdrop. Take time to enjoy the view along the way because the trail offers some of the best vantage points of the falls. Once at the falls, there is some good exploring to be had around the top. Just take care not to go into the stream because the current is strong.
Back at the Cascade Falls trailhead, there is an uphill trail that splits to the right called Bayview for hikers who are looking for a tougher trail. The Bayview trail climbs a series of switchbacks and spits hikers onto some spectacular views of Emerald Bay about a mile up. Another two miles up is Maggie's Peaks, which are the gateway into the heart of Desolation Wilderness.
Glen Alpine Falls
The one-way road into the Glen Alpine Falls, just past the Fallen Leaf Lake Marina, takes some patience, but these lower falls are worth navigating the tight passage. Allow about 30 minutes to get to the falls from the Fallen Leaf entrance and drive with caution. This can be a crowded and tough drive on the weekend, so go in with realistic expectations.
The Glen Alpine lower falls, tumbling 75 feet down jagged rocks, will come into view on the way to Lilly Lake and are worth stopping for. The upper falls are near the Glen Alpine trailhead and Lilly Lake. This is also a good jump off point for a moderate-difficult Desolation Wilderness day hike.
Also a bit of a drive, Horsetail Falls takes commitment. These falls are about a 30-minute drive out of South Lake Tahoe and over Echo Summit, but the waterfall plummeting nearly 800 feet is spectacular. So are the wildflowers that can be found around here at the right time of the year.
The falls are easy enough to spot on highway 50 coming from South Lake Tahoe. There is also a small parking area at the base, but again be prepared for a small fee.
It's a moderately difficult trek for those venturing up the trail for a closer look. Careful near the top because it gets steep and rocky and is a common place for search and rescue.
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