Horsetail Falls

Inyo National Forest / John Muir Wilderness, California, USA

Static Google Map of Horsetail Falls

About Horsetail Falls


Hiking Distance: 4 miles round trip
Suggested Time: 2 hours

Waterfall Latitude: 37.53949
Waterfall Longitude: -118.82781

Horsetail Falls is a fairly common waterfall name so the one depicted here pertains to a waterfall found while hiking along the McGee Creek Trail near the Mammoth Lakes area. It can be argued that when the waterfall has adequate flow, it could be one of the few circumstances where its shape stays true to its name.

Aside from how much this waterfall might resemble a horse’s tail, I thought what really made this hike worthwhile was the mountain scenery. In fact, most of the hike involved meandering between tall peaks, including the aptly named Red Mountain and White Mountain. As pictured at the top of this page, you can see the mountainous backdrop giving the attractive falls some context while adding to its scenic allure.

I managed to visit this waterfall with Julie in the late morning in September 2001 as well as with a high school buddy of mine during the late afternoon in August 2010. And given the low flow on the first visit and the suboptimal lighting on the second visit (I was looking against the sun), I have to believe that this east-facing waterfall would be best photographed in the early- to mid-morning during the early Summer when the wildflowers would be in bloom and the falls would have reliably high flow.

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Our first look at Horsetail Falls while hiking McGee Creek
I don’t think many people do this excursion as a short day-hike to the waterfall since the falls didn’t seem like a destination itself. It just seems like people who visit McGee Creek typically go on horseback and continue onwards towards the many lakes that await them further up the canyon. Without horseback, it’s a long hike just to even get to Steelhead Lake (the first of the lakes we noticed on the map beyond Horsetail Falls). But since I only hiked this trail to Horsetail Falls, I’ll describe the trail only up to the falls.

The hike began from a car park at the McGee Creek Trailhead (see directions below). Shortly after we embarked on the hike, we were immediately confronted with a fork in the trail – one upper and one lower. Fortunately, it didn’t matter which one we took because they eventually converged further along the trail. It’s just that the lower trail seemed flatter (it even splits again along the way before converging again) until it eventually had to go up switchbacks to rejoin the upper trail. The upper trail seemed like a natural path to take on the return (as it appeared to be a stock trail), which might explain why there were multiple trails all eventually converging and going to the same place.

Just beyond the convergence of the lower and upper trails, we entered the Inyo National Forest officially as there was a signpost indicating as such. From this point onwards, the terrain was more vegetated but still quite exposed to sunlight.

Eventually after an hour or so of hiking mostly uphill, we could see both Red and White Mountains looming large in front of us. I guess we could tell why they were given those names as we could see some oxidation on the surface of Red Mountain while White Mountain had that bare granite appearance right behind it. Eventually, we could see part of the waterfall on the approach, but before we could get a closer look, we had to cross Horsetail Creek.

In high flow, Horsetail Creek actually floods part of the McGee Creek Trail, and in our August 2010 visit, the creek still had July-like flows so we had to employ a combination of rock-hopping while letting parts of our gore-tex boots repel the water. Without the right shoes here, I could easily envision having uncomfortably wet socks for the remainder of the hike. Conversely in low flow like in our September 2002 visit, the creek crossing was pretty trivial.

A short distance beyond the stream crossing, there was an unsigned scrambling path to our right which climbed uphill towards a sun-exposed area where we could get closer views of Horsetail Falls. We couldn’t find a way to get all the way to the base of the main waterfall as the scrambling got rougher and the foliage got thicker, but the views from the sun-exposed area were good enough for us. In fact, the photo you see at the top of this page was taken from around this sun-exposed area.

On the return, we got to look forward to the fact that it was all downhill. Just to give you an idea of how taxing the uphill climb to get here could be, it took us almost 90 minutes to go the 2 miles in (4 miles round trip). But it barely took us an hour to make it all the way back to the car park.

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In our visits to this waterfall, we’ve always based ourselves in the Mammoth Lakes area (about 6 hours drive north of Los Angeles) so we’ll describe the driving directions from there. So from Mammoth, we drove east to the Mammoth Junction (Hwy 203 and Route 395 junction). From there, we headed about 8 miles south then exited at McGee Creek Road on the right. Once we got off US395, we went straight at the four-way intersection and proceeded to drive the 3-mile road to its end (the last mile or so was unpaved).

The trailhead for this falls is at the end of the McGee Creek Road near the McGee Creek Pack Station.

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