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: -120.12588

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Horsetail Falls was definitely one of the main waterfall attractions in the Lake Tahoe vicinity as it was said to have a cumulative drop of a whopping 800ft amidst a granite wilderness that was very reminiscent of Yosemite National Park. 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 as Gefo Lake, Toem Lake, Ropi Lake, Pitt Lake, Avalanche Lake, Desolation Lake, Lake of the Woods, etc.). With such a spectacle easily seen from a well-used highway, it wasn’t surprising to see that the trailhead access was very popular. However, what was surprising was that getting close to the falls was not easy.

From the well-signed car park, 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, and I suspect that was a shortcut trail 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 before we 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.

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

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. 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, but that was where we started to lose the trail in the granite section and we pretty much found ourselves scrambling and route finding.

After roughly 15 minutes of 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. At roughly 25 minutes from Cascade Vista, we went far enough to encounter a signposted kiosk at the boundary of the Desolation Wilderness. While we were here, Mom filled out one of the free wilderness permits and we kept one part of it for ourselves while depositing the other half of it in a drop box (I guess so the rangers here could keep track of how many people were out here in the event someone would turn up missing). 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 (especially since the falls was still visible from this general area) for a grand total of about 1.5 miles round trip.

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

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. However, at roughly 20 minutes past the kiosk, we encountered a fairly confusing rock cairns where we mistook it to mean we had to climb up a sloping granite section that eventually led up to an informal lookout where we were above a bunch of the neighboring trees to get a more direct yet still distant view of Horsetail Falls. From this vantage point, we could see that on the cliffs to our right, there was also a tall cascade, and 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, then scramble through some overgrowth to see where the “trail” went next. So we promptly did just that, and 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 before we’d reach a rock cairn that had us scramble besides a giant rock where the path wouldn’t have been obvious if not for the cairn.

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

Next, we continued following the trail as it ascended some rock steps then traversed yet another granite section. Eventually, we got to a point where we were back to route finding again, but 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. Obvious, 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 completing the experience by being this close and intimate with the falls.

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 (underscoring how slow going it was due to the route finding and non-trivial terrain). We noticed there was a helicopter circling around us though we weren’t quite sure about why they seemed to be paying attention to us. Nevertheless, after having our fill of Horsetail Falls, we then went back the way we came.

We had found it strange that on the return, 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, but 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, and 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. Fortunately since we had the high ground, we could survey where we had to go next, and 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 (just to underscore just how long it took us to go just 3.6 miles round trip).

Horsetail_Falls_001_06222016 - There was plenty of parking space at the Pyramid Creek Trailhead when we first showed up early in the morning
Horsetail_Falls_004_06222016 - The Pyramid Creek Trailhead was right off the Hwy 50
Horsetail_Falls_008_06222016 - Picnic tables and restrooms were available at the Pyramid Creek Trailhead
Horsetail_Falls_015_06222016 - At first, the trail was pretty straightforward to follow as we were benefitting from the shade provided by the forest cover
Horsetail_Falls_022_06222016 - We even encountered this attractive little cascade on Pyramid Creek during that initial stretch
Horsetail_Falls_026_06222016 - The trail 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, 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
Horsetail_Falls_031_06222016 - Continuing to try to follow the diamond-shaped trail markers as we tried to negotiate this hard-to-follow granite section
Horsetail_Falls_034_06222016 - Approaching a cascade on Pyramid Creek that I believe the signs had indicated was the Cascade Vista
Horsetail_Falls_046_06222016 - Turning around and looking towards Horsetail Falls in the distance from the Cascade Vista
Horsetail_Falls_053_06222016 - After the Cascade Vista, we had lost the trail in this granite section and we found ourselves route finding and scrambling our way uphill until we'd eventually regain the trail
Horsetail_Falls_061_06222016 - After over 15 minutes of cross-country route-finding on the granite section, we finally encountered this rock cairn indicating that we had finally regained the trail
Horsetail_Falls_066_06222016 - Imagine our relief when we started to see more frequently these diamond-shaped trail markers again
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_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 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
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 from there before turning back
Horsetail_Falls_103_06222016 - This was the view of Horsetail Falls after making it up to those trees during the off-trail scramble
Horsetail_Falls_111_06222016 - Whilst at the higher vantage point, 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
Horsetail_Falls_132_06222016 - Once we finally interpreted that cairn properly, we were led past these pools at the base of the granite, where logs and branches were strategically placed to keep us from wading in those pools
Horsetail_Falls_147_06222016 - Now with Horsetail Falls being so tantalizingly close, we persisted on the trail that we were able to follow pretty easily once again
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
Horsetail_Falls_159_06222016 - This view of Horsetail Falls was our turnaround point.  We decided to head back to the trailhead after enjoying this spot for a few minutes
Horsetail_Falls_171_06222016 - While we were at Horsetail Falls, we noticed this chopper circling us for some reason
Horsetail_Falls_182_06222016 - Looking downstream along Pyramid Creek as we were heading back to the trailhead
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_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_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 earlier in the morning?!?
Horsetail_Falls_277_06222016 - Checking out Hwy 50 in the distance
Horsetail_Falls_289_06222016 - Enjoying the views of the Lover's Leap and the pyramid-shaped knob on the return hike
Horsetail_Falls_291_06222016 - This was the last cairn we spotted before we had lost the trail once again
Horsetail_Falls_290_06222016 - Mom doing a cross-country scramble downhill making a beeline towards the Cascade Vista that we could clearly see further down the slope
Horsetail_Falls_296_06222016 - After 3.5 hours away from the car, we finally made it back to the now busy Pyramid Creek Trailhead


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. 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 for 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. 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 for $30 and was good until the end of the 12th month from the date of first use.

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

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 (just 1.6 miles east of the village of Strawberry). 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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