Horsetail Falls

Strawberry / Desolation Wilderness / Eldorado National Forest / South Lake Tahoe, California, USA

About Horsetail Falls


Hiking Distance: 3.6 miles round trip (to base)
Suggested Time: 2.5-3 hours

Date first visited: 2016-06-22
Date last visited: 2016-06-22

Waterfall Latitude: 38.82977
Waterfall Longitude: -120.12356

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Horsetail Falls was definitely one of the main waterfall attractions in the Lake Tahoe vicinity.

It was said to have a cumulative drop of a whopping 800ft amidst a granite wilderness that was very reminiscent of Yosemite National Park.

Horsetail_Falls_234_06222016 - Horsetail Falls
Horsetail Falls

We were able to easily glimpse this falls while driving along Hwy 50 near Twin Bridges (see directions below), which beckoned us to find a way to get closer for a more satisfying experience.

Further adding to the allure of this falls was Pyramid Creek’s foreceful flow, which was said to be sourced by several lakes higher up in the Desolation Wilderness.

Such lakes included Gefo Lake, Toem Lake, Ropi Lake, Pitt Lake, Avalanche Lake, Desolation Lake, Lake of the Woods, etc. so it had plenty of water to keep the falls going a fair bit over the Summer.

With such a spectacle easily seen from a well-used highway, it wasn’t surprising to see that the trailhead access was very popular.

Horsetail_Falls_103_06222016 - Direct view of Horsetail Falls from an informal vantage point during our rough and uncertain scramble to its base
Direct view of Horsetail Falls from an informal vantage point during our rough and uncertain scramble to its base

However, what was surprising was that getting close to the Horsetail Falls was not easy.

In order to accomplish this, we wound up going on a hike that degenerated into a route-finding scramble.

In the end, we wound up hiking a total distance of about 3.4 miles or so (according to my GPS logs), but this included a lot of backtracking and inefficient routes.

We spent about 3.5 hours away from the car, which kind of shows you just how slow going it can be when you’re on our own trying to figure out how to proceed.

Horsetail Falls Trail Description – accidentally hiking to the Pyramid Creek Loop

Horsetail_Falls_022_06222016 - Mom checking out an attractive cascade on Pyramid Creek early on in our pursuit of Horsetail Falls
Mom checking out an attractive cascade on Pyramid Creek early on in our pursuit of Horsetail Falls

From the well-signed trailhead parking lot, we immediately hiked on the trail passing between a couple of bathrooms then meandering through a forested area.

One thing we had to be careful of was that there were other spur trails leading to the one we were on.

I suspect that those other spurs were shortcut trails for those who parked on the shoulder of the hairpin bend at Twin Bridges as opposed to the parking lot.

Anyways after a few minutes, we saw a small but attractive cascade on Pyramid Creek.

Horsetail_Falls_031_06222016 - Mom veering to the right after seeing a trail sign that pointing in that direction, which eventually led us to the Cascade Vista and Pyramid Creek
Mom veering to the right after seeing a trail sign that pointing in that direction, which eventually led us to the Cascade Vista and Pyramid Creek

We then continued a little further and encountered signs saying the Wilderness Boundary was straight ahead while the Pyramid Creek Loop was to our right along with the Cascade Vista some 1/4-mile in that direction.

At first, we were a little confused about the sign since we didn’t immediately see any legitimate trail to our right.

However, as we went further, the tree cover started to disappear as we were about to enter a large granite section.

At this point, we noticed trail markers pointing the way to our right so we followed them.

Horsetail_Falls_040_06222016 - The sliding cascade on Pyramid Creek near where the signs might have indicated that this was indeed Cascade Vista
The sliding cascade on Pyramid Creek near where the signs might have indicated that this was indeed Cascade Vista

That brought us to the fringes of Pyramid Creek, where there was an attractive sliding cascade that in hindsight was probably the Cascade Vista the signs had talked about.

As we looked behind us away from the Cascade Vista, we were getting very distant views (between trees) of Horsetail Falls.

So of course after having our fill of this waterslide, we proceeded further.

Horsetail Falls Trail Description – hiking to the Desolation Wilderness Boundary

Unfortunately, as we proceeded towards Horsetail Falls from somewhere around the Pyramid Creek Loop, that was where we started to lose the trail.

Horsetail_Falls_053_06222016 - Mom trying to figure out where the trails were as we proceeded from Cascade Vista and Pyramid Creek towards Horsetail Falls
Mom trying to figure out where the trails were as we proceeded from Cascade Vista and Pyramid Creek towards Horsetail Falls

We especially had issues traversing a large granite field where we pretty much found ourselves scrambling and route finding.

After roughly 15 minutes of this route finding, we’d eventually regain the main trail.

I guess the only thing that kept us going was that we were still able to see Horsetail Falls way ahead so we knew the general direction that we had to go.

Anyways, once we started to see more signs of human passage like rock cairns (stacked rocks) as well as signposts, cut logs, and footprints, we were finally able to make some faster progress.

Horsetail_Falls_061_06222016 - Mom passing by a rock cairn, which was our first indication that we had regained some sort of trail promising to take us to Horsetail Falls
Mom passing by a rock cairn, which was our first indication that we had regained some sort of trail promising to take us to Horsetail Falls

At roughly 25 minutes from the Cascade Vista, we went far enough to encounter a signposted kiosk at the boundary of the Desolation Wilderness.

While we were at the kiosk, Mom filled out one of the free wilderness permits.

We kept one part of it for ourselves while depositing the other half of it in a drop box.

I guess this system was put in place so the rangers here could keep track of how many people were out here in the event someone would turn up missing.

Horsetail_Falls_078_06222016 - Mom filling out a free wilderness permit at the Desolation Wilderness Boundary kiosk
Mom filling out a free wilderness permit at the Desolation Wilderness Boundary kiosk

In hindsight, if we didn’t want to go all the way to the bottom of Horsetail Falls, then this would be the turnaround point.

After all, the waterfall was still visible from this general area, and that would make the grand total of this shortened Horsetail Falls adventure about 1.5 miles round trip.

Horsetail Falls Trail Description – wilderness scrambling to an accidental and unofficial vantage point

Beyond the Wilderness Boundary kiosk, we then followed a narrower trail flanked by bush and trees as it meandered alongside parts of Pyramid Creek.

Initially, it was fairly straightforward to follow this trail as we saw more signs of human passage from cut logs to footprints to rock cairns.

Horsetail_Falls_208_06222016 - Mom climbing up another granite field where we misread the rock cairn into thinking we had to climb up instead of going around this slab to our right in pursuit of Horsetail Falls
Mom climbing up another granite field where we misread the rock cairn into thinking we had to climb up instead of going around this slab to our right in pursuit of Horsetail Falls

However, at roughly 20 minutes past the kiosk, we encountered a fairly confusing series of rock cairns.

We wound up mistaking them to mean we had to climb up a sloping granite section that eventually led up to an informal lookout.

At this unofficial vantage point, we were above a bunch of the neighboring trees, and we got a more direct yet still distant view of Horsetail Falls.

We could see that on the cliffs to our right that there was also a tall cascade.

Horsetail_Falls_101_06222016 - This was the distant yet tantalizing view of Horsetail Falls after being led astray towards this elevated spot within the Desolation Wilderness
This was the distant yet tantalizing view of Horsetail Falls after being led astray towards this elevated spot within the Desolation Wilderness

As we turned around and looked back in the downstream direction, we could see the granite landscape that we had traversed on the way here.

Mom and I nearly thought that this was going to be our turnaround spot until Mom spotted some hikers further below in the distance almost at the base of Horsetail Falls.

This was the moment where we knew that we had to return back down to that cairn that misled us up to here in the first place.

Horsetail Falls Trail Description – scrambling to the bottom of the falls

After regaining the main trail, we then scrambled through some overgrowth to see where the “trail” went next.

Horsetail_Falls_132_06222016 - Mom and I had to scramble over these puddles with logs and rocks strategically placed to keep our feet dry while pursuing the Horsetail Falls
Mom and I had to scramble over these puddles with logs and rocks strategically placed to keep our feet dry while pursuing the Horsetail Falls

Sure enough, when we went past the rock cairn at the base of the granite surface, the trail then traversed a series of puddles where logs were placed to keep our feet from dunking in the puddles.

Beyond this stretch, the trail then became easier to follow once again.

We’d eventually reach another rock cairn, but this one had us scramble besides a giant rock where the path wouldn’t have been obvious if not for the cairn.

Next, we continued following the trail as it ascended some rock steps then traversed yet another granite section.

Horsetail_Falls_147_06222016 - Mom scrambling closer to the bottom of Horsetail Falls
Mom scrambling closer to the bottom of Horsetail Falls

Eventually, we got to a point where we were back to route finding again.

That said, now we were close enough to the bottom of the main tiers of Horsetail Falls to pick a spot to chill out and admire the scene.

Obviously, when you’re this close to a sloping falls like this, it would look a bit smaller and less impressive than the more obstructed views we had been treated to earlier.

However, when it came to experiencing the sheer power of Pyramid Creek along with the accomplishment of making it this far, there was no denying the thrill and excitement of being this close and intimate with the falls.

Horsetail_Falls_159_06222016 - Looking up at the sliding and twisting drops of Horsetail Falls from its bottom. This was our turnaround point
Looking up at the sliding and twisting drops of Horsetail Falls from its bottom. This was our turnaround point

Mom and I eventually chilled out at a precarious ledge with a partial view of the sloping drop of Horsetail Falls before it twisted and faced us before continuing further downstream.

We managed to get here roughly an hour from the Wilderness Boundary kiosk.

This underscored how slow going it was due to the route finding and non-trivial terrain.

There was a helicopter circling around us though we weren’t quite sure about why they seemed to be paying attention to us.

Horsetail_Falls_182_06222016 - The scenery looking downstream from the very bottom of the Horsetail Falls at our turnaround point
The scenery looking downstream from the very bottom of the Horsetail Falls at our turnaround point

Nevertheless, after having our fill of Horsetail Falls, we then went back the way we came.

Horsetail Falls Trail Description – returning to the trailhead

We had found it strange that on the return hike, the trail seemed to be easier to follow and more well-defined.

We even traversed a sandy section on the granite terrain, which really helped us along.

It was one of those moments where we completely missed these things on the way there.

Horsetail_Falls_268_06222016 - Mom scrambling back from Horsetail Falls with the Lover's Leap formation in the distance. I swore we somehow missed most of these cairns on the way to Horsetail Falls but found them on the way back!
Mom scrambling back from Horsetail Falls with the Lover’s Leap formation in the distance. I swore we somehow missed most of these cairns on the way to Horsetail Falls but found them on the way back!

However, we’d find them on the way back, and then we’d ask ourselves, “Now how’d we miss this earlier on?!?”

In any case, the return hike was fairly brisque and quite scenic as we’d catch glimpses of cars going by in the distance along Hwy 50.

We’d also notice some impressive granite formations like the Lover’s Leap and some pyramid-looking granite dome near it.

Eventually, we’d get to a cairn beyond which we had lost the trail once again.

Horsetail_Falls_290_06222016 - Mom descending through the granite fields on the way back from Horsetail Falls to the trailhead. Note the Hwy 50 in the distance on the topright of this photo
Mom descending through the granite fields on the way back from Horsetail Falls to the trailhead. Note the Hwy 50 in the distance on the topright of this photo

Fortunately since we had the high ground, we could survey where we had to go next.

Since we could see the Cascade Vista as well as people searching for the trail alongside Pyramid Creek, it was fairly obvious which way we should scramble to regain the remainder of the trail.

And after recovering the main trail, we’d eventually return to the busy parking lot some 3.5 hours after we had gotten started.

Authorities

Horsetail Falls resides in the Eldorado National Forest near South Lake Tahoe in El Dorado County, California. It is administered by the USDA Forest Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.

Horsetail_Falls_008_06222016 - Picnic tables and restrooms were available at the Pyramid Creek Trailhead
Horsetail_Falls_010_06222016 - Mom getting stared on the hike for Horsetail Falls as we left the Pyramid Creek Trailhead
Horsetail_Falls_014_06222016 - Mom on the initial part of the trail to Horsetail Falls, which was fairly easy to follow as it meandered through this small forest with the odd granite slab strewn about here and there
Horsetail_Falls_015_06222016 - At first, the Horsetail Falls and Pyramid Creek trails were pretty straightforward to follow as we were benefitting from the shade provided by the forest cover
Horsetail_Falls_023_06222016 - During our hike to Horsetail Falls, we noticed some kind of hose or pipe or something that I wasn't sure if it was for water diversion or not
Horsetail_Falls_024_06222016 - Mom continuing along the forested path leading us closer to Pyramid Creek and the Horsetail Falls
Horsetail_Falls_026_06222016 - The Horsetail Falls and Pyramid Creek trails remained pretty straightforward to follow, and it got us thinking that this hike was going to be pretty easy
Horsetail_Falls_029_06222016 - Roughly 15 minutes into the hike to Horsetail Falls, we encountered a large granite section where the trail started to become ill-defined so we had to pay close attention for trail markers
Horsetail_Falls_030_06222016 - This was an example of one of the trail markers that we tried to follow on the way up to Horsetail Falls
Horsetail_Falls_034_06222016 - Approaching a cascade on Pyramid Creek that I believe the signs had indicated was the Cascade Vista
Horsetail_Falls_036_06222016 - Mom pursuing a trail alongside Pyramid Creek as we weren't sure if it was for Horsetail Falls or for something else on Pyramid Creek
Horsetail_Falls_046_06222016 - Turning around and looking towards Horsetail Falls in the distance from the Cascade Vista
Horsetail_Falls_057_06222016 - Mom continuing to route-find her way up towards the Horsetail Falls as we continued to look for clues about the trail
Horsetail_Falls_059_06222016 - Mom starting to follow what appeared to be faint traces of a use-trail for Horsetail Falls though we could never totally be sure in this granite wilderness
Horsetail_Falls_062_06222016 - Mom continuing on the granite section as we were getting closer to the Desolation Wilderness Boundary en route to Horsetail Falls
Horsetail_Falls_066_06222016 - Imagine our relief (after some 15 minutes of scrambling and route-finding) when we started to see more frequently these diamond-shaped trail markers again
Horsetail_Falls_069_06222016 - Mom now walking on what appeared to be a trail leading us closer to the Desolation Wilderness Boundary and eventually to the Horsetail Falls
Horsetail_Falls_071_06222016 - This Desolation Wilderness sign was definitely a welcome sight as we knew we were on the right path for Horsetail Falls
Horsetail_Falls_075_06222016 - Looking upstream at the rushing waters of Pyramid Creek from within the boundaries of the Desolation Wilderness
Horsetail_Falls_079_06222016 - Beyond the Wilderness Boundary kiosk, we followed a fairly obvious path through a forested area while every so often skirting Pyramid Creek
Horsetail_Falls_081_06222016 - Here's a section where the Horsetail Falls Trail went by a calm part of Pyramid Creek that really looked inviting for a dip
Horsetail_Falls_085_06222016 - Some more rock cairns were put in place to lead us past hard-to-follow granite sections like this one en route to Horsetail Falls
Horsetail_Falls_091_06222016 - Mom crossing another granite slab en route to Horsetail Falls
Horsetail_Falls_092_06222016 - This was the part where we mistook the rock cairn on the lower right of this photo to mean that we were supposed to climb this granite slope instead of staying amongst the bush and persisting through the overgrowth
Horsetail_Falls_093_06222016 - While we were off-trail scrambling at this point, we decided to scramble up to those trees and check out the view of Horsetail Falls from there before turning back
Horsetail_Falls_096_06222016 - This was a zoomed in perspective of our distant elevated view of the Horsetail Falls from our false scramble
Horsetail_Falls_109_06222016 - Context of the Horsetail Falls from the end of our false scramble
Horsetail_Falls_111_06222016 - Whilst at the higher vantage point of our false scramble, we looked towards the cliffs on the opposite side of Pyramid Creek and noticed this cascade tumbling in the morning shade
Horsetail_Falls_113_06222016 - We almost decided to give up going further and head back to the trailhead until Mom noticed these hikers near the base of Horsetail Falls
Horsetail_Falls_122_06222016 - This was the view looking downstream as we were headed back down towards the trail to continue our pursuit of Horsetail Falls
Horsetail_Falls_128_06222016 - Context of Mom checking out Horsetail Falls from the end of our false scramble
Horsetail_Falls_151_06222016 - It didn't take long before we found ourselves climbing on the granite once again as the trail started to become ill-defined again en route to the base of Horsetail Falls
Horsetail_Falls_171_06222016 - While we were at the bottom of Horsetail Falls, we noticed this chopper circling us for some reason
Horsetail_Falls_177_06222016 - Looking downstream from the very bottom of Horsetail Falls at our turnaround point
Horsetail_Falls_189_06222016 - This shot of Mom finding a way down from the granite illustrated the fairly ill-defined nature of the trail near Horsetail Falls
Horsetail_Falls_193_06222016 - Mom continuing further ahead as we were back down to the more 'trail' part of the Horseshoe Falls scramble
Horsetail_Falls_203_06222016 - On one of the granite slabs, we noticed is big cluster of pretty fair-sized ants while making our way back from Horsetail Falls
Horsetail_Falls_210_06222016 - Mom continuing along the return hike and scramble from Horsetail Falls though it seemed like we found the path a lot more easily than on the way in
Horsetail_Falls_221_06222016 - Once we made it back out of the Desolation Wilderness area, we were easily able to follow the trail, which for some reason we had missed on the way up
Horsetail_Falls_223_06222016 - Mom crossing back out of the Desolation Wilderness boundary and continuing the return hike from Horsetail Falls back to the Pyramid Creek Trailhead
Horsetail_Falls_226_06222016 - Looking back at the Horsetail Falls from the wilderness boundary
Horsetail_Falls_253_06222016 - Our last look at Horsetail Falls as we were moving further away from it and towards the trailhead
Horsetail_Falls_257_06222016 - The return hike was much faster and more straightforward as we even spotted this sandy stretch with lots of footprints.  Now where was this when we first came up to Horsetail Falls earlier in the morning?!?
Horsetail_Falls_277_06222016 - Checking out Hwy 50 in the distance as we descended towards the Pyramid Creek Trailhead
Horsetail_Falls_280_06222016 - Looking in the distance towards the Lover's Leap as we made our way back to the Pyramid Creek Trailhead
Horsetail_Falls_287_06222016 - Focused look at the Lover's Leap formation as we were pursuing the Pyramid Creek Trailhead
Horsetail_Falls_289_06222016 - Context of the views of the Lover's Leap and the pyramid-shaped knob on the return hike with the granite scramble below
Horsetail_Falls_291_06222016 - This was the last cairn we spotted before we had lost the trail once again on the way back to the Pyramid Creek Trailhead
Horsetail_Falls_293_06222016 - We noticed this sign when we were almost back at the Pyramid Creek Trailhead. How did me miss this sign on the way up?!?
Horsetail_Falls_296_06222016 - After 3.5 hours away from the car, we finally made it back to the now busy Pyramid Creek Trailhead

join-booking-970x240-1.jpg


To get to Horsetail Falls from the Hwy 89 and Hwy 50 junction at the intersection of Lake Tahoe Blvd and Emerald Bay Rd in South Lake Tahoe, we headed south (which then curved west) on Hwy 50 (Emerald Bay Rd) for a little over 15 miles.

As the road descended towards a bend at Twin Bridges, we then entered the parking lot for Pyramid Creek on the right.

Horsetail_Falls_004_06222016 - The well-signed turnoff for the Pyramid Creek Trailhead, which was also where we started our adventure to Horsetail Falls
The well-signed turnoff for the Pyramid Creek Trailhead, which was also where we started our adventure to Horsetail Falls

This was the start of the hike up to Horsetail Falls, and it took us about 30 minutes to drive here.

There was a $5 parking fee at this lot, which involved depositing money in a self-help envelope, then tearing the envelope along the perforation, before dropping the part with the money into a drop box.

The other half of the envelope was to be displayed on the dash as proof of purchase.

The fee appeared to be enforced by some voluntary rangers that we saw later in the morning when we returned from the hike.

Horsetail_Falls_002_06222016 - Self-help fee station at the Pyramid Creek Trailhead
Self-help fee station at the Pyramid Creek Trailhead

Since this was on National Forest land (part of Eldorado National Forest), we used our National Forest Adventure Pass, which had bought earlier in the year.

As of 2016, we paid $30 and it was good until the end of the 12th month from the date of first use.

Coming from the other direction, it was about 85 miles (roughly 90 minutes drive) east of the I-5 and Hwy 50 junction in downtown Sacramento to the Pyramid Creek Trailhead parking lot on the left.

This trail was just 1.6 miles east of the village of Strawberry.

Horsetail_Falls_001_06222016 - The parking lot at the Pyramid Creek Trailhead, which was where we started our adventure for the Horsetail Falls
The parking lot at the Pyramid Creek Trailhead, which was where we started our adventure for the Horsetail Falls

If the trailhead parking lot was full, it appeared that there was enough shoulder space along Hwy 50 near the bend at Twin Bridges for additional parking.

For overall context, South Lake Tahoe was 62 miles (about 90 minutes drive) south of Reno, Nevada, 104 miles (2 hours drive) east of Sacramento, 139 miles (under 3 hours drive) north of Mammoth Lakes, 188 miles (about 3.5 hours drive without traffic) from San Francisco, and 443 miles (7.5 hours drive) north of Los Angeles.

Sweep checking out some slanted cascade before panning over to the granite scramble ahead where we had lost the trail earlier in the day


Distant view from a sloping granite area high up above the faint trail leading closer to the falls


360 degree sweep from as close to Horsetail Falls as we were gonna get

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Tagged with: south lake tahoe, lake tahoe, strawberry, desolation wilderness, eldorado, national forest, california, northern california, waterfall, sierra nevada, el dorado, twin bridges, pyramid creek



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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of the award-winning A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
Read More About Johnny | A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls.