Shirley Canyon’s waterfalls and deep pools

The cascading waterfalls of Squaw Creek. | Tim Hauserman

Spring to me is rushing water. There is something about the sheer power and raucous sound of water flowing over the granite of the Sierra Nevada that makes me feel that spring has arrived. While in many places it’s flowers that showcase the arrival of spring, here in the mountains the best flower displays don’t arrive until well into summertime. But now is the time to capture water at its frolicking, tumbling best. And one of the best places to see some of that water is the hike into Shirley Canyon.

Now is the time to capture water at its frolicking, tumbling best. And one of the best places to see some of that water is the hike into Shirley Canyon.

It had been a few years since I’d made my way up Shirley Canyon but a quick gander at a friend’s photos of her recent hike there reminded me that if you time it right, Shirley is the place to find rushing water. There are plenty of waterfalls and deep pools to ponder.

The Trail  4-miles roundtrip | Moderate | Hiking poles recommended | Dogs OK

We headed out on the 2-mile jaunt to Shirley Lake along Squaw Creek in Olympic Valley on a quiet Monday morning in mid-May. With the ski area still open at the time it was kind of bizarre to head out on a snow-free hike within a chairlift’s distance of the white stuff. High above our heads the Aerieal Tram made an appearance now and then.

While a 4-mile round trip sounds easy, this hike is certainly not a skip through the park. The climb is often bouldery and steep. If you use them, it’s a good idea to bring hiking poles. In places the meandering route can be a challenge to follow, but just follow the trusty blue paint marks on the rocks and you should be able to find your way. Following the markers will also prevent the route from becoming a half dozen use trails, which makes the experience less enjoyable for everyone.

Tim Hauserman

You can hear Squaw Creek on the entire route, and often you get to see the rushing water roaring by just a few feet away. In several places, short use paths bring you to flat granite boulders at the edge of waterfalls. These are perfect places to take a sit and enjoy the lovely sound of rushing water.

The best way to experience Shirley Canyon in the spring is to take your time, because there is plenty to look at. My partner Joyce likes to take photos of waterfalls, everyone, and there were plenty of those to keep her busy on the route. The trail meanders in the sunshine along the creek, and then occasionally gives you a break from the sun on brief forays into deep forest.

We finally encountered a few patches of snow near the bottom of the Silverado lift. From there the trail continues up a steep rock face then levels off before reaching Shirley Lake, a smallish shallow lake next to the Solitude chairlift.

If you prefer uphill to downhill, you could follow a use path from the side of Shirley Lake up to the top of the tram and then take the tram back to the valley. The tram ride down is free, but you will pay the price in an additional mile and a half of steep walking up a ski run to get there. Be sure to check that the Tram is open and the operating schedule before you venture all the way to the top. The Tram is open daily starting June 18.

While Shirley Lake is a good excuse to stop and take a breather, this is a hike where it is the journey rather than the destination that makes it fun. If you don’t have the time or inclination to make it to the lake, no worries, enjoy the falls and return to the trailhead.

Since this was a lighter than normal ski season, I wouldn’t dilly dally before taking on this hike. The good news is that while the water drops down rather quickly as the last of the snow melts, the wildflowers that we were too early to see when we visited will start popping up providing an awesome display. And perhaps if you wait until summer the water in those shallower pools will warm up enough to make dipping your body into them palatable.

The Shirley Lake Trailhead is located at the end of Squaw Peak Road in Squaw Valley. Be careful not to park next to one of the No Parking signs, although it is somewhat unclear where parking is allowed. If you are staying in the valley, just stroll on down to the start of the trail.

Local Waterfalls

Details on each at

Hope Valley area
Grover Falls
Silver Lake Potholes

Mount Rose
Galena Falls

South Shore
Cascade Falls
Modjeska Falls
Van Sickle Falls

Truckee area
Webber Falls

West Shore
Fontanillis Falls
McCloud Falls
Meeks Creek Falls