Visiting Tahoe waterfalls this spring, safety first

Miranda Jacobson

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — It’s time to go chasing waterfalls in the Lake Tahoe Basin.

With the snowpack quickly melting the waterfalls in the area are flowing.

USDA Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Public Affairs Specialist Lisa Herron thinks the time to go out is now, given what a dry winter the basin had.

“More falls directly correlates to how much precipitation we received,” said Herron. “This season, the optimal time to see these waterfalls is going to be right now and probably over the next several weeks. It’s really hard to predict how long the stream flow will last. If people are looking to get out and visit some waterfalls, they should do it sooner rather than later because of our dry season.”

Lower Eagle Falls crashes down loudly against the granite rocks in the area.
Provided/Reed McQuillan

Lake Tahoe is home to many alpine lakes which make for perfect pools for different types of waterfalls to pour into, but don’t see very much maintenance from Forest Service employees.

“The waterfalls are pretty much left in their natural state,” said Herron. “The topography of Lake Tahoe is conducive to waterfalls since it’s an alpine area with lots of lakes and streams.”

Beyond the regular stewardship that the Forest Service asks of visitors, Herron noted the importance of staying on the trail to observe the beauty of the falls.

“Typically you have a waterfall that’s going over granite rock, which can be really slippery,” said Herron. “Some waterfalls are really big and flowing really well, and they put off a mist. So the rocks that are around the waterfalls can be really slippery. People need to be really careful and not get too close.”

Herron said there are a number of falls to visit around the basin safely. However, due to damage from the Caldor Fire, the Horsetail Falls trail past Echo Summit is closed, along with the Lyons Creek trails. The Forest Service hopes to open those trails as soon as they’ve been cleared of debris leftover from the fire.

Glen Alpine Falls

The Glen Alpine Falls offers a lower and upper area to explore, and is a highlight when visiting South Lake Tahoe according to Herron. The lower part of the falls cascades 65 feet in a staircase style. The upper section of the trail will bring hikers to Lilly Lake and an incredible view. The upper Glen Alpine waterfall can be described as more of a free fall that dives deeply into an alpine pool.

Herron said although it looks like a picturesque place to swim, it’s better to stay out of the water while visiting these falls.

“The force of the waterfall could hold you under water,” said Herron. “That can be dangerous, so we don’t recommend jumping into pools or waterfalls or swimming around those areas.”

Another reason it’s better to stay dry and dress for warmer weather when heading out to these falls is because snow is still melting and the water is mostly made up of snow melt.

Glen Alpine Falls is home to creeks, wildflowers, and the rich history of South Lake Tahoe.

To get to the trailhead, take Hwy 89 north around three miles to Fallen Leaf Lake Road, and continue down the one lane road, where signs will direct you to the trailhead.

Eagle Falls and Fontanillis

The upper falls of the Eagles Falls Trailhead offers many places to explore with flowing snowmelt. Officials recommend staying off possibly slick rocks next to raging waters.
Miranda Jacobson/Tahoe Daily Tribune

The Eagle Falls trailhead is located in Emerald Bay near the Vikingsholm, and is separated by California State Route 89 into lower and upper falls. The trailhead on the upper part of the falls breaks up into areas where hikers can eventually begin to hike into Desolation Wilderness. The waterfall free falls into Emerald Bay in the lower half, with a staircase landscape in the upper, and even an area for visitors to recreate in the water.

The trail is friendly to the entire family, but Herron said that it’s important to keep children close when hiking the trails, and make sure everyone in the family is wearing shoes with sturdy bottoms that have traction.

“It’s really imperative to have a good hiking shoe or something with good tread on the bottom so that you can get a grip and not slip,” said Herron.

Parking at this trailhead can be difficult on the weekends due to limited availability and popularity, so Herron recommends either going early, or visiting the area on the week days.

For those who make the trek to Desolation Wilderness, there’s a more challenging hike to Fontanillis, which is a 150-foot fall. This hike is definitely more challenging. Herron recommends always letting someone know where you’re going if going on a hike alone, and sharing the times you expect to arrive back from the hike.

“It’s really important to travel with a buddy when you’re going into back country or wilderness,” Herron said. “You can’t always rely on your mobile device for a cell signal … It’s important to plan ahead so that you have a plan in place just in case something were to happen.”

Other ways to stay prepared is to plan the route ahead of time, bringing a first aid kit, and traveling with buddies when possible.

Cascade Falls

The Cascade Falls can be seen on the Bayview Trailhead, which is on the backside of the Bayview Day-Use Area near Emerald Bay. This trail is public, but Cascade Lake is not. This hike is described as easier than others around the basin, and is approximately one-mile each way for a two-mile round trip.

These 200-foot falls free fall directly into Cascade Lake, with a strong current bringing the water crashing down into the Alpine water. Herron knows that visitors enjoy taking pictures next to the falls when going out to visit, but recommends not getting to close when taking photos.

“Waterfalls can be so beautiful, but we want everybody to go out and to be safe when they’re out there seeing them,” said Herron. “Many, many people have been seriously injured or die because they’re trying to get that perfect photo and they get too close. So as you’re visiting these areas, you want to have a great, fun experience, but to stay safe while doing it.”

This article was edited to reflect that Bayview is no longer a campground, and is only a day-use area.

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