Beauty overrides threat of danger in trek to Horsetail Falls
There are many splendid hikes around the Sierra Nevada, many vistas to reward the eye and warm the soul, but there is probably no more spectacular panorama than that presented along the trail heading up Horsetail Falls.
This hike is a bit of a drive, perhaps an hour from Carson City, 20 minutes from South Lake Tahoe. If you’ve driven west from South Lake Tahoe, you’ve probably noticed the many cars 15 miles from South Lake Tahoe just past Camp Sacramento. And you’ve probably seen the white plume that is Horsetail Falls way up a valley.
The cars are there because this is the shortest entry into the Desolation Wilderness and because of the incredible beauty. From U.S. Highway 50 leading down to the trailhead you see the falls dramatically plunging down the valley between splotches of green and brown. You’ll have to sign in at the Twin Bridges base even for day hikes. For camping, you’ll need a Forest Service permit as a limit is placed on those allowed to stay overnight. No fee for day hikers, but there is a charge for backpacking. You can pick up an overnight permit at the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Center in South Lake Tahoe on State Route 89 on the left after the Y intersection. Or if coming from the Sacramento area, pick up your permit at the Eldorado National Forest Information Center on U.S. Highway 50 in Camino, east of Placerville.
Altitude at the trailhead is 6,100 feet; at Ropi Lake above the falls the height is 7,600 feet, and at the Lake Aloha spillway it’s 8,116 feet. Pyramid Peak is 9,983 feet.
This is a hike that no one need pass up. The first segment to lower Horsetail Falls is only 1.3 miles and at its most demanding is only a moderate trek, with a vertical rise to about 6,800 feet. This is easy hiking. It’s sometimes difficult to decide which trail to follow because there are so many options.
If you stay far to the left, great slabs of granitic rock make the walking a stroll in places, and while the trail is not officially maintained and often seems to disappear, keep on walking and you’ll find it again, just keep Pyramid Creek to your right. Closer to the right and the creek there are neat, easily followed shady trails. As long as you don’t stray too far from the stream, you’ll do fine as the walls of the canyon funnel you to the falls.
There are no trail maps available. If you need one, you probably shouldn’t be hiking here. Cairns of piled rocks will often lead you to a trail.
Whatever you do, keep your distance from the creek. Every year at least one or more hikers decide to angle closer to the water and slips in. The thundering pressure of the creek then traps the victim.
Dogs required to be on leashes, often decide to take a dip with fatal results. So even though the first part of this walk is not considered particularly dangerous, it can be. Use caution, the rocks polished by rain and snow can be slippery as if they were ice.
About a half-mile along the trail you’ll come to the Desolation Wilderness boundary sign. Another half mile and you’ll reach the Lower Falls where the water tumbles some 100 feet in foaming beauty.
Look up on your right at the east wall lateral Moraine, polished by glaciers and topped by Ralston Peak. To the west you’ll see a gentler slope covered with green brush.
For many climbers, this is far enough. From here you can look back down the valley and across U.S. Highway 50 at Lovers’ Leap, one of the best-known rock climbing areas in the Sierra.
Around here also is a delightful place to picnic, being sure to take out everything that you bring in. Of course, you’ll have brought fresh water along. Don’t even consider drinking the creek waters; Giardia lambia is common in the Sierra and causes giardiasis, an intestinal illness not to be taken lightly.
While you’re picnicking or just pausing to enjoy the beauty, try to visualize this valley filled wall to wall by a glacier as it was some 12,000 years ago.
If you decide to continue, be sure you have water, good hiking shoes or boots and some moderate skills at clambering up rocks. Your reward will be Lake Aloha, Lake of the Woods and many smaller bodies of water in the Desolation Valley.
A hundred yards below the Horsetail Falls itself you’ll notice that the pitch gets much steeper. Hiking becomes more like climbing at this point.
As in the flatter section, many choices exist for going higher, eventually to the open area above. At this point there are several dramatic falls with the water tumbling ever faster because of the steep pitch. There are good, deep swimming holes, but don’t sample them alone and be very cautious regardless. Serious accidents occur here.
Many who make it to the top will follow a somewhat sketchy green arrow course (spray painted on rocks). This route is 50 to 75 yards to the left of the stream, sometimes losing sight of the water. There are some flat slabs of rock, which are quite difficult to climb, especially if your sneakers or boots don’t have excellent tread.
Closer to the stream or right next to it are many possible routes up. You’ll notice little pathways through the underbrush (manzanita mostly) and rock cairns on the rock sections. There are several clusters of gnarly, ancient cedar trees offering comfortable spots to look back down the valley, take a drink and rest.
These trails trend to be generally steeper than the green arrow route, but there are good handholds that many enjoy more than the smooth, slippery slabs you’ll encounter on the “easier” route. In any case, don’t rush, make sure of your footing. A fall could be very serious here.
The large, flatish area above the highest falls is worth the trip. Gorgeous views of the valley below and Pyramid Peak farther on reward you. The area, generally called Avalanche Lake, holds many shallow pools and streams, all eventually heading for the falls. The swimming is safe and there are little hummocks and shady spots inviting a picnic lunch. Farther on is Lake Aloha, but now you’re getting into overnight stays. The descent requires caution, but take your time and enjoy the scents and sounds of the wilderness. Stop and take it all in now and again.
The walk back to the trailhead from below the base of the falls is along the creek, through groves of shade trees with small falls and pools every few steps. You’ll undoubtedly meet hikers on their way up. Just tell them what a wonderful time they have ahead of them.
And when you’re getting ready to get back in your car, stop and give a tip of the hat to those who have protected the Desolation Wilderness from encroaching civilization. You might just thank the next forest ranger you see.
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