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Adventure of the week: Horsetail Falls is beautiful, but it can be a beast

One of the most popular hikes within easy driving distance from Sacramento -- about 90 minutes -- is Horsetail Falls, which gets crowded on weekends with day hikers and confused tourists. Right now, the Sierra snowmelt has the falls thundering into Pyramid Creek, which empties into the south fork of the American River. Nature combines it all for a spectacular sight.

But be warned: This is not a theme park. Each summer, bad things happen to the careless. During a recent hike, our hearts pounded as we watched a girl of about 10 boulder-hop along the edge of the roaring creek, her negligent parents standing nearby, smiling benignly. One slip and the child would have been swept away.

A little later, we learned that someone had slipped and fallen by the creek -- which is more like a river right now -- and had broken a leg. Coming down from the base of the falls, we counted 20 rescue personnel going up in search of the injured person. Later, in the parking lot, emergency vehicles from six area agencies were lined up.

"Murphy's Law seems to prevail and a lot of things can go south, so we can never overrespond when someone is injured," said John Truesdell of the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department's Search and Rescue team and the on-site commander of the operation. Finally, a California Highway Patrol helicopter came in and took the victim out.

Worst-case scenarios aside, the falls explode from the top of a canyon formed ages ago by glaciers. The trail to the falls ascends about 500 feet over two miles, and hikers have an easy go of it until they reach the point where the trail enters the Desolation Wilderness. (A sign marks the boundary; fill out the permit paperwork at the kiosk.)

The trail gets steeper and harder to follow from there to the base of the falls, so look for cairns (small piles of rocks that serve as trail markers). Some brave souls bushwhack to the top of the ridge above the falls, but we don't advise it because you can't beat gravity -- the drop would be fatal.

This is a mellow trail that passes over formations of ancient granite and stands of twisted manzanita. It meanders through a little forest of fir, quaking aspen and vivid green ferns, and then takes off in a steep scramble over a jumble of rocks.

Soon you arrive at the base of the waterfall for a grand payoff of dramatic vistas and lots of whitewater. Bring a picnic but not a bathing suit. And don't drink the water.

GETTING THERE: From Sacramento, take Highway 50 east. A couple of miles past the Strawberry Lodge is the sign for Twin Bridges. A couple hundred yards past that, look for the turn lane and pull into the parking lot on the left.

There is a $3 parking fee at a self-service kiosk.

TIP: Arrive early, as the lot fills quickly on weekends and there is no other handy parking.