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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Tahoe National Forest: Heath Falls


This hike begins at some lovely mountain lakes near Soda Springs, about 88 miles from Sacramento on Interstate 80. The book California Hiking mentioned that you have to take a dirt road to the trail head, but it didn't say anything about the condition of the dirt road. I downloaded a map for this hike from, but failed to read the description of the hike on that site. Had I done so I would have been aware that this road is best suited for high clearance four wheel drive vehicle. My wheels were spinning at one point on the way out, and one point on the way back. I made it, but I would not take my Metro on this road again.

I got to a warming hut that had a map on it and decided to verify that I was going the right way, as the directions from California Hiking had not been accurate to that point. As I was there a couple came hiking up the road and I asked them if I was headed the right way to the Palisades Creek Trail, and if there was a parking lot up ahead. They told me I was headed the right way, but the road was impassable up ahead. So I hiked down the road from there. I immediately saw what they were talking about--just one small section so rough that I would not have wanted to try it.

But there were 5 SUVs at the official trail head (signed Palisades Creek Trail), and another that joined them as I was walking by. More surprising was a Ford Focus parked there.

From the trail head I took a short, steep hike down to a dam separating the upper and lower Cascade Lakes. I walked across the dam and across a bridge over a spillway to the trail that was signed with various destinations and distances.

Devils Peak

There seems to be some confusion about this hike. California Hiking (2001-2002 edition) lists the distance as 10 miles round trip, and refers to the spur at the end as Heath Falls Overlook Trail. The map that I downloaded from indicates that it is a 13.6 mile round trip. I read the description of the hike from that website when I got home, and it said it was a 12.8 mile hike. At the trail head there is no mention of an overlook of Heath Falls, but the Heath Springs Overlook is listed at being 7 miles away, for a 14 mile round trip. In my judgment, it's at least 12.8 miles, and possibly longer.

Across the lakes, the hike starts climbing. Devils Peak looms on the right, and at points there are nice views of Long Lake to the left, and the mountains behind it. This is mostly open granitic terrain, so occasionally it's hard to pick up the trail, but there were plenty of cairns, and even when I briefly got off trail I soon found myself back on it.

After climbing up, I started down and passed through a pleasing variety of environments, crossing a few creeks, going through forest, and even seeing a couple of meadows. This is very much unlike my other visits to the North Fork American River, which have all been on short steep trails.

The trail doesn't seem to get much usage, although the Sacramento Hiking Meetup group from had an outing there the day before I went. I didn't see anybody on the way out, although I saw two tents down below on the opposite shore of Long Lake. And the trail was overgrown in places-it was still easy to see the path on the ground, but I had to push through branches of bushes a few times.

There are two markers to let you know how far you are along the trail, both bridges. The first bridge just crossed a dry creek bed that must be flowing early in the season (or at this time of year in a year with more snow). The other crosses a lovely creek that I came to the edge of a ways before the bridge. In fact, when the trail appeared to come up to the creek, I rock hopped across it. Finding no trail on the other side, I looked back and saw the trail continued along that side.

Shortly after crossing the second bridge I hit the junction with the trail to . . . whatever that trail is there for. I thought it was for an overlook of Heath Falls. The junction was just marked with three cairns. I turned left, and the trail became indistinct, but a sign nailed to a tree reassured me with the words "Heath Falls."

The trail was not distinct, but was easy enough to follow by just keeping a sharp eye out. Then I came up to trees all marked with signs saying this was private property and any trespasser would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I wasn't expecting that. I figured that this just meant I shouldn't leave the trail (or camp, of course). Unfortunately, it was not so easy to stay on the trail.


I got to a point where I could catch glimpses of the waterfall through the trees, but I was looking for this overlook point that California Hiking mentioned, even though I had already gone at least a mile, and the book said it would be 1/2 mile from the junction. Again, had I read the description before I made the hike, I would have been prepared for this. All you get for an overlook is a view through the trees. It's dramatic, but challenging to photograph.

The trail was really obscure and difficult as I continued, with trees overgrowing it, and rock slides covering it. I did a lot of scrambling. Finally I got to a point at which the trail became clear and I started doing a lot of climbing. But by now I was well past the falls. I checked my map and saw there was a trail shown on it that continued upriver. Presumably I was just about at the Heath Springs Overlook. I went back, and once again had trouble following the trail. I ended up lower down the mountain than the trail. I could see that I could probably make a scramble down to the base of the falls at this point, but I was getting exhausted from scrambling already, and I had a long hike back. Compounding all this was the fact that I had left the burrito I was going to eat for lunch in the car, so I was without food for the whole hike.

I thought it more important to get back on the trail home at that point, and I did some mad scrambling up the side of the mountain, getting dirty and scratched. I was totally out of breath when I reached the trail again. I went back and found the best view I could through the trees, and took a photograph from there--not exactly what I had hoped for.

Heath Falls

Then I started my return. A ways after recrossing the second bridge, I encountered 3 hikers taking a rest on their way down. They asked me how far away the bridge was and about the trail to the mythical Heath Falls Overlook. They weren't encouraged by my answers.

20070624 Brain Berry?

I pushed on. I had a rock in one boot, and the other boot was cutting into my heel, and I was out of water in my primary canteen and needed to change my drinking hose to my secondary canteen. But I just kept pushing myself on until I hit that first bridge. At that point I knew I was making good time, and could afford to stop to take more photos.




I ran out of energy about a half hour after crossing that bridge, and just had to plod on from there. Back at the car, I got out of my boots as quickly as possible, as usual. I know that the guidelines for food safety would probably suggest that you avoid eating a steak and potato burrito that has been sitting in a car for 8 hours, but I devoured it at that point.

Hike Summary

Date: 24 June 2007
Trail head: Devils Lookout Warming Hut
Approximate distance: 13 miles?
Links: trail description, Sacramento Hikers Meetup group hike report

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