Trails in Northern California

Trails in Northern California

Leave No Trace!

Visit for more information about Desolation Wilderness. Visit or call 1- 877-444-6777 to make park reservations. Visit Campfire Permits to get a permit online. More about Leave No Trace principles.

August 02, 2012

Horsetail Falls, Desolation Wilderness

A rewarding intermediate to advanced day hike to the top of the Horsetail Falls in Desolation Wilderness.

* If you click on a photo the photos will be enlarged for better detail. At the bottom of the page you will find driving directions, and other information. No tracks will be posted this time, but a topo map of the area is included.

Horsetail Falls, Desolation Wilderness

Directions: This spectacular waterfall can be seen from Highway 50. There is a paved parking lot called Pyramid Creek with a small day use fee. It is 6 3/4 miles west of Echo Lake Summit or 1 2/3+ miles northeast of Strawberry.
Distance: One Way: 1.5 miles to the base of the falls and to Avalanche Lake is listed as 1.8 miles according to Desolation Wilderness' website. Other estimates from the base of the hike to the top of the falls are 5.5+ miles one way; go more or less as you like.
"Difficult, and potentially dangerous" miles, even though it is a short distance if you go to the top, but tame along the creek. I love this day hike or backpacking trip, but strongly recommend friends, a plan, and supplies.
At the trail head are flushing toilets and permits for day use into Desolation Wilderness (that means into the steep areas).   For backpacking you will need to make arrangements with Pacific Ranger Station at Fresh Pond or online for a permitCampfire, hunting, fishing, and firearms restrictions and regulations are available at that site, too.

The trail along Pyramid Creek begins winding through forest and small bushes
but a clear trail emerges along the creek.
You will hike beside the creek for awhile, through the trees and across some granite with a fairly level trail to follow.  Many hikers come to sit near it and cool off, take some photos and just enjoy the views they can capture of the upper falls cascading down the canyon.

Keep your eyes open in this shady area! There may be a rattlesnake along resting in the shade of fallen logs, 

and I very nearly stepped on this guy! He is a huge grand daddy of a snake and apparently had eaten recently. Lucky for me.

I find this hike is rewarding because along the way the creek is cooling, soothing, energizing, and beautiful! There are some fantastic views of Horsetail Falls with many pretty photo opps like this of the water splashing its way through narrow spaces creating that wonderful rushing sound!

Here is one of our glimpses up the mountainside of one section of the famous waterfall!  If you are going to the summit, you will hike inland for awhile away from the falls, through some tall manzanita, then up some smaller loose rocks and granite tables.  If you are there with the kids, there is a viewing area that isn't hazardous and is fun.

We hike into a short section where we follow a crevice filled with loose rocks and then head right at a huge boulder that can't be missed.  Follow the granite upward keeping your eyes peeled for the widow maker. 
My pet name for this section of the hike is the "Boulder Mine Field".  If you have knee problems, this is the hardest part of the hike.  It feels like an eternity of climbing and even though I do enjoy boulder scrambles, this one is long!  Best wear your knee supports or braces! 

This is that widow maker I mentioned, an excellent landmark.

I keep thinking I am closer and the next view of the falls is still distant!  But keep going for the vistas and the supreme rewards!  It is the most rewarding day hike I have been on.

Another benefit of this hike is the views of the Sierras once you have climbed high enough. 

For me it keeps me climbing for more.  Some years you can see those covered in snow (notice the ski run remnants to the left?) and even find yourself cutting through some snow on your hike.  I've had some fun snowball fights up there!

From this part of the hike you are over the falls, looking down towards them.  Just some granite rocks to descend back to being about level with the water.

That's me, Peachy Hiker, climbing westward away from Horsetail Falls.

At the top you reach the lakes, Avalanche Lake first. Water all around is inviting on a hot day. Pick a boulder and have some lunch. For a day hike you can just turn around and head down after some photos, lunch, and rest. 

Near the top of the falls on our backpacking trip this is a powerful place and sight.

For a backpacking trip, you can find a campsites available near the lakes that are far enough away from the water and not too close to your neighbors.  Be bear-safe with your food and other items.  We bear bagged and had a food canister and no issues.

A little further in is this paradise. Beyond this area are some great granite flat spaces for camps, and beautiful views. The bugs come out so be prepared!

A final parting view of and from the top of Horsetail Falls before veering upward and away from the falls to go back down to the trail head.


     There is not an officially recognized or maintained trail beyond the base of the falls, and isn't for everyone, so no GPS tracks are posted.  Sometimes there is some spray paint, and some people have put up cairns, but those are not reliable sources for directions.  If you are experienced at bushwhacking and cross country hiking you can navigate this "trail", and if you lose sight of it you can find it a little ways ahead.  Having seen our photos will hopefully help you keep track of the "trail" as you go up the left (west) side of the creek.
    We saw one young lady who had climbed up much too far for her comfort, equipment, and expertise.  She was inching down the granite on her seat, looking quite frightened.  She didn't have anything like a day pack, water, rope, or other assistance and had gotten separated from her group. She declined assistance. Those are people who may fall to their injury or death. 
     Have shoes good for granite and boulder scrambling.  Take first aid and a rope.  I also carry a flashlight and headlamp, a mirror, first aid kit, and rain gear.  Take some snacks if not lunch.  Go together, not alone, especially if this is a new hike for you.  Don't leave your partner assuming they will make it to the top.  Patiently assist them and guide them so they are sure where to go.  Some areas you can use to get up but not down! 

Topo map of Horsetail Falls and Pyramid Creek

Desolation Wilderness Permits
Pacific Ranger District
7887 Highway 50
Pollock Pines, CA 95726-9602
TTY 530-647-5407
*** Use caution if you climb beyond the official waterfall viewing area.  The granite gets steep and can be slippery.  Also use caution regarding following cairns (rocks stacked) for guidance as they may misdirect you, or be torn down when you return.  People do get injured or lost and is a very difficult place to do a rescue, so I prefer it not be you!!!
Feel free to add any helpful notes for hikers!

Desolation Wilderness
10+ miles
30 miles
Moderate to Strenuous/Difficult
18 miles
12+ miles
Moderate to Strenuous
13+ miles
Moderate to Strenuous
Umpa Lake & Enchanted Pools
8+ miles
Cross country ~ Moderate
Horsetail Falls via Pyramid Creek TH
Aprox.  10 miles to lakes at the top of the falls
"Difficult, and potentially dangerous" miles
10 miles
8 miles
Lyons Lake via Lyons Creek Trail
10+ miles
9.2 miles
6+ miles
Lyons Creek Trail with melting snow
9+ miles
3.8 miles
2010-09 We hiked 12 days.
167 total
Moderate to Strenuous

Happy Trails Again!
Added updated links 06-2016
updated 6-6-2013