Sunday, April 27, 2014

When Water Gets Vertical - Tahoe's Biggest Waterfalls

WIth 60-plus streams flowing from the surrounding mountains down into Lake Tahoe, you’d expect there to be waterfalls, and you’d be right. There are dozens of small-to-medium waterfalls and hundreds of cataracts within the Tahoe Basin. Many of the places where water gets vertical are far up on the mountains in places where few people ever see them.
But what about big waterfalls? Is there anything really spectacular to see?
If your yardstick for spectacular is based on Yosemite waterfalls, then the answer is no. Same if you’re comparing things to Yellowstone or Niagara Falls. But if you’re thinking about other waterfalls scattered across the country, then Tahoe’s biggest do a pretty good job by comparison.
What’s the biggest Tahoe waterfall?
Eagle Falls at Emerald Bay. (Yes, 200-foot Cascade Falls is definitely in the running for prettiest waterfall in Tahoe, but it is much less voluminous than Eagle falls. You can read about hiking to Cascade Falls here.)
Cascade Falls is at the very bottom of the pic

There is a lot of backcountry to the west of Emerald Bay, and all that snowmelt comes down in a rush when the sun starts to rise high in the spring. The river down from Eagle Lake to the highway is a constant, impressive cataract, and it is well worth hiking up to the lake just to see it. After that water rushes under the highway bridge, it tumbles off of two separate dropoffs for a grand total of about 210  feet. (For comparison, Niagra Falls, with really big-time-volume, is only 165 feet high).
Upper Eagle Falls up close

Before you go to see Eagle Falls, please consider that approaching it from the bottom has three big advantages. One, you get more exercise hiking down from the Vikingsholm’s parking lot. Two, you will see the grandest portion of the falls and see it from a great perspective. Three, you’re unlikely to die.
No joke, that. In their rush to see the falls on the fast plan, some people pull over on the highway up above and scramble over the rocks for a quick look at the falls from above. That is fine unless you fall, which people have done to the lasting regret of those who are left spending their vacation making funeral arrangements. The rocks are smooth and slippery, and they slope down, and there are also little “ball-bearing” rocks to speed your descent over the precipice. Just to make it even riskier, there is a nice mist getting things wet so the rocks will be even slipperier.
Upper Eagle Falls from the most dangerous vantage point. Don't get swept away!

Be safe. Park in the large Vikingsholm lot on the north side of the bay. Take a leisurely hike down the paved path to the castle and beach and then up the short path to the base of Eagle Falls. Bring a picnic lunch and eat on the beach. Take a tour of Vikingsholm while your at it. You’ll have a better, safer time, get some easy exercise (about 2 miles round trip) and get better pictures, too.
Lower Eagle Falls from below - the safest viewing place down near the Vikingsholm castle

A fun thing to do on the way back from Emerald Bay (assuming you came from the South Shore), is to stop at the Camp Rich Ice Cream Parlor for a treat. Or turn in toward the lake and drive to the Beacon Restaurant and have a drink out on the deck overlooking the water.

What is Tahoe’s second biggest falls?
Glen Alpine Falls is at the southwest end of Fallen Leaf Lake near Tahoe's South Shore. At 75 feet, it isn’t as high as Eagle Falls, but the river is as voluminous or maybe more, and it too is a fantastic picnic spot.
Glen Alpine Valley comes down from just below Lake Aloha and the Crystal Range behind and to the south of Mt. Tallac. 
The Crystal Range snowfields that feed Glen Alpine Falls

To get to the falls, plug “Fallen Leaf Lake, South Lake Tahoe” into Google Maps. You may have to zoom in a bit before Fallen Leaf Road appears. The easiest way in is the route from Highway 89 near Kiva Beach and Camp Richardson. It’s a narrow, slow road, mostly paved but with lots of potholes. The road takes you through the forest and then, when it reaches Fallen Leaf Lake, shows you some of the world’s greatest views looking across the lake at Mt. Tallac.
The road winds back and forth and is only one lane wide in many places, so be sure to drive slowly. It goes to the end of the lake and then continues on toward the forest for the equivalent of a couple of blocks. Soon, the road rises up at a steep angle and brings you right next to the falls. There are small areas here and there where you can park on the side of the road. As with Eagle Falls, please watch your step! This falls is less dangerous, but you can still fall on the slippery rocks!
Glen Alpine Falls runs into Fallen Leaf Lake, which drains
into Taylor Creek, which in turn flows out to Lake Tahoe.

By the way, the road along Fallen Leaf Lake makes for a great bike ride, better on a mountain bike than a road bike due to the potholes. You can get there by riding the bike path that goes through the woods for several miles from South Lake Tahoe all the way out to Spring Creek Road. Between the beaches and Fallen Leaf Lake, you can have a great day. You can rent bikes at Anderson Bike Rentals near town.
By comparision, biking out to Emerald Bay is only for serious bicyclists. The highway is narrow, the switchbacks are steep, and the cars drive fast.
You will be smart to avoid both falls on weekends, especially in July and August. May and June are best after the snow melts off the road. (Fallen Leaf road is not plowed in the winter.) Going in the fall is beautiful, but the falls will have very little water.
The small little store at the end of Fallen Leaf Lake is also a good place to get a treat before you head back out.
Bring your camera and have fun!


  1. Vikingsholm/Eagle Falls is our favorite hike!
    When do we get to hear the name of the new book???

    1. Here it is... and this is the first announcement of the new title!
      Tahoe Ghost Boat

  2. Sounds thrilling!!!! Cant wait to get my hands on it!!!!!
    See you in South Shore at the end of July!!