What is it about waterfalls? Few features on our grand and beleaguered Planet Earth so draw the human eye and fire the spirit. There’s some cocktail of tangible and intangible magic about these plunges, pour-offs, and streaming veils: the white-noise roar, the dancing mist-wraiths, the negative ions, the contrast of precipitous bedrock and gently wafting greenery nourished by a cool, moist microclimate.
Waterfalls of every shape and description pepper the diverse American river-scape, from the icefields of Alaska to the canyonlands of Utah. Here, we’re exploring some of the most notable falls in the U.S.
Niagara Falls | New York
Well, let’s get this mother of all North American waterfalls out of the way right from the start, shall we? Formed by the Niagara River’s boring through the Niagara Escarpment’s vast cuesta, this tremendous cataract frothing up the U.S.-Canada border conveys an average yearly flow of 85,000 cubic feet per second between its three constituent falls: Horseshoe (the biggest), American, and Bridal Veil. Relatively built-up and heavily controlled as it may be, Niagara Falls is nonetheless in a fluvial league of its own. (Resist the urge to experience it via barrel.)
Arethusa Falls | New Hampshire
This stunner of a horsetail sees Bemis Brook weep its way some 150-ish feet down a granite face in the heart of the White Mountains, the loftiest range in the Northern Appalachians. Arethusa Falls—the name nods to a Greek nymph—drops along the walls of Crawford Notch, and marks a scenic highlight of the Notch’s namesake state park. While not the tallest of New Hampshire’s waterfalls, Arethusa Falls may (as the World Waterfall Database observes(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre)) be the state’s loftiest single-drop falls; it’s certainly among the most gorgeous.
Great Falls of the Potomac | Maryland
More than a few Americans don’t realize a superlative waterfall lies within shouting distance of the nation’s capital. The Great Falls of the Potomac River(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) reign supreme as the D.C. area’s grandest natural feature. The rock-rimmed Potomac here bellows through a series of cascades and shallow falls, executing a 76-foot drop in about two-thirds of a mile. In the process, it tightens from 1,000 feet across to less than 100 feet in the Mather Gorge downstream. This is the most impressive gradient of any of the rapids and whitewater drops along the “Fall Line,” which defines the boundary between the old, hard rock of the Piedmont and the younger, softer material of the Atlantic Coastal Plain.
Cumberland Falls | Kentucky
They don’t call this the “Niagara of the South” for nothing: Surging at more than 4,000 cubic feet per second at typical peak flow, Cumberland Falls(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) ranks among the most voluminous waterfalls in the East. This handsome ledge waterfall—which has gnawed its way back into the Cumberland Plateau from a likely birthplace on the Pottsville Escarpment downstream—may exceed 200 feet wide at its heartiest. The wall of water in Cumberland Falls State Park is beautiful enough on its own, but its mists are also renowned for regularly generating lunar rainbows—aka “moonbows”—around the full moon.
Amicalola Falls | Georgia
Whether or not Amicalola Falls in North Georgia’s Blue Ridge truly spans 729 vertical feet as is widely touted is debatable (see, again, the World Waterfall Database(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre)). But there’s no question this epic tiered waterfall stands among the Southeast’s most impressively proportioned. The centerpiece of Amicalola Falls State Park(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) (a stone’s throw from the Appalachian Trail’s southern terminus), the great drop of Little Amicalola Creek offers up-close looks at the gushing chute and long-range views out to where the Southern Appalachians ease down to the Piedmont.
Hemmed-in-Hollow Falls | Arkansas
Amid the rugged blufflands of the Buffalo National River’s Ponca Wilderness, a single-drop streamer plummets into the amphitheater of Hemmed-in-Hollow. Though its flow gets mighty meager in dry periods, Hemmed-in-Hollow Falls is, at roughly 200 feet, among the tallest waterfalls between the Rockies and the Appalachians. Trek a tough route down from above or make the easier hike up from the free-flowing Buffalo River to appreciate this signature landmark of the Arkansas Ozarks.
Tahquamenon Falls | Michigan
One of the Midwest’s standout waterfalls, Tahquamenon Falls on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula owes its striking tannin-stained hue to the extensive conifer swamps it drains. The combination of that brownish sheet of water and the plentiful foam at its base explains the local nickname of “Root Beer Falls.” There’s an Upper and Lower Tahquamenon Falls; the Upper is the real heavy-hitter, 200 feet across and nearly 50 feet tall. Snowmelt-primed peak spring flow is awesome at 50,000-plus gallons per second, but the other side of the calendar tempts with rich fall colors framing the sweeping river.
Kootenai Falls | Montana
Set amid the extensive Precambrian bedrock of northwestern Montana’s Belt Supergroup, Kootenai Falls ranks among the broadest and burliest waterfalls in the Lower 48. Fresh out of the tumult of China Rapids, the undammed Kootenai River here rushes down a series of plunges, including the main 30-foot drop most memorably viewed (by the steely-nerved) from the Swinging Bridge spanning the whitewater. The mightiest of Montana's free-flowing waterfalls is sacred to the Kootenai people. These falls also boast cameos in films such as The River Wild and The Revenant.
Lower Falls of the Yellowstone | Wyoming
Few places in the world pack so much eye-popping geology into one chunk of real estate as Yellowstone National Park, and its heart is the extraordinary Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Heading this golden chasm is the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, a massive, 300-foot cataract that ranks among the greatest waterfalls in the Rocky Mountains. Its roar, billowing rainbow mists, and cruising ospreys take the cake for grandeur, but down canyon, you’ll find Yellowstone’s tallest waterfall: the 1,200-foot Silver Cord Cascade.
Havasu Falls | Arizona
Carving one of the major tributary cuts off the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, Havasu Creek comes staggered with some of the nation’s loveliest waterfalls—most famously Havasu Falls itself. A rich stew of minerals sourced from the creek’s groundwater results not only in the tufa and travertine outcrops that form numerous waterfall brinks but also in the mesmerizing blue-green tone of the current. The perennial flow of Havasu Creek—frequently swollen by flash floods—has helped nourish the longtime agriculture of the Havasupai, the “people of the blue-green water” who still call this hidden paradise home.
Multnomah Falls | Oregon
Oregon’s biggest waterfall is Willamette Falls on the southern edge of the Portland Metro Area. But the tallest and best-known is Multnomah Falls(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre), also just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Rose City. It’s the kingliest of the many spectacular waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge, where the combination of thick layer-cake basalt formations and the scouring of the ice-age Missoula Floods has resulted in vertiginous drainages along the Gorge’s southern walls. The upper and lower plunges of Multnomah Falls account for some 620 combined feet, dazzling to behold from the observation platform and footbridge just off Interstate 84.
Yosemite Falls | California
The granite wonderland of Yosemite Valley in the northern Sierra Nevada comes chockablock with head-spinning waterfalls, any of which could easily land in this here roundup. Topping them all, though, is Yosemite Falls. Between its multiple tiered drops (including 1,430-foot Upper Yosemite Fall), this waterfall tallies up to a total plunge of 2,425 feet—the tallest waterfall in California and among the tallest in the U.S. It’s best appreciated between late winter and early summer when the snowpack’s melt-off gives the torrent major muscle. In the parched months that follow, the wispy plume of Yosemite Falls can sometimes vanish before reaching the base.
Olo’upena Falls | Hawaii
The North Shore of Molokai overlooks the Pacific Ocean with what are said to be the planet’s highest sea cliffs: a sheer green bastion some 3,000 feet high. Given the stature of these pali and the rain-soaked highlands they drain, it’s not surprising they’re laced with some stellar waterfalls. Of several ribbony streamers, Olo’upena Falls is the highest at an estimated 2,953 feet: reckoned to be the tallest waterfall in the U.S. and the fourth-tallest in the world(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre). Set below the remote, pristine rainforest plateau of Oloku’i Natural Area Reserve, Olo’upena Falls can only be seen from the air or by boat.
A Special Shout-Out
If there’s anyone who appreciates the grandeur of waterfalls more than Deborah McGlawn, we’ve yet to meet them. Deborah is the founder of an Atlanta-based non-profit called Ch8sing Waterfalls(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre)—a community of black and brown women forging diversity outdoors, one adventure (and one waterfall) at a time. Deborah’s story is one of suffering, healing, and the therapeutic power of nature. After the tragic loss of her daughter, she struggled for years with depression before a trip to a local Georgia waterfall with her husband became an unlikely source of recovery. Since the founding of Ch8sing Waterfalls in September 2017, she has led dozens of women on trips to no less than 86 waterfall locations throughout Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
Here at Osprey, we’re super proud to call Deborah our friend, our partner, and our waterfall maven idol.
Oh, that reminds us: there’s one more waterfall to add to this list.
Minnehaha Falls | Georgia
Of the 86 waterfalls that Deborah has visited in the last few years, her all-time favorite is Georgia’s Minnehaha Falls. Not to be confused with Minnesota’s Minnehaha Falls, this cascade in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia is a show-stopper. According to Deborah, “There’s a very short walk to get to the piece de resistance. You get out of your vehicle, walk up some stairs, walk up a little incline, and you’re there. It’s one of the biggest waterfalls in Georgia. And a fantastic place to just sit there as long as you can stand it and bask there and enjoy.”
Moral of this big cascading story? Do, in fact, go Ch8sing Waterfalls(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre)!
Featured image provided by Cara Fuller(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre)