The hidden beauty of Glen Alpine Springs
Above Lake Tahoe’s Fallen Leaf Lake are several scenic spots that aren’t quite as famous as some of the lake’s other landmarks, such as Emerald Bay and Eagle Falls.
They include two of the more accessible waterfalls in the area — Big Falls (also known as Lower Glen Alpine Falls) and Modjeska Falls (also called Upper Glen Alpine Falls) — as well as an historic resort known as Glen Alpine Springs.
The falls are part of the Glen Alpine Creek system, a snowmelt and spring-fed stream that flows into Fallen Leaf Lake and eventually into Lake Tahoe via Taylor Creek.
Fallen Leaf Lake is a picturesque body of water that rivals Lake Tahoe in beauty. In fact, if not for a fluke of nature, namely a small stretch of land that separates Fallen Leaf from Tahoe, the area could easily have been another Emerald Bay.
Fallen Leaf Lake is located five miles west of Highway 89, immediately north of Camp Richardson on Lake Tahoe’s southwest shore. A marked and paved road is located directly across the highway from the entrance to the U.S. Forest Service Visitors Center and Tallac Historic Site.
The U.S. Forest also operates a developed camping area at the northeast end of Fallen Leaf Lake. The entrance to the 206-unit campground, which is open from May to October, is located about a quarter of a mile north of Fallen Leaf Lake Road, off Highway 89.
The drive from the highway to the lake is pleasant, passing through large pine trees. About three miles from the turnoff, you travel by a lovely aspen grove and open meadow, both of which are spectacular in the fall, when the aspen leaves have turned gold.
The road narrows as it reaches the east end of the lake and, after passing into a residential area, you catch your first glimpse of the lake. As you drive, you can see incredible scenery, including Cathedral Peak (the southern shoulder of Mount Tallac) rising over the lake, its 9,785-foot crown mirrored in the lake’s crystal waters.
It is the “mirror effect” of Fallen Leaf Lake that makes the view so remarkable. Rather than enclosing the lake, the reflection of the surrounding mountains seems to enlarge the scene.
While much of the lake is private property, you can continue to drive to the lake’s west end where, in the summer months, Fallen Leaf Lodge offers accommodations and a marina. In the winter, the lodge is closed but you can park and enjoy the marvelous views.
About a half mile from the end of the road, which comes to a dead end, you can turn west on another narrow (all the roads around here are extremely narrow, so be careful while driving) paved road, lined by large log railings.
This road leads to Lily Lake, a trailhead for hiking into the Desolation Wilderness and to the pair of waterfalls. Frankly, even if Fallen Leaf Lake didn’t exist, the waterfalls would be worth a visit. The joyous, rolling waves of falling water are an impressive and unexpected sight.
The first waterfall you reach, before arriving at Lily Lake, is aptly named Big Falls, a 75-foot spill that cascades over rock slabs that resemble steps.
While the falls aren’t nearly as large as 500-foot Horsetail Falls (which are located at the south end of the Desolation Wilderness, visible from U.S. 50, near Twin Bridges), they are, nonetheless, impressive and beautiful.
You can park off the road here and hike down to the base of the waterfall. From the top, the view of the rapidly cascading water as it falls down the lush canyon is noteworthy. Across the creek, you can also see private homes — people fortunate enough to be able to look out on the waterfall any time they want.
The road continues west, paralleling Glen Alpine Creek, for another mile or so to Lily Lake. Opposite the creek, parallel to the road, is a jumbled mountainside of loose boulders and stones, wonderful for casual rock hopping.
A concrete bridge marks the end of the driving portion of the road. On the north side of the bridge, you can park and hike a short distance to Lily Lake, a small but photogenic lake literally cupped in the mountains.
The main Glen Alpine Trail leads northwest from here into the Desolation Wilderness and onto Glen Alpine Springs, an historic mineral spring resort, located about a mile west.
An easy half-mile walk from Big Falls is Modjeska Falls, a smaller but equally scenic spillway. Here, you’ll find craggy cliffs surrounding a robust 30-foot waterfall. A trail leads to the base of the falls.
Modjeska Falls is named after Madame Helena Modjeska, a famous Polish actress of the late 19th century who performed at Glen Alpine Springs in 1885. Those who attended the show were so taken with her performance that they named the nearby falls in her honor.
Continuing past Modjeska Falls, it’s only another half-mile to Glen Alpine Springs. Nathan Gilmore discovered the namesake mineral springs, originally called “Soda Springs,” here in 1863.
In 1884, Gilmore developed a renowned resort, which included a 16-room hotel, around the restorative powers of the springs, He also began bottling and selling the spring’s water.
A fire destroyed most of the original buildings in 1921, but the resort was rebuilt two years later using designs by famed architect Bernard Maybeck (he also designed San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts).
Maybeck and his family summered at Glen Alpine Springs, so he was willing to help rebuild the resort following the fire. Between 1921 and 1929, he prepared plans for some 10 buildings, four of which were actually built and remain in use today.
The Maybeck buildings include the Assembly Hall, the Kitchen building, a Dining Hall and the Bubblestone Cabin, an experimental concrete building that is considered one-of-a-kind. The buildings are noteworthy because of their extensive use of native materials, particularly local stone.
Glen Alpine Springs Resort closed in the 1960s and was acquired by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1970s. Today, a nonprofit organization manages the property and helps to preserve the buildings.
Glen Alpine Springs is open to the public during the summer months and can only be reached by walking. The Assembly Hall serves as an Interpretive Center that is open on weekends from June to late September.
For information about hiking to Glen Alpine Springs, go to http://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/california/glen-alpine-springs-resort-trail.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.