Sunday, May 5, 2013

Best Hikes In Tahoe - Cascade Falls

Cascade Falls (Southwest corner of Lake Tahoe)
Category – Easy, but for sure-footed, experienced hikers only. There are many tall steps and smooth rocks coated with slippery sand designed to make you slip and fall. I strongly recommend hiking boots with real tread. This is not a hike for casual shoes.
View Rating: 9 out of 10
1.5 miles round trip, little overall elevation gain, but sections of up and down.

Snow on the cirque between Mt. Tallac out of sight on the left and
Dicks Peak just behind the 9500-foot ridge in the center. Cascade Falls
is the white mark lower, center right

Everybody loves to go to Emerald Bay, see the Vikingsholm Castle, and hike to Eagle Falls. With its unique and spectacular beauty, Tahoe's only bay is deserving of its countless admirers.
But locals heading toward Emerald Bay often follow Frost's dictum and take the less traveled path out to Cascade Falls. You'll find fewer crowds, views nearly as grand as those at Emerald Bay, and literary antecedents that helped propel a writer toward an eventual Nobel Prize.
Emerald Bay and Cascade lake were formed by two parallel glaciers during the last Ice Age. The Emerald Bay glacier pushed all the way to Tahoe, forming a bay when it melted. The Cascade glacier pulled up short of the main lake, forming Cascade Lake.
Were Cascade Lake and the falls that tumble toward it in nearly any other state, it would be a state park, and freeway mileage signs would count down the distance as you drove the SUV packed with kids and hiking gear. Cascade Falls State Park 98 miles. Cascade Falls State Park 47 miles.
You get the idea. But because Cascade Falls is in Tahoe, it's just another amazing place with no highway signs announcing its presence.

The trail starts off as a pleasant stroll through the forest
Cascade Falls seen from the trail

We had lunch there May 1st. Because of the low snow year, the trail was free of white stuff a month early. Because it was a Wednesday in May, the trail was also free of people. Because the temps were in the 60s, the river and falls were gushing.
To get to the Cascade Falls trailhead, drive to Emerald Bay, but don't go to the popular parking lots for the Vikingsholm Castle or the lower one at the very head of the bay.
Instead, drive to the higher part of the highway south of the bay's head. The Bay View Campground – closed this early in the season – is on the mountain side of the highway, across from the Inspiration Point vista overlook. When the campground gate is closed, you can usually find a place to park near the highway. When the campground gate is open, drive through it to the end where there are several parking places and a trailhead sign just beyond.
Please note that, as with most hikes in Tahoe, it is best to go on weekdays, and parking is best found early in the day. Always resist the bright idea to go hiking late in the morning on Saturday!
There are two trails that depart from the trailhead sign area. The sign explains that you need to fill out a permit for a day hike in Desolation Wilderness, but that only applies to the right trail, which leads up to Maggie's Peaks and Desolation beyond.
Our trail to Cascade Falls is the left one, and you do not need a permit.

The trail has many large steps - not good if you have knee problems.

The trail winds through the woods heading south (where the sun is at 1 p.m. during Daylight Saving Time).
After a hundred yards or so, you come to the edge of the glacial moraine that forms the northwest side of Cascade Lake. The view over Cascade Lake is immediately spectacular.

Cascade Lake with Tahoe in the far distance

The trail goes along the side of the steep moraine slope. Cascade Falls will appear in the distance to the south. Lake Tahoe dominates in the distance to the northeast. Heavenly and the 10,900-foot Freel Peak massif spread out to the southeast.
As you approach the falls, you will be tempted by many beautiful places to sit on the rocks by the rushing water as you eat your lunch and maybe even dangle your feet in the ice water that only melted minutes before.
This is a fine idea but requires a word of warning. If you slip and fall in the water, you could be sent off the cliff. This especially applies to children and dogs etc. Enjoy your visit and all its beauty. But please don't become a statistic!
Looking down from the upper part of the falls

The rushing river above the falls
Lunch above Cascade Lake with Tahoe in the background

Stellar's Jays are beautiful but noisy birds. This one was looking for a handout that didn't come.
While you munch your lunch, ponder what it was like in 1926 when the 23-year-old John Steinbeck left Stanford and got a job working as a caretaker for the Brigham family estate on Cascade Lake. (The lake is still largely private, so we are very lucky to have a public trail to Cascade Falls.)
Steinbeck was a caretaker on Cascade Lake 1926-1928

Steinbeck worked on his first novel while snowed in during that first winter in Tahoe. From where you sit near the falls, you can look to the northeast end of Cascade Lake and visualize some of the locations that influenced Steinbeck's perceptions about landscape and loneliness.
Behind you is a large cirque of mountains leading up to the 9974-foot Dicks Peak. 
These are the snow fields that feed Cascade Falls. Look very closely
and you can see three avalanche tracks on the upper snow field.
The one on the upper right looks to be about 1000 feet long.

The cirque contains two good-sized lakes, Snow Lake and Azure Lake. They are scenic, but be aware that the trails to them are over bare rock and are not well marked. It is easy to get lost.
If all you do is have lunch at Cascade Falls, you will be well-rewarded. The round trip is short, but the views and memories will stay with you forever. Okay, not forever, but they'll occupy your neural synapses until you supplant those memories with your next amazing Tahoe experience.


  1. Todd
    Can you give me idea of easy hikes with kids. Vikingsholm and Eagle Lake are favorites but do you have any other ideas of hikes on the same level of difficulty (easy)??? Would appreciate some ideas:)

    1. Hi Amanda,
      Sorry for delayed response. It's that busy time of year! I will mention other hikes on future blogs, but in the meantime, because you're on the South Shore, check out D.L.Bliss (just north of Emerald Bay) heading south from the park along the lake. Easy and spectacular. Another super easy and beautiful stroll is from Camp Rich at the lake heading west toward Kiva Beach. There are multiple paths that go along the lake as well as also going between the Heller Estate, Pope Estate,and Baldwin Estate. You can go back to the stream-profile chamber at the visitor center on Taylor Creek, too. Also check out Echo Lakes from the lodge across the dam and then along the north side of the lake for as far as you want to go. (From the dam, the trail goes up and around and then back down to the lake.) Or, a fun variation that kids love is you can take the boat taxi to the far end of Upper Echo Lake and walk back (about 2 miles). When you get back to the lodge, remember to get an ice cream cone!

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