Explore 5 Splendorous American Waterfalls

“There is a waterfall in every dream.  Cool and crystal clear, it falls gently on the sleeper, cleansing the mind and soothing the soul.” – Virginia Allison

Why waterfalls?

Waterfalls offer great allure. They are mystifying, engaging, and offer peaceful places to contemplate nature and life. Like listening to music, they have moods. Some are loud and dramatic, while others are soft and emit tunes of comfort and solace. Some are easy to get to, yet others provide a physical challenge likened to competing in a tough race, with views of the falls providing a first-place prize. Mankind journeys to such places to become one with nature and himself, or to prove that he indeed can win.

Waterfalls, sometimes called cascades, are focal points of striking beauty. They occur where water tumbles steeply over a rocky ledge and forms a pool below. They can also occur where meltwater drops over the edge of an ice shelf or tabular iceberg. Waterfalls are carved by erosion, whereby soft material is washed away, leaving harder rock such as granite exposed. They can be the result of earthquakes, volcanos, glaciers, or landslides, and occur along faults in the earth.

There are hundreds of “significant” or major waterfalls located in the United States, but it’s impossible to get an exact count as the definition of “significant” is undefined. Niagara Falls, on the American and Canadian border, comes to mind as one of the most well-known. However, there are a great many others which should not be overlooked. Dedicated groups of travelers who chase waterfalls take great pleasure in the sights and sounds of water; appreciating falls which trickle to those displaying tremendous force.

Classifications of waterfalls in terms of significance is confusing. Some are judged by the average volume of water flow, or by other characteristics such as width or height of the falls. Each waterfall is unique in structure, composition, topography, height, width, and flow rate. There are many different types of falls which are described by how the water descends. Come along for a journey as we “chase” five splendorous American waterfalls. 

Classically beautiful Plunge Waterfall:

Lower Falls of Hills Creek, West Virginia, is a photo-worthy 63-foot plunge waterfall set in the scenic and ecologically diverse Monongahela National Forest. It is the second highest waterfall in West Virginia. Take a beautiful drive through the forest along the Appalachian Waters Scenic Byway to visit the “crown jewel” of the forest. The Falls of Hills Creek are tucked away on a narrow gorge off of the Highland Scenic Highway. Visitors can gain access to three waterfalls via a three-quarter mile long trail. The first 1,700 feet of the path is paved and offers wheelchair accessibility to the upper falls viewing platform. The trail descends into stairs and boardwalks. Visitors who see the 25-foot upper falls may continue on to the 45-foot middle falls, before arriving at a viewing platform in front of the famed lower falls. Expect a steep and strenuous climb to view the middle and lower falls. The falls are nestled in the thriving forest, among hard sandstone rocks which are richly covered in green moss. Soft layers of red shale erode from underneath the sandstone, creating a uniqueness to the falls. Interspersed wildflowers help to create peaceful vistas in the springtime. Over 40 different species have been identified along the trail and can be readily photographed. In the fall season, colorful trees come to life to create a vibrant backdrop for photography.

Dramatic Tiered Waterfall:

Yosemite Falls, California, is the tallest waterfall in the United States. It is located in the predominantly coniferous forest of Yosemite National Park, in California’s vast and strikingly beautiful Sierra Nevada mountain range of the Western United States. The vivid waterfall boasts a dramatic vertical drop of 2,425 feet from the top of the upper fall to the base of the lower fall. Most of the trees near Yosemite Falls are evergreen and maintain attractiveness year-round. However, it’s optimal to visit in late spring when water is at peak flow. Otherwise, the falls may cease to run at other times of the year. The grandiose Yosemite Falls is a tiered waterfall comprised of three sections; the Upper Yosemite Fall, Middle Cascades, and Lower Yosemite Fall. The dramatic upper fall portion is formed by the rapid waters of Yosemite Creek. The middle is a series of five smaller plunges stuck between the two main obvious ones. Lower Yosemite Fall is the final drop. The plunge pool at the base of the lower falls is slippery and rock climbing in and around the falls is extremely dangerous. Visitors can gaze at Yosemite Falls from numerous places around Yosemite Valley, and from Yosemite Village and Yosemite Valley Lodge. For perfect photo ops, the one-mile trail leading to the base of the lower fall is recommended. The eastern side of the loop, from the shuttle stop to the base of the fall, is wheelchair accessible. The western path has a steeper grade. Upon approach, the roar of the falls is a most memorable sound, as it pours from the towering cliffs of glacial rock amidst the backdrop of alpine splendor. For real adventurers, Upper Yosemite Fall may be reached via a strenuous and steep 3.5 mile full-day hike. There are also many other waterfalls to explore in Yosemite, making the area a paradise for those who enjoy chasing waterfalls.

Photogenic Plunge Waterfall:

Havasu Falls, Arizona, is inarguably one of the loveliest falls in the United States, set amongst a colorful burnt orange strata of rock. Once you reach the falls, you’ll pinch yourself to make sure you’re not in Heaven. The scenic falls features a steady moving clear flow of water which cascades into a dreamy bluish-green pool. The water flows out of limestone to create the pleasing hue. The color is so vibrant, and the setting so serene, that visitors imagine they’ve been dropped into a colorful motion picture. The waterfalls carved out large plunge pools are clear and deep. This gem is hidden in the Havasupai Indian Reservation in Grand Canyon National Park, in a remote canyon offshoot. The falls consist of one main chute that drops over an intense 90-foot vertical cliff into a series of plunge pools. A trip here needs to be planned well in advance due to avoid weather extremes and monsoon season. Havasu Falls is difficult to reach by foot, requiring a drive to the Hualapai Hilltop, along with a 10-mile hike to the falls. Or, one may take a helicopter to the town of Supai. Horses and mules are also available from Hualapai Hilltop to Supai and the campground. Visitors are required to reserve permits prior to their travel to the Havasupai Indian Reservation and are to be respectful of the land and falls.

Camera-friendly Horsetail Waterfall:

Ramona Falls, Oregon, is a horsetail falls located on the upper Sandy River on the west side of Mount Hood. This type of fall descends yet maintains some type of contact with bedrock as it flows. Ramona Falls consists of cascading falls which flow over the remnants of a columnar basalt lava flow. The waterfall is located deep in the forest along the Pacific Crest Trail, a long-distance hiking and equestrian trails closely aligned with the highest portion of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain ranges. Chasers may take a 7-mile loop trail to the falls, which was once considered a moderate hike. Unfortunately, due to a thunderstorm in the summer of 2014, the bridge over the Sandy River washed out. Thus, today, it is considered a difficult and dangerous hike. According to the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, a bridge will not be installed to provide access to Ramona Falls. Hikers must use extreme caution at the river crossing due to swift and strong currents. Those fortunate to see the falls will be in awe of the 120-foot waterfall. The underlying rocks are spread out in step-like formations. As the water moves over them, the flow expands in a vivid webbed fashion and creates a unique lacey pattern. Delicate greenery surrounds the waterfall and can be found along the hike loop. One will journey through a moss covered forest, across an open river, and over a quaint meandering creek along the waterfall’s looped trail.

Enchanting Double Waterfall:

Wailua Falls, Hawaii, is one of the most scenic falls in the tropical state of Hawaii. In the late 70’s, the colorful waterfalls gained notoriety when featured on the opening credits of the American television series “Fantasy Island.” Located on the rainy Island of Kauai, the 173-foot double waterfall feeds into the Wailua River. The actual height of the falls is disputed, with some locals and experts claiming that it is only 80-feet tall. The waterfall was once known asWaiehu, meaning “spraying water.” Ancient Hawaiians attempted to prove their manhood by diving off the top of the falls, a dangerous and currently prohibited action. Wailua Falls is a popular tourist attraction due to the vivid rainbows created by the spray from the falls. When the sun is at the right angle, a rainbow rises from the misty base of the falls and culminates in a colorful visual display. This provides a desirable photo-op and awesome sight to behold. Admirers of the falls also enjoy seeing the enchanting double waterfalls. However, the appearance of the falls is dependent upon the flow. When forceful, it may look a rushing single fall. The parking lot overlooks the dreamy focal point and provides scenic views for all ages to enjoy from a safe vantage point. Or, adventurers may gain unique perspectives aboard a helicopter or small airplane to observe scenic aerial views of the falls. There is no official trail to the base of the falls, and the rocks are quite slippery, thus it is ill-advised. Hawaii is home to many spectacular falls. With a vast choice, it’s hard to decide which ones to explore. However, an early morning visit to Wailua Falls will quickly assure visitors that they’ve made the right choice. Surrounded in lush vegetation and bright blue sky, the downward rush of water is perfectly framed as a magical focal point to this post-card worthy destination.

Travel tips for chasing waterfalls:

  • Due to the remote locations of a significant number of waterfalls, long hikes or steep climbs may be necessary to reach viewing areas.
  • Travelers should note the accessibility of the falls and understand the physical capabilities required to get to viewing areas.
  • Check weather conditions and heed travel warnings before beginning a hike.
  • Do your homework. Plan your trip well and in advance.
  • Note whether there are entry fees.
  • Get an early start to avoid hiking during nightfall.
  • Always let someone know where you are exploring and what time you are expected to return.
  • Wear appropriate footwear and clothing.
  • Use restrooms before heading out.
  • Lock your car and keep valuables out of sight.
  • When hiking, remain on the trails as erosion is common on land surrounding waterfalls.
  • Respect nature at all times; plants are delicate and wildlife is protected.
  • Plan your trip to avoid heavy rainy season or other conditions which could cause jeopardy.
  • For maximum beauty, seek optimal times to explore waterfalls. It’s best to see them at their peak flow and when seasonal blooms are most showy.
  • Note that stairs and footings along the trails may be steep and slippery. Whenever possible use handrails.
  • Carry drinking water and healthy snacks if required. Carry all trash out with you.
  • Rest often if needed.
  • Read and obey signage along the way.
  • Stay back from the edge.
  • Use caution crossing rivers or streams. Understand that currents may be strong. Do not take unnecessary risks.
  • Never jump of dive off of a waterfall.
  • Carry a map and compass if possible.
  • Remember that if you walk downhill, you must come back up. Turn back if you are uncomfortable proceeding.

Types of waterfalls one may observe:

  • Block: Water descends from a wide river or stream.
  • Cascade: Water descends in a series of rock steps.
  • Cataract: Large and powerful waterfall.
  • Chute: A large quantity of water forced through a narrow, vertical passage.
  • Classical: Ledge waterfalls where fall height is nearly equal to stream width and makes a vertical square shape.
  • Curtain: Ledge waterfalls which descend over a height larger than the width of falling water stream.
  • Fan: Water spreads horizontally and still maintains contact with bedrock.
  • Frozen: Waterfalls with elements of ice and snow. 
  • Horsetail: Flow maintains some contact with bedrock.
  • Ledge waterfall: Water descends vertically over a vertical cliff, maintaining some contact with the bedrock.
  • Moulin: A waterfall in a glacier.
  • Multi-step: Waterfalls one after the other which are similar in size and each with a sunken plunge pool.
  • Plunge: Fast moving water that descends vertically and loses complete contact with the bedrock surface.
  • Punchbowl: Water descends and that spreads out into a wider pool.
  • Ribbon: Water descends over a long narrow strip.
  • Slide: Water glides down maintaining continuous contact.
  • Segmented: Separate flows as it descends.
  • Tiered: Water drops in a series of distinct steps of roughly the same size and each with its own sunken plunge pool.

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