Explore Tahoe: Check out these 6 must-do hikes to Tahoe-area waterfalls | SierraSun.com

Explore Tahoe: Check out these 6 must-do hikes to Tahoe-area waterfalls

Tim Hauserman
Special to the Sun

TAHOE-TRUCKEE — Finally, after several years of severe drought, the creeks in the Sierra are swiftly flowing again. This means we will have water to grow the crops we eat and keep our taps running — and, most beautifully, to cascade over granite walls to "ooh" and "ahh" us with amazing waterfalls.

There is something about the sight and sound of crystal clear mountain water falling over rocky cliffs that fills our spirit with joy. Around the Tahoe region, you will find waterfalls in all shapes, sizes and accessibility.

Here are a few favorites, as well as several lesser-known gems that are well worth a visit.

Eagle Falls

Tahoe's most famous waterfall, Eagle Falls, sits at the base of Emerald Bay. It's worth a look anytime, but it's especially overpowering to visit when the snow melt is at its height, and the roar of the water can be heard a mile away. To truly experience the falls, walk to its base via the Vikingsholm trail.

While this is perhaps the region's most popular trail (get there early to get a parking spot), the crowds can't dampen the beauty of the mile-long descent to the edge of Lake Tahoe. The trail meanders an additional 1/4 mile past the Vikingsholm to the falls, where a light mist will freshen the viewer if the spring run off is at its height.

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Directions: The Vikingsholm parking lot is located 27 miles south of Tahoe City in Emerald Bay. A parking fee is required. Very limited free parking may be found between this parking lot and the USFS Desolation Wilderness trailhead just a bit to the south. You can also view the falls from the top, just across the highway from the U.S. Forest Service parking area. Be careful on the slippery wet rocks.

Cascade Falls

Cascade Falls is an especially dramatic and powerful waterfall that drops out of Desolation Wilderness toward Cascade Lake. You can get a nice glimpse of the falls from Highway 89 as the road winds its way past Emerald Bay, but the best view is to take the easy hike from the Bayview Trailhead. At just under a mile, and with little in the way of elevation gain, this hike provides an extraordinary view without a lot of time or effort.

Directions: Just a mile south of the Vikingsholm parking lot along Highway 89 lies the Bayview Trailhead, which includes access to the Bayview Campground, Desolation Wilderness trailhead and the trail to Cascade Falls.

Fontanillis Falls

One of my favorite places to be in the entire Tahoe region is the long cascade from Fontanillis Lake to Upper Velma Lake in Desolation Wilderness. It's a joyous 5-mile jaunt from Emerald Bay (if your joy includes a good deal of climbing) into the heart of the Desolation Wilderness.

The trail passes Dicks Lake, before tromping along the shore of Fontanillis Lake, a fairyland of bonsai tree-topped islands and granite shoreline all framed by a spectacular ridgeline topped by Dicks Peak.

At the end of the lake, the trail crosses a stream, and here the smooth, granite slope creates a swiftly moving, but very shallow, cascade between Fontanillis and Upper Velma. It's steep enough to make the water roar, but gentle enough to allow you to walk right next to the falls.

Directions: Take the Bayview Trailhead, the same as Cascade Falls. Follow the trail to Desolation Wilderness/Dicks Lake.

McCloud Falls

Set high in Ward Canyon near the base of Twin Peaks, diminutive McCloud Falls is more of an excuse for an amazing hike than a waterfall destination hike, but it's well worth the walk. Starting from the Tahoe Rim Trail Ward Canyon Trailhead, the hike starts out gently, winding within ear shot of Ward Creek.

Enjoy views of the Pacific Crest and Grouse Rock high above. After a mile and a half the trail crosses Ward Creek on a bridge and begins to get steeper. The trail winds past aspen groves, fields of lupine and paint brush, and a string of little dips through tiny stream beds loaded with greenery.

Ward Creek is now bustling on the right and an impressive visage of Twin Peaks sits high above. McCloud Falls makes for a lovely resting spot after the climb.

Trailhead: Take Highway 89 south from Tahoe City 2.5 miles to Pineland Drive. At the end of Pineland, follow the signs to Ward Valley and Ward Canyon Boulevard. Drive an additional mile to the Tahoe Rim Trailhead on your left. The hike to the falls is about four miles each way.

Galena Falls

The easy 2-and-a-half mile walk from the Tahoe Rim Trail/Mt. Rose Trailhead on Highway 431 to Galena Falls is one of the most popular hiking trails in Nevada, and with good reason. Enjoy stunning views of Mt. Rose along the route before reaching the base of the lovely falls.

While Galena Falls is not huge, it is quite charming flowing over the brown rocks. After viewing from the bottom, follow the TRT as it switchbacks to the top, where you can bask on smooth rocks right next to the water's edge. If you are up for it, from the falls an additional 2.5, much steeper, miles leads to the over 10,000 foot summit of Mt. Rose.

Trailhead: Eight miles north of Incline on Highway 431 lies the Tahoe Rim Trail/Mt. Rose Trailhead right at the summit.

Shirley Canyon

Less a true waterfall than a series of shimmering drops, Shirley Canyon is always a worthwhile climb, especially in the spring when the water is flowing strongly. Unfortunately, Shirley Canyon doesn't have one definitive trail, and a number of use trails have formed.

Follow the Blue blazes through the granite bouldering sections to follow the main route. The trail follows the creek as it tumbles over smooth granite shoots and drops down into inviting pools.

After a steady climb, the trail enters a forest, before emerging to a steep climb up a granite wall. Here we leave the creek and enjoy expansive views of Squaw Valley before reaching the small, but charming Shirley Lake about 2 miles from the start. With chairlifts all around, it certainly doesn't provide a wilderness feel, but it is a lovely place to set for lunch.

From here you can turn around, or take the steep ascent an additional 3/4 of a mile to the top of the Tram, where those going back to the valley are provided with a free trip.

Trailhead: Take Squaw Peak Road in Squaw Valley and follow it its end. Look for limited off street parking and the trailhead on the uphill side.

Tim Hauserman, a nearly lifelong resident of Tahoe City, is a freelance author and cross-country ski instructor. He may be reached at writeonrex@yahoo.com.

3 pro tips for shooting the falls

You get to the edge of one of these spectacular waterfalls and say, “Oh My God, I need to get a picture of that.” Well, if you want the best photo, a real camera would be nice, but many of us take most of our shots with our smartphones.

Considering that, longtime Tahoe photographer Nina Miller (ninaphototahoe.com) passes along a few tips on how to get the best smartphone shots of our local bits of falling water:

1. Find the focal point: Many recent smartphone models have an option that lets you choose your focal point; on an iPhone, you can tap the screen where you’d like the focus to be. Generally, that’ll be your main subject, such as someone’s face, or, in this case, the part of the waterfall you’d like to emphasize. This not only locks in the focus, but also the exposure for that point in the image. You could try using the flash for fill light, but my experience is that it doesn’t do much in broad daylight.

2. Zoom it in: Many phones also have a zoom option. Keep in mind that this is merely digital, i.e. the file will be of lower quality. Feel free to zoom in if it helps you compose, but you might as well take “the big picture” and crop later, which will then give you more options on how to crop.

3. Try different angles: Straight-on, from the side, down-low, up-high. Back up, get close. It all depends on the size of the waterfall, your access to it, and where the sun is in relation to it, but experiment and walk around. Frame the image with a tree on one side, or with rocks in the foreground for a low-angle shot. One idea might be to have the person you’re with stand next to the waterfall, with you straight across on the other side of it.

This should set you up for that perfect Instagram memory of these wonderful waterfalls. And while you’re at, be sure to post with the #TahoeSnaps hashtag, and tag us on our Instagram page @TahoeSnaps.