Waterfalls in Tahoe

originally printed in Sierra Heritage magazine, Spring 2013

In the Tahoe region, there is that famous large body of aquamarine liquid, but springtime is waterfall season, when flows are at their most impressive. Grouped mainly on the western side of the Tahoe basin, here are several cascades to top your ‘must see’ list – all within easy walking distance.

1. Upper Truckee Falls, Hawley Grade, Meyers   These falls are found on the popular Hawley Grade hike, which was once a wagon trail over Echo Summit prior to Highway 50. There is a short walk to the lower falls and a half-hour hike to the more impressive upper. The longer hike has a decidedly rocky start, but after the initial boulders, turns into a traditional hiking trail, following the route put up by Asa Hawley in 1857. Later in the season, when the falls calm down, adventurous cyclists often use the trail as a downhill from the top of Echo Summit.

From the junction of Highways 50 & 89 in Meyers, drive a short distance west on Highway 50, turning left onto South Upper Truckee Road. Drive the 3.7 miles through a quiet residential area until you reach the right turn for the Hawley Grade Recreational Trail. Park here and walk the .3 mile to the lower falls and the TruckeeRiver; the main hike is to the right.

2. Glen Alpine Falls, Fallen Leaf Lake    Sometimes referred to as “Fallen Leaf Falls” or “Big Falls,” by any name, this cascade is worth the drive. As a bonus for any non-hikers in your group, Glen Alpine is visible from the roadside. A half-mile north from Camp Richardson, the rickety road to Fallen Leaf Lake and the falls is its own beautiful adventure, so take your time and use the many turn-outs.

Three miles north of the Highway 50/89 intersect in South Lake Tahoe, turn left onto Fallen Leaf Road and drive 4.8 miles out to the marina (right at the T). Keep heading west past the marina, and turn left at Road 1216. Plunging from the Glen Alpine Valley, the 75 foot falls are on the right; it’s okay to park on the roadside and walk down to play in the various pools. This road also becomes the trailhead to LilyLake, which is a scenic mile-long stroll alongside Glen Alpine Creek.

3. Eagle Falls & Cascade Falls, Desolation Wilderness   The most popular, easier hikes in the Tahoe Basin, you will probably spend more time parking than finding these waterfalls. Eagle Falls consists of an Upper (40 foot drop) and Lower (170 feet), just across from the Emerald Bay trailhead. Both falls lead into the huge Desolation Wilderness area, with Eagle Lake only one mile further in for a perfect family picnic and swim site. While the hike may not leave you breathless, the views of Emerald Bay will.

 From South Lake Tahoe, drive north on Highway 89 for 8.5 miles – parking at the Emerald Bay/Vikingsholm State Park if the smaller Eagle Falls lot is full. There is a $5 fee for parking, and a free wilderness permit is required if hiking, but available on-site. Looking west, LowerEagleFalls is visible from the parking area. There is a moderate one-mile hike down to the bottom of the lower falls from the trailhead. UpperEagleFalls is a short quarter-mile walk continuing up from the EagleFalls picnic area.

 Barely south of the EagleFalls parking area is the Bayview campground; this is the trailhead to the majestic 200 foot Cascade Falls. The trail is an easy one mile walk to the top of the falls, where you can watch it plunge down into Cascade Lake. Springtime is most impressive for visiting Cascade, which also includes amazing views of Lake Tahoe. As with any visit to the Desolation Wilderness, a (free) permit is required, but available at the Cascade trailhead kiosk. And there is no parking fee at the Bayview lot.

4. Shirley Canyon, Squaw Valley   Moving north, visitors to Squaw Valley can choose from riding the cable car up to High Camp and hiking down, or hoofing up and using the tram for the return. In summer, dogs are welcomed on all trails and the cable car. While the many picturesque falls on the ShirleyCanyon trail have no actual names, they are scattered along the entire four-mile roundtrip hike. This moderate trail is also well known for viewing spring wildflowers, so don’t forget the camera.

Just past the Squaw parking lot, the trail starts behind the fire station. Hiking up, follow the blue trail markers, and stay left of the creek. Once at the ShirleyLake chairlift, continuing up to High Camp is more strenuous, and adds some mileage. The cable car ride down is free – riding up is $10-$29, depending on age.

5. Webber Falls, Truckee   Each spring, the Little Truckee River roars its way over a granite chasm, creating Webber Falls. Two tiers total a drop of over 60 feet and are easily reached by a short drive. In the early season, the force of the two falls makes swimming in the middle pool impossible – but summer visitors will find the river and pond much tamer.

From Truckee, take Highway 89 north for 15 miles. Turn left at the WebberLake sign (Road 07). Drive 6.9 miles to an unsigned dirt road on the left, immediately after Lake of the Woods. After a short distance, turn left at the junction, then immediately right into the dirt parking lot. After parking, it’s possible to hike down the steep cliffs to view the falls from their side, but use caution.
Fontanillis, Desolation Wilderness   An all-day excursion and five miles deeper into the wilderness area past Eagle Falls, Fontanillis is a marvelous 150 foot tumble down into Upper Velma Lake. At ten miles roundtrip, the way is moderate, but hikers should plan all day for this trek. Deli sandwiches and mosquito spray ought to top the supply list before leaving town. As with most waterfalls, Fontanillis is best in spring and early summer, when the winter runoff is at its strongest. Park at the Eagle Falls or Emerald Bay lots and follow the trail signs past Eagle and Velma Lakes.