Horsetail Falls: A challenging hike to an impressive waterfall

Located in the Desolation Wilderness of the Sierra Nevada mountains is a waterfall unlike any other in Northern California. At just over 500 feet, this waterfall cascades over the granite face in stages and can be very dangerous when entering the water at the top of the waterfall.

(Last Updated On: March 7, 2015)

The trailhead begins at 6000 feet in elevation and climbs up to 7200 feet in elevation at the top of the waterfall. The trail is only 1.5 miles to the base of the waterfall. However, it’s easy to lose when traveling over the granite slabs. Additionally, the hike to the top of the waterfall requires hiking skills like boulder hopping.

Out on the trail

Out on the trail

Directions

From Sacramento, head east on Highway 50 just past the small town of Strawberry. On the left side of the highway is the Twin Bridges trailhead.

Amenities

The Twin Bridges trailhead costs $5 for parking and has the following amenities:

  • Parking lot
  • Bathrooms
  • Trail map display
  • Desolation Wilderness permits
Another view from the trail

Another view from the trail

Tips

  • Bring plenty of water
  • Stay on the west side of the waterfall to follow the trail
  • Bring sun block
  • Go in the late spring to early summer for maximum water flow
  • Do not go into the creek above the waterfall, very dangerous
  • This hike is a minimum of 4 hours, so plan accordingly
Pyramid Creek

Pyramid Creek

Hitting the Trail

I waited for over a year to hike up Horsetail Falls. When I attempted to hike it last year, the trailhead was closed. I’ve heard many great things about the hike from the difficulty to the impressiveness of the waterfall itself and I was eager to tackle this hike.

I arrived at the trailhead at 7:30am on a Wednesday morning and was very excited to begin my journey. There were only two other cars in the parking lot and the drive up was quick due to very little traffic. So, I loaded up my gear, filled out my permit and quickly hit the trail.

My plan was to head over to the lower portion of Pyramid Creek to get some pictures and check out the scenery before making my way toward the entrance into Desolation Wilderness. If you want to bypass the lower portion of the creek, then take the Wilderness Trail instead of the Pyramid Creek Trail. Both trails take you to the same entrance point of Desolation Wilderness.

Check out more of my Desolation Wilderness adventures.

Further up Pyramid Creek

Further up Pyramid Creek

Once at this point, the trail begins to increase in difficulty due to elevation gain and because the trail begins to disappear in sections. This portion does require you to pay attention to your surroundings, use landmarks and loosely follow any cairns.

Once at the base of the waterfall, the real challenge sets in. Heading to the top of the waterfall requires some minor rock climbing, boulder hopping and trail finding. It’s not easy, and it does require hikers to be in good shape.

The waterfall is in 3 stages and so I crossed over from the trailside (west or left side) to the east side of the water after the first 1/3rd of the hike. I was taking pictures in the middle of the flow where there’s dry rocks to stand on.

A watering hole along the way

A watering hole along the way

I quickly found out that this side of the trail is extremely difficult due to the fact that there is no trail and requires more rock climbing and boulder hopping to get to the top. It was very strenuous and quite the workout. I was exhausted by time I got past the 2nd stage of the waterfall and decided to cross back over to the trailside to finish the journey to the top.

After 3 1/2 hours of hiking, I finally made it to the top of the waterfall and the views were well worth it. However, I was definitely worn out and did not want to climb back down.

A view looking back from the trail

A view looking back from the trail

The journey back down is still challenging due to the rocks you have to scale and the sections of the trail that seemingly disappear in front of your eyes. Not to mention, with a breeze, some of the mist can make the rocks slipperier.

The hike back down took me about an hour and that was mostly due to the exhaustion from climbing up the waterfall on the eastside. Also, by time I was ready to climb back down, the trail was packed. On my way up, I saw maybe one more person. But, on the way down, I saw a few dozen people. So, I used this to my advantage and followed a father and his 3 sons down the waterfall and along the Wilderness Trail back to the trailhead.

Near the base of the waterfall

Near the base of the waterfall

Final Words

Horsetail Falls is for intermediate to advanced hikers. The difficulty of the climb is not suitable for children or adults with any physical limitations. It’s imperative not to enter the water anywhere on the actual waterfall or above the waterfall. Each year there are several serious injuries because of people entering the waterfall.

The best time to attempt this hike is in the late spring to early summer. I did it in June and the waterfall was at near peak flow. Bring plenty of water and snacks because this hike definitely challenges your physical conditioning. But, if you can make it to the top, then you will be rewarded with spectacular views and the pride of overcoming the tough challenge.

Check out more of Crystal Basin adventures.

Bottom 1/3rd of Horsetail Falls

Bottom 1/3rd of Horsetail Falls

 

Middle portion of Horsetail Falls

Middle portion of Horsetail Falls

 

Upper 1/3rd of Horsetail Falls

Upper 1/3rd of Horsetail Falls