Horsetail Falls

Homeward bound on US Highway 50, around a bend just a fistful of miles west of Echo Summit, Horsetail Falls appeared through my windshield with sudden grandeur. At that very corner, the narrow conifer-clad landscape widened into a sweep of bright granite carved millennia ago by a long gone glacier.

Down the middle of that expanse, Pyramid Creek carried the immense outflow of innumerable Desolation Valley lakes down one thousand feet of roiling madness. Even from several miles away through a car windshield, the Yosemite-like power and grandeur of Horsetail Falls was palpable. Who can resist a closer look?

The Pyramid Creek Trailhead ($5 day use fee) is immediately above Twin Bridges. The gentle mile and a quarter climb to the base of the falls turns counter clockwise around a bulge that initially hides the falls from view. Somewhere amid all the trodden footpaths, there is likely an official trail, but it didn’t really matter. With the creek to guide me and steep cliffs on each side, it was a simple matter to make my own way with no fear of getting lost.

Things changed at the base of the falls. Here, the sense of adventure deepened and continuing on meant shifting gears from casual walker to quasi-mountaineer. The deafening roar of water confirmed that the way up and alongside the Horsetail Falls would be need my full attention. Guided by occasional rock cairn trail markers, I scrambled up a steep slope of granite and chaparral past a succession of roaring cascades. The falls never paused to rest.

A thousand feet up, I reached the top of the falls, the landscape relaxed, and I entered Desolation Valley. In all my Sierra backcountry travels, I have seen no high country as picturesque as this wilderness. It somehow unites the cold indifference of alpine country with the warmth one might find in a Japanese garden. Desolation Valley is a web of shallow glacier-carved lakes strung along several creeks, each dotted with islands appointed with windswept pines and groundcover chaparral; perfectly placed as if from an architect’s blueprint.

I paused for a bite to eat at Ropi Lake. From here, the first genuine trail I had seen headed northeast to Lake of the Woods, but I looked west toward Pyramid Peak. Decades ago, I had twice been to the top of Pyramid Peak, but after 1,800 vertical feet of trail-less scrambling, I doubted I had the strength or even the will to do it again.

Nevertheless, I started toward the peak, edging up, over, around countless obstacles, constantly measuring the idea of a trip to the top. By the time I reached Pyramid Lake, dotted with brilliant blue icebergs, I decided it was time to turn back.

Horsetail Falls is that rare combination of breathtaking spectacle within easy reach. In just over a mile, a hiker stands on trembling ground and looks up at a wild raging monster. If you go beyond, there are rewards, but be careful.