The South Fork of the Yuba River is known for its picturesque pools of emerald-hued water pouring over age-worn granite boulders in a forested valley with few roads. One of the more dramatic stretches of the river can be found at an area known as Emerald Pools, which lies just below Lake Spaulding. With a trail accessing the area's slot canyons, waterfalls, and pools, this portion of the South Yuba is a popular hiking area that also serves as a swimming hole destination during the warmer months.
Depending on the flow of water being released from the reservoir dam just 2 miles upriver at the base of Lake Spaulding, the size and intensity of the waterfalls at Emerald Pools can vary greatly, from a roaring and vertigo-inducing flood during the spring to a shallow trickle late in the summer.
Reaching any of the falls requires some scrambling over rocks and scree and following a trail that is nearly invisible in many sections. It is best to have an idea as to the direction you need to be heading and keep an eye out for signs of the route taken by previous hikers. Although the distance to each of the falls is fairly short mileage-wise, the route to reach them has some steep sections and, with numerous stops for wayfinding, can make for a slow hike. The impressive series of waterfalls lie along a 3/4-mile stretch of river. This section starts at a steep, narrow canyon just beyond a granite butte to the west (downriver) from the trailhead. From here, getting to the Upper Falls requires climbing a large rock-covered hill and then carefully climbing down loose stone and water eroded boulders to reach the best views.
The Middle and Lower Falls further downstream are easier to reach, but they still require some scrambling and route finding. You know you're getting close when you've reached a flat area in the forest with some small fire rings. Spring is a nice time to hike in to avoid crowds and catch sight of the highest flow over the falls.
Entering the water at Emerald Pools is dangerous, particularly in spring or early summer when snowmelt and runoff is high. People have died jumping and sliding down the waterfalls and getting trapped beneath the cold flow. The volume of water released from Lake Spaulding can change instantly, and late-season lower water levels mean underwater boulders are hazardously close to the surface. Be aware of conditions. There are no amenities of any kind at the trailhead.