About Horsetail Falls
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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