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Horsetail Falls to Avalanche Lake Hike

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

My husband isn't a huge fan of hiking the same hike more than once, unless we are taking other people on the hike, like visitors or friends who haven't done said hike yet. But most of the time we are hiking just the two of us, so we rarely repeat hikes.

This particular day in mid-September, however, my husband decided we should earnestly try to hike to the top of Horsetail Falls in Desolation Wilderness. Our first time "hiking" Horsetail Falls was in May 2013. The second time was in April 2015 when friends Chad & Shannon made their inaugural visit to Tahoe. The third time was when my parents came out to visit in June 2017. None of these resulted in making it to the top of the falls.

We've always hiked up to a certain point along Horsetail Falls, and then it got too steep and too sketchy with no obviously defined trail that we could easily follow, so we'd inevitably end up turning around about halfway up.

Well, not this time. In fact, as long as we had enough daylight, we'd hoped to make it a 12-mile round-trip trek, hiking all the way to Ropi Lake and then to Lake of the Woods, which we hadn't been to in many years. Not since we did a hiking tour of Echo-Lake of the Woods-Aloha with my cousin Pete when he came up to Tahoe from San Jose, CA, in August 2014.

Desolation Wilderness
Hike in Desolation Wilderness, August 2014

Lake of the Woods
Overlooking Lake of the Woods, August 2014

That was back when we were total hiking novices, too. Granted, we had age on our side, so we didn't have to care about much by way of difficulties or physical challenges. I just donned sneakers (not even legitimate hiking shoes) and hit the trail. And according to my notes, that hike with cousin Pete was "7 or 8 miles" round trip, so we weren't even tracking our hikes yet. Looking back on that hike, it was amazing and Pete's homemade jerky was the bomb, but it seemed to take ALL DAY. Fast-forward, almost 10 years and countless hikes later, a 7- or 8-mile hike isn't intimidating (unless it comes with over 3,000 ft of elevation gain).

Nowadays, I wouldn't say we're hiking experts, but I think we've graduated from being novices. We've gotten a number of hikes under our belts, we've invested in decent hiking shoes year after year, and we've adopted preferences for apparel and gear. Not to mention, we eventually started a blog about our hiking adventures, so that automatically makes us legit, right? 🤣

Ok, so back to this hike. To further demonstrate just how much of non-novices we clearly are, we encountered a few problems at the outset of this hike:

1) We didn't get going as early in the morning as we would have liked, and in fact, this hike may have fallen victim to our spontaneous let's-go-on-a-hike-today conversations that occur when we haven't even gotten out of bed yet.

2) Because we got a late start, that meant we'd be racing against daylight hours. It's possible that we were in denial that it was already September.

3) Because we got a late start, that meant that I'd only had time for breakfast, not lunch, so I packed snacks accordingly, but I had a feeling skipping lunch was going to come back to bite me on this hike.

4) Because we got a late start, that meant we would be more likely to encounter an afternoon storm. In the Sierra, especially when the temperatures are warm during the day, it is not uncommon for afternoon lightning and/or thunderstorms to develop. In our experience, these storms hardly produce much rain, especially by Midwest standards, but lightning is not something you want to mess with while you're out hiking.

As experts often do, we ignored the potential issues, threw caution to the wind, and headed to Twin Bridges Trailhead, anyway, and hoped for the best.

We thought luck was on our side when we scored an open parking space upon our arrival, and then we paid the day-use fee and grabbed our gear. Before we headed up the trail, I crammed a protein bar in my mouth and off we went.

We haven't done much in Desolation Wilderness since the Caldor Fire ravaged the area during the summer of 2021, either, so it was interesting (sad) to see so many scorched trees now.

Desolation Wilderness, 2013
Desolation Wilderness, 2013

Desolation Wilderness, 2023, after the 2021 Caldor Fire
Desolation Wilderness, 2023, after the 2021 Caldor Fire

Desolation Wilderness, 2013
Desolation Wilderness, 2013

Desolation Wilderness, 2023, after the 2021 Caldor Fire
Desolation Wilderness, 2023, after the 2021 Caldor Fire

Distant view of Horsetail Falls, Desolation Wilderness, 2013
Distant view of Horsetail Falls, Desolation Wilderness, 2013

Distant view of Horsetail Falls, Desolation Wilderness, 2023, after the 2021 Caldor Fire
Distant view of Horsetail Falls, Desolation Wilderness, 2023, after the 2021 Caldor Fire

At least Pyramid Creek was still running!

We ascended, making our way up alongside Horsetail Falls, like we had done a few times prior.

Then, this choose-your-own-adventure started to get sketchy, steeper, and much less defined, as we'd expected.

Aside from just needing to continue going up, with no real defined trail, we kept an eye out for cairns (stacks of rocks left by other hikers) to find the general route. Let's just say it was steep, rugged, cumbersome, slow-going, and our chances of making it to and from Lake of the Woods before dark were dwindling. Considering we'd only gone about 1.5 miles so far, we still had a distance to go to make the 6-mile trek all the way to Lake of the Woods.

About 2/3 of the way to the top of the falls, we came to a section of really steep slick rock that we had to traverse in order to continue. The more I tried to think through my "route" across this slick rock, the more fearful and paralyzed I became.

I've had very few instances during our hikes where I felt paralyzed with fear. After all, we successfully hiked to Angels Landing in Zion earlier this year, and people have died on that hike. But the steepness of the grade of this section of slick rock and the fact that there was nothing to grasp with my hands really got to me.

I told my husband I couldn't do it. I stood there. Frozen. He had already made his way across it and was now trying to coach me through it. I don't know how, but I eventually made it across and we continued our bouldering, scrambling climb.

Then we started to notice the dark clouds moving in over the ridge ahead.

A small group of hikers were descending and confirmed that a storm was blowing in, so we might want to proceed with caution.

We were getting so close to the top, we decided to continue hiking up. Then we started feeling sparse raindrops and hearing thunder in the distance. We just did not want to turn around after working so hard to climb the distance we'd gone so far.

As we crested the top, light rain continued to fall, and the sound of thunder got uncomfortably close.

Another solo hiker up there told us that Avalanche Lake was just a few hundred yards away, so we made that our destination instead. It wasn't much of a lake, but it was pretty.

Raindrops in Avalanche Lake, Desolation Wilderness
Raindrops in Avalanche Lake, Desolation Wilderness

We took a few photos as the wind and rain picked up and then started our descent.

A lightning rod in the middle of our steep terrain.

With the sparse rain that had been falling, I became quite concerned about rocks becoming wet and slippery on our steep route down. And then remembering I'd have to cross that treacherous section of slick rock, again. Only now, it was likely to also have a wet surface. Nothing like adding to my already-existent anxiety.

A few other hikers were also making their descent at the same time, so we were all trying to determine the safest routes, but yet making haste, as the storm was overhead. I (somehow) made it back across the slick rock section by kind of scooting diagonally down it on my bottom. I was so relieved to have gotten that behind me.

A little ways down from that, as the terrain was getting slightly less steep, I slipped on a wet boulder and fell. My bottom took the brunt of the impact, but I also hit the heel of both palms pretty solidly on the rough rock. Luckily, I had my thumbs through the thumbholes of my shirt, so much of my hands were protected when I fell. But I figured I would feel it in the morning.

Doesn't look like much in the photos, but it's a lot more beat up than I usually get on our hikes!

This was a rough hike in more ways than one! Physically demanding, mentally challenging, and also having to end the hike sooner than we wanted after all that work was painful. But I am sure it was the right safety decision given the weather conditions.

We'll have to decide whether to attempt this same route again in the future and actually make it to Ropi Lake and Lake of the Woods. If we do, we'll know first-hand what we are in for next time. At least we can say we made it to the top of Horsetail Falls, finally!

Horsetail Falls/Avalanche Lake

Total Distance

4.42 mi

Total Time


Total Ascent

1,440 ft

Max Elevation

7,444 ft


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