Best Waterfalls In America

August 1, 2003
Filed under Camping Destinations, Midwest Camping, National Parks, Northeast Camping, Southeast Camping, Southwest Camping, West Camping

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Our Number One waterfall is that by which all others are rated and measured — Niagara Falls. Even though Niagara is partly in Canada and the U.S., it still makes the top of our list. Other waterfalls are sometimes billed as the “Niagara” of the west or south or whatever, but there is only one Niagara Falls. There are reasons it’s the basis for comparison. It’s huge, magnificent and breathtaking. In every sense Niagara has all the characteristics of a “best” waterfall.

Niagara is a triple falls — Horseshoe on the Canadian side and Rainbow and Bridal Veil on the U.S. side. Horseshoe and Rainbow are impressive. The Canadian Horseshoe Falls plunges 170 feet into the Maid of the Mist Pool. On the American side (Rainbow) the water plunges at a range of from 70 to 110 feet to the rock at the base of the falls. To get an idea of the volume of Niagara Falls, consider that more than 6 million cubic feet of water go over the falls every minute during peak daytime tourist hours.


Our pick for Number Two waterfall is Yosemite Falls in Yosemite Valley, California. We are combining the Upper and Lower into one falls although both in their own right would make our 10 Best list. Yosemite Falls has a combined height of 1750 feet (Upper at 1430 feet and Lower at 320 feet) and is set against the magnificent backdrop of Yosemite National Park. Although Yosemite Falls does not hold the same volume yearlong (most waterfalls do not), it makes up for any lack of volume during the spring.

According to G. Donald Bain, the Director of Geography and Computing, University of California, Berkeley, “Yosemite Falls dominates most views from the upper part of Yosemite Valley’s floor… To best appreciate it, though, one should take the trail that zigzags up through the oak forest behind Camp Four then cuts diagonally across over Columbia Point. The trail rounds a corner and brings one suddenly face to face with the thundering falls, on a level with its base.” Bain maintains a website devoted to waterfalls of the American west.


The waterfall making our Number Three rating is Multnomah Falls in Oregon’s Columbia Gorge. From either side of Columbia Gorge, you can see the stately column that is Multnomah Falls as it plunges 620 feet from high moss-clad cliffs to the river below. The falls actually spills down in two tiers, the first 542 feet, the second 68 feet high. A pedestrian bridge crosses in front of the top of the lower level, so close that you’ll get damp walking by. Multnomah Falls is a short drive east of Portland on Interstate 84.

Bridal Veil

Our Number Four waterfall is Bridal Veil Falls, also in Yosemite National Park. Bridal Veil — a popular name for waterfalls — softly plunges 620 feet. Again, according to Bain, “Almost as famous as Yosemite Falls, this is the falls that travelers arriving from the south see first. That first view of the valley, the impossibly perfect postcard view from the Wawona Tunnel, is one of the most famous in California, made even more dramatic by the way one bursts suddenly upon it from the darkness of the tunnel.”

Nevada and Vernal

Another waterfall in Yosemite making our Top 10 list at Number Five is Nevada Falls. The Merced River contains a series of falls — Nevada, Vernal and Illilouette. Vernal Falls is our Number Six waterfall. So we will lump Nevada and Vernal together. Bain describes this area of Yosemite National Park, which contains Nevada and Vernal falls as “one of the best day hikes in Yosemite (or, for that matter, the world). Take the Panorama Trail from Glacier Point down past Illilouette Falls, along the edge of Panorama Cliff to the top of Nevada Falls, then down the Mist Trail past Vernal Falls to Happy Isles. Arrange a car shuttle, or take the bus, so you can do this one way (downhill) — the trail drops more than 3500 feet in altitude.”

Nevada Falls at 594 feet tall is a beautiful waterfall. There is a deep green pool just above the falls in which hikers wade and sometimes swim despite the warning signs that state clearly, “If you slip and go over the waterfall you will die.” Vernal Falls, whose name means ‘springtime’ is 317 feet high. The valley below is kept ‘spring-like’ by the mist of the falls.


Yellowstone Falls is our Number Seven waterfall. Again we are combining an upper and lower portion into one, even though they’re not close together. The Lower Falls — 308 feet high — can be viewed from the roadside or by hiking short distances. Uncle Tom’s Trail provides a unique, up-close view, of this grand display. The Upper Falls drops 109 feet and can also be viewed from the roadside or from the end of a 1/8-mile hike. Upper Falls is a magnificent display at the head of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone — it’s often overlooked because of its more dramatic downstream sibling. Sandwiched between Upper and Lower Falls is the tiny but beautiful and often forgotten waterfall — the graceful Crystal Falls.


Next on our Top 10 list at Number Eight is Snoqualmie Falls in Washington, located approximately 25 miles east of Seattle. Snoqualmie plunges 286 feet from the Snoqualmie River into a 65-foot-deep pool. Its volume fluctuates throughout the year, but Snoqualmie Falls is one of Washington State’s most popular scenic attractions. There is an observation platform 300 feet above the Snoqualmie River, a restaurant and a luxurious lodge for guests.

When enjoying the falls from the park, visitors may not be aware of the two power plants under the falls. The power plants provide 41,990 kilowatts of electricity, enough energy to serve 16,000 homes. Built in 1898, they were truly an engineering marvel, requiring excavation through solid rock. Both the National Register of Historic Places and the American Society of Civil Engineers have recognized Snoqualmie’s Plant 1 site as an historic landmark. It was the world’s first completely underground electric generating facility. Nearly a century after start up, the four original Plant 1 generators are still producing power. Even though Snoqualmie Falls is highly developed, the size and the history associated with its power plants make this falls notable.


Washington State is also the location of the Number Nine waterfall — Rainbow Falls. Rainbow is a popular name for a waterfall — there are at least four in Washington State alone. This Rainbow Falls is near Stehekin on Lake Chelan. Part of the attraction of Rainbow Falls is the surrounding environment. Stehekin is a remote wilderness village, located at the head of 55-mile-long Lake Chelan. Surrounded by the mountain peaks of North Cascades National Park, Rainbow Falls is not accessible by road. Because of the sheer walls surrounding Lake Chelan, the only way in and out of Stehekin is by boat, floatplane or by foot. About 80 people live year-round in Stehekin, many of them descendents of the original pioneer families who settled the area more than a century ago.

Rainbow Falls is accessible to hikers from one of several trails in the area. The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail passes through the North Cascades National Park near Rainbow Falls. From Chelan along U.S. Highway 97 visitors can either take a toll ferry for the 55-mile trip up Lake Chelan to Rainbow Falls, or charter a float plane. The Lake Chelan Boat Company operates several boats with a variety of schedules.


To locate our Number Ten waterfall, one must look to the southeast. Eastern waterfalls are different critters than their western relatives, mainly because of the contrast in terrain between the two sections of the country. While the majority of our Top 10 waterfalls are in the western part of the country, an area characterized by rugged and rocky mountains, only two are located in the eastern section of the country.

Cumberland Falls lies in south-central Kentucky and is referred to as the “Niagara of the South.” It has a special distinction that qualifies it for our top ten list. Cumberland Falls is 60 feet tall and about 120 feet wide. That hardly qualifies it as a large waterfall, but it flows year-round and is impressive for its form and surroundings. However, the feature that makes Cumberland Falls most distinctive is its moonbow. Cumberland is claimed by many to be the only waterfall in the Western Hemisphere that regularly exhibits a moonbow on clear nights with a full moon. Check out the Kentucky State Park website for a schedule of moonbows.

Honorable Mentions

There are two other waterfalls that are just too good to pass up: Palouse Falls in Washington and Havasu Falls in Arizona. Long ago in Washington State, glacial floods formed a series of waterfalls along the Palouse River before it entered the Snake River. Palouse Falls, with a height of 198 feet, is the only one that remains today and is most spectacular in the spring and early summer. The landscape around Palouse Falls makes this waterfall an honorable mention. The Palouse River chiseled out a path along the moon-like landscape of the area creating a stark contrast with its surroundings. It is a picturesque waterfall located in a very rugged and unique portion of eastern Washington. Palouse Falls State Park is located along Washington State Highway 261 near Lyons Ferry State Park on the Snake River.

The two major attractions of Arizona’s Havasu Falls are its setting and the difficulty in getting to it. Havasu Falls is located in Havasu Canyon, which is a part of the Grand Canyon. The Havasupai (Native Americans) own this remote area. The hiking trail to Havasu Falls is 22 miles roundtrip; 8 miles one-way to the village of Supai and another 3 miles one-way to the falls and primitive campground.

Supai is a remote village and is home to some 500 Havasupai Indians. All their supplies (including the mail) are brought in by helicopter or horseback. Upon arrival in Supai, stop by the visitor center and pay the entrance fee for the privilege of hiking another three miles into the canyon to the campground and waterfalls. There are four waterfalls in the canyon — Navajo Falls, Havasu Falls, Mooney Falls (twice as high as Havasu), and Beaver Falls. We selected Havasu Falls rather than one of the others because of its setting and beauty — towering cliffs, lush landscape and an awesome waterfall plunging into a blue-green pool. For more details on this waterfall adventure, see Donna Ikenberry’s “Havasu Falls, Arizona” Weekender on page 52 of this issue.

While there are no doubt many beautiful waterfalls not included in our Top 10 list, all of those selected have in common some type of camping facilities conveniently located nearby, allowing you to enjoy the majesty of their dancing waters on your next camping trip.


reat waterfalls inspire viewers. For photo buffs, they offer stunning subjects. A hike to a waterfall provides a powerful reward for the miles walked. Hypnotically alluring, a waterfall can transform a simple campout into a long-anticipated and remembered outdoor adventure. We decided to review hundreds of nominees from around the United States to choose our top 10 waterfalls.

Several elements went into our decision to select one waterfall over another: magnitude (force of the water), volume, height, width, location and seasonality. We also didn’t eliminate a waterfall simply because it was hard to get to. On the contrary, some of our waterfalls made the list because of their remoteness. In addition, each one has hospitality facilities of one sort or another close enough to make these waterfalls superb camping destinations.

Bain’s Waterfall Website: geoimages.berkeley.edu/Waterfalls.html

Waterfalls of the Pacific Northwest:

Niagara Falls Visitor & Convention Bureau, New York:
800/421-5223; www.nfcvb.com

Yosemite National Park, California:
209/372-0200; nps.gov/yose

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming:
307/344-7381; nps.gov/yell

Snoqualmie Falls, Washington:

Rainbow Falls (Lake Chelan), Washington:
800/4-CHELAN; lakechelan.com
509/682-4584; ladyofthelake.com

Havasu Falls (Grand Canyon), Arizona:
National Park Service, 928/638-7888; nps.gov/grca
Grand Canyon Explorer; kaibab.org/supai/gc_supai.htm

Cumberland Falls, Kentucky:
800/325-0063; state.ky.us/agencies/parks/cumbfal2.htm

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