Hike into History | Cascade Lake & Falls

Cascade Lake in 1886. | Courtesy South Lake Tahoe Historical Society

Summer may be getting long in the tooth, but after the wettest winter of record some streams and waterfalls are still running strong. By their very nature, waterfalls suggest rugged topography, which can be challenging for families with young children. One notable exception to this rule is the scenic hike past Cascade Lake to the 100-foot waterfall that feeds it and provided the inspiration for its name. The turbulence and mist created during heavy stream flow exhilarated 19th Century visitors who called the roaring cascade Snow Falls or White Cloud Falls.

The turbulence and mist created during heavy stream flow exhilarated 19th Century visitors who called the roaring cascade Snow Falls or White Cloud Falls.

Due to relatively easy parking and a hike that is slightly more than 2 miles roundtrip, the trail to Cascade Falls is popular with families and sightseeing groups during the spring and summer months, especially on weekends. For those who get there early enough, free and convenient parking is located near the trailhead just above the Bayview Campground opposite Inspiration Point that overlooks Emerald Bay. Be forewarned that parking fills up fast on summer weekends. So to beat the crowds and the blistering sun that bakes the granite trail on hot afternoons, plan to arrive in the morning.

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The trail is fairly easy but rocky and can get slippery when wet. The beautiful scenery makes this a compelling Tahoe hike, but pay attention because the footing is tricky when sand and gravel coat the rocks. Sturdy walking shoes are recommended.

The trail closely follows the contour line along glacially polished granite so the elevation gain and loss is only about 300 feet. Near the falls there are flat rocks perfect for a picnic lunch with a view, but young children should be watched closely when near the water or the potentially deadly precipice that Cascade Creek roars over.

Cascade Lake is 170 feet deep and about 1 mile long and half a mile wide, the result of mountain glaciers that scooped out a granite basin close to the main body of Lake Tahoe. Cascade Lake and Emerald Bay were both formed by glaciers. The ridges that create these two basins are lateral moraines consisting of crushed and eroded rock pushed to the side by the advancing ice.

Emerald Bay is not a lake because the snout of the glacier breached through its terminal moraine and opened a gap to reach Tahoe water. The Cascade Lake glacier, however, didn’t have the mass or time to do the same and the terminal moraine was never breached. Fannette Island in Emerald Bay, the only island in Lake Tahoe, consists of obdurate rock that resisted the glacial scouring and forced the ice to flow around it.

Washo fished and hunted at Cascade Lake for thousands of years, long before intrepid fisherman and trapper Jimmie Walker built a sturdy stone cabin there in the 1870s. An internationally famous surgeon from San Francisco began buying up the land around Cascade Lake in the 1880s. Dr. Charles B. Brigham continued to expand his holdings, gaining ownership of Emerald Bay’s shoreline and further south to the border of Elias “Lucky” Baldwin’s property. Baldwin owned and operated the Tallac Hotel, a luxury hostelry and casino close to the beach. The guests frequented Cascade Lake on fishing outings. Dr. Brigham owned the lake and surrounding land, but continued to allow Baldwin’s hotel guests access to the water teeming with tasty Lahontan cutthroat and native trout.

Dr. Brigham built a four-bedroom summer home on a bluff overlooking Lake Tahoe, complete with a long pier for commercial steamer traffic. After Brigham’s death in 1903, his children and grandchildren took over the property. The family frequently stayed at Cascade Lake well after the start of the school year in September, so, in 1926 a young writer named John Steinbeck was hired as chauffeur and tutor. Over the next two years, Steinbeck wrote his first novel, “A Cup of Gold,” while caretaking the property.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Cascade Lake became a popular spot for movie directors looking to film in wilderness conditions. In 1930, Will Rogers starred in “Lightnin’” that was filmed at the lake with co-stars Jason Robards Sr. and Joel McCrea. In 1938, the movie “Rose Marie” with Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy took place at Cascade Lake, as did “A Place in the Sun” with Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters and Montgomery Clift in 1956.

Editor’s Note: Cascade Lake is a private community and there is no public access to the lake.