SOUTH LAKE TAHOE -- It got its name after someone compared the shape of its path and its flow to the tail of a horse, says Don Lane, a U.S. Forest Service recreation officer who knows the South Tahoe backcountry and its history like no other.
A day hike to the top of Horsetail Falls is a spectacular journey into the Sierra Nevada, but it is hard work. The hike, off Highway 50 at Twin Bridges, takes longer than it looks.
It involves negotiating slick granite boulders and a trail that's easy to lose. For years, unprepared people have forced middle-of-the-night search-and-rescue missions by the sheriff's department. Some hikers have died after falling or drowning.
Last season, with snowmelt feeding the current, a woman was swept away by the river beneath the falls. Her husband told deputies that she was trying to photograph the flowing water. Her body was recovered months later.
This year, signs are posted along the trail warning hikers to be careful when approaching the water. It is cold and swift. Even dogs can become victims.
"Be cautious," Lane said. "Those are frigid cold waters, just about freezing, thundering down at tremendous velocity. Dogs that jump into a pool of water can get blasted down stream."
The Pyramid trailhead, just off Highway 50 at Twin Bridges, leads to Horsetail Falls. On the trail, about a mile in from the highway, is the start of Desolation Wilderness -- 63,000 acres where motors and campfires are banned.
A combination of things makes Horsetail such a popular hike. The falls are visible from Highway 50. Vacationers who drive to Tahoe from Sacramento almost always notice them. Horsetail is also an entrance to Desolation, the most heavily used wilderness in the country.
The hike, on average, takes more than two hours each way. Go north of the top of the falls to find the Garden of Eden-like terrain that leads to Ropi Lake or Lake of the Woods.
"Horsetail advertises itself every day," Lane said. "People ... make those S turns, and right there at 12 o'clock is a huge waterfall cascading down a sheer cliff."
Horsetail Falls musts
-- Bring water/snacks
-- Wear boots with ankle support and traction; no sandals or flip-flops
-- Allow plenty of daylight to complete the hike
-- Bring a light jacket, dry T-shirt, proper clothing
-- Bring sunscreen and mosquito repellent
-- Bring a map of the area
Source: U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit