Lake Tahoe's 10 must-see waterfalls
The Tahoe region is certainly famous for its large body of aquamarine lake, but in spring and summer, many impressive waterfalls are flowing at their peak. Grouped mainly on the western side of the Tahoe basin, here are several cascades to top your ‘must see’ list.
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’ and are easily reached by a short drive. In spring, the force of the two falls makes swimming in the middle pool impossible – but summer visitors will find the river and pond much tamer.
Getting there: From Truckee, take Hwy 89 north for 15 miles. Turn left at the Webber Lake 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.
Heath Falls, Soda Springs
The most challenging hike on the list, true outdoor adventurers could use this nearly 13 mile roundtrip trek to Heath Falls as just a starting point to visit five other waterfalls in the area, but consider camping out overnight. Heath’s impressive 45’ plunge is visible after hiking almost straight down one way, which means up, up, up for the return. Due to snowpack, the trail isn’t user-friendly until late June.
Getting there: From Truckee, take the Soda Springs exit off I-80, go right for .7 miles to Soda Springs Rd, right again and .8 miles to Pahatsi Rd. Turn right and drive 4.3 miles to the Palisade Creek trailhead. Pahatsi Rd. turns into dirt and becomes Kidd Lakes Rd. Right at the fork, passing Kidd Lake, it ends at Cascades Lake. Park here and find the Palisades Creek trailhead. Find detailed instructions here.
Shirley Canyon, Squaw Valley
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 Shirley Canyon trail have no actual names, they are scattered along the entire four mile (roundtrip), moderate hike. This hike is also well known for viewing spring wildflowers.
Getting there: 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 Shirley Lake chairlift, continuing up to High Camp is more strenuous, and adds some mileage. The cable car ride is $10.
Eagle Falls, Desolation Wilderness
One of the most popular, easier hikes in the Tahoe Basin, Eagle Falls consists of an Upper (40 ft) and Lower (170 ft) 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.
Getting there: From South Lake Tahoe, drive north on Hwy 89 for 8.5 miles – parking at the Emerald Bay/Vikingsholm State Park if the smaller Eagle Falls lot is full. There is a fee for parking, and a free wilderness permit is required, but available on-site. Looking west, Lower Eagle Falls is visible from the parking area. There is a moderate one-mile hike down to the bottom of the lower falls from the trailhead. Upper Eagle Falls is a short quarter-mile walk continuing up from the Eagle Falls picnic area.
Fontanillis, Desolation Wilderness
Five miles deeper into the wilderness area, past Eagle Falls, Fontanillis is a marvelous 150 ft. tumble down into Upper Velma Lake. At 10 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.
Getting there: Park at the Eagle Falls or Emerald Bay lots (see above) and follow the trail signs past Eagle and Velma Lakes.
Cascade Falls, Desolation Wilderness
Just south of the Eagle Falls parking area is the Bay View campground, which is the trailhead to the majestic 200 ft 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 views of Lake Tahoe.
Getting there: Drive north on Hwy 89 eight miles from South Lake Tahoe (or 20 miles south from Tahoe City) to the Bayview Campground. The trailhead is at the far end of the lot. 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.
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 adventure (but beautiful), so take your time and use the many turn-outs.
Getting there: Three miles north of the Hwy 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 ft. 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 Lily Lake, which is a scenic mile-long stroll alongside Glen Alpine Creek.
Upper Truckee Falls, Meyers
This short (20 ft) drop from the Truckee River is lovely in spring, but fades quickly as the runoff dwindles in summer. The falls are found on the popular Hawley Grade hiking trail, which was once the Old Meyers Grade over Echo Summit, before Hwy 50 took over.
Getting there: From the junction of Hwys 50/89 in Meyers, drive west on Hwy 50 a short distance, turning left onto South Upper Truckee Road. If you’ve brought bikes, this is a quiet 3.7 mile ride through a residential area, or drive until you reach the right turn for the Hawley Grade Recreational Trail. Choose to park here and walk the .3 mile to the falls (you may also drive); the main hike is to the right – go left for the falls and the Upper Truckee River.
Horsetail Falls, Twin Bridges
Really one of the most noble waterfalls in the region, Horsetail is magnificent in early spring, but continues to impress well into summer. Visible from Hwy 50, the falls rumble 500 ft down and are aptly named. With a distance of only one mile, it’s a very strenuous climb, taking about an hour and requiring some scrambling.
Getting there: Driving west from South Lake Tahoe on Hwy 50, the trailhead begins two miles east of Strawberry, at the Twin Bridges parking lot. After parking, follow the signs to the wilderness boundary. There, you’ll need to fill out a permit to continue up to the waterfall, since Horsetail once again heads into the Desolation Wilderness.
Hot Springs Creek Falls, Markleeville
Another dog-friendly hike to a picturesque waterfall, Hot Springs Creek falls is a 50 ft. drop viewed after a 1.7 mile hike. Best in spring, this is an easy hike, which can make the trail a busy place, so bring a leash if you have Fido along.
Getting there: From South Lake Tahoe, drive south on Hwy 89 about 13 miles to Pickett’s Junction (the Hwy 88/89 intersect). Turn left and follow the signs to Markleeville, turn right on Hot Springs Rd., and drive 3.5 miles to Grover Hot Springs State Park. The trailhead is past the entrance kiosk, on the left just past the campground. There is a $6 fee to park, and you’ll follow the signs for the Burnside Lake hike, turning left at each junction.