When driving up Hwy 50 between Placerville and Tahoe, the mountains quickly rise-up to meet you. Once past Kyburz, many enticing dirt roads and granite peaks are right off the road, offering distraction and a possible detour away from your final destination. Chief amongst these distractions is Horsetail falls--about a mile and a half past Strawberry on the left hand side of 50 (when you’re traveling towards Tahoe).
Once past Strawberry, the first thing you’ll see is the looming behemoth that is “Lover’s Leap”--a giant granite peak prominently standing above the valley floor. Just across the road from “Lover’s Leap” can be found the Horsetail Falls parking area; self-registration and a fee are applicable to most groups, so please check yourself in.
After a few twists, the trail opens up to Horsetail Valley—a mix of granite boulders, alpine brush, and stands of Pine/Spruce. While the trail is clearly marked by rock cairns and the occasional sign, this part of the hike can be a bit confusing. My best advice is to keep looking for stands of cairns or any other man-made indicators; also, the hike is a one-way up/down excursion, so as long as you continue into the valley paralleling the creek, you can’t get too lost.
After about a mile of hiking through the valley, the forest momentarily thickens and then gives way to rising faces of granite that directly surround Horsetail Falls proper. This being the fun part, the hike quickly turns into a mix of rock-stairs and steep scrambling--often feeling like a dangerous workout that yields better and better views with every step. In terms of exposure, there are both safer and also more treacherous ways to ascend the granite, so when in doubt, backtrack and look for a more moderate means of ascent.
At this point, most people turn around, or perhaps find a nice tree to picnic under and enjoy the views. However, if you and your party have the strength, you can push on to the top of the falls where an entire Alpine lake district exists for your wonderment and play. There are many cliff-jumping opportunities up here—so stay awhile, camp out, and explore to your hearts content. Once finished and it’s time to go back to the car, retreat the way you came up, or simply head “down.”
Local’s tip: If the bottom parking lot is full, get back on Hwy 50 towards Strawberry and in about a quarter mile you’ll see a dirt drive on the left side. Pull into that drive and park free for the day, but remember to lock your car!