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The Ultimate Waterfall-Chasing Family Road Trip

Waterfalls. America’s got ‘em. Lots of ‘em. From the craggy cascades of the Northeast to the behemoth plunges of the Pacific Northwest, this country is positively loaded with world-class waterfalls. Some of them are truly iconic. Like the Mississippi River or the Grand Canyon, they’re more than just natural wonders; they’re symbols of our collective national consciousness—flowing, thriving, pumping affirmations of the best of Americana. In less prosaic terms, they’re must-sees. Especially for young spongey-minds—or parents to young spongey-minds hoping to instill in their kids a lifelong admiration and awe for some of our country’s most noteworthy natural wonders. 

And what’s the best way to witness these watery wonders? On a cross-country road trip, of course! Without further ado, here’s how to string together 10 of America’s most bucket list-worthy waterfalls along one family-friendly cross-country road trip. Starting in Georgia and ending some 4,000+ miles later in California(Opens in a new window), here’s how to have a waterfall-fueled family road trip to remember. 

1. Amicalola Falls, GA

A waterfall falling over a rocky cliff in a forest landscape The veil-like cascades of Georgia’s Amicaloa Falls. Photo by Cesar Pimental(Opens in a new window)

Nestled amidst the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia, Amicalola Falls(Opens in a new window) emerges as a majestic cascade that stands proudly as the tallest waterfall in the state, boasting a remarkable height of 729 feet. With its pristine waters cascading down a series of rocky steps, Amicalola Falls is as captivating as a cascade gets. The journey to the falls itself is an easy 1-mile hike through verdant hardwood forests and one of Georgia’s most popular state parks. For an added mileage (and bragging rights) bonus, you can link up with the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain along a 10-mile round-trip hike(Opens in a new window). Either way, Amicalola Falls presents a perfect snapshot of Southeastern waterfalls.

2. Cummins Falls, TN

A cascading waterfall falling into a swimming hole Cummins Falls is one of the best swimming holes in the country. Photo by GPA Photo Archive(Opens in a new window)

Heading north from Amicalola toward Tennessee, you’ll encounter an all-you-can-experience buffet of waterfalls worth stopping off at. In Cloudland Canyon State Park(Opens in a new window), Cherokee and Hemlock falls offer a two-for-one special of towering giants. Chattanooga’s Lula Falls(Opens in a new window) and Rainbow Falls(Opens in a new window) are true beauties. Middle Tennessee’s Foster Falls(Opens in a new window) is a show-stopper of the highest order (and a world-class climbing destination). But perhaps best of all—especailly for families with kids who love a good swimming hole—is Cummins Falls(Opens in a new window). This 75-foot cascade spills down a rocky shelf along the Blackburn Fork State Scenic River. Picturesque in its own right, what truly sets Cummins Falls apart is the plunge pool swimming hole at its base. If you’re looking for a natural swimming hole with a gorgeous waterfall backdrop, then you’d be hard-pressed to find something that delivers the goods quite like Cummins.

3. Cumberland Falls, KY

A waterfall surrounded by trees and rocky cliffs Cumberland Falls ranks among the most voluminous waterfalls in the East. Photo by Lauren Barton(Opens in a new window)

Two and a half hours north of Cummins Falls, Kentucky’s Cumberland Falls(Opens in a new window) beckons with equal parts power and grace. Known as “Little Niagara” this 70-foot waterfall isn’t the tallest around, but it’s certainly one of the strongest. Surging at more than 4,000 cubic feet per second at typical peak flow, Cumberland Falls ranks among the most voluminous waterfalls in the East. In fact, it’s the largest waterfall by volume in the Eastern United States, second behind… you guessed it—Niagara. In terms of its own allure and character, Cumberland Falls also draws praise for being the only location in the Western Hemisphere where “moonbows”—lunar rainbows formed in the waterfall mist—are known to appear with regularity. 

4. Niagara Falls, NY

A birds eye view of Niagara Falls with mist and clouds in the sky above Niagara is in a league of its own. Photo by Randy Chen(Opens in a new window)

From “Little Niagara” to the real thing, Niagara Falls is truly out of this world. Sure, it can be crowded and touristy. But once you see this monstrous waterfall in the flesh, you’ll quickly understand that no amount of gimmicky shops or viewing platforms will ever diminish is raw natural beauty. Truly one for everyone’s bucket list.

5. Tahquamenon Falls, MI

A waterfall with a light brown hue falling into a body of water below, and surrounded by forested banks on either side “Root Beer Falls” in all its light brown glory. Photo by Joshua Webb(Opens in a new window)

Jetting northwest from New York to the UP, the next waterfall on your trip is Tahquamenon Falls(Opens in a new window)—a remote gem nestled within the picturesque wilderness of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. This enchanting waterfall system consists of two main falls—the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls—both of which are total beauts. The Upper Falls stretches an impressive 200 feet across and plummets nearly 50 feet down, creating a mesmerizing roar and a spray. The Lower Falls, though smaller in height, make up for it with their sheer expanse and gentle, flowing beauty. These falls span across the Tahquamenon River, which is tinted with a copper hue, thanks to the tannins from nearby forests, giving it the moniker “Root Beer Falls.” The surrounding forest, with its towering pine and hardwood trees, provides a picturesque backdrop that enhances the falls' natural splendor. 

6. Yellowstone Falls, WY

A waterfall nestled into a mountainous landscape in Yellowstone National Park The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Photo by Aram Grigoryan(Opens in a new window)

Yellowstone Falls(Opens in a new window) is a veritable crown jewel of Yellowstone National Park. Consisting of two magnificent waterfalls—the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls—this iconic cascade system showcases the untamed power and beauty of nature. The Lower Falls, plunging dramatically into the breathtaking Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, stands tall at an impressive height of 300 feet, creating a thunderous roar that reverberates through the surrounding cliffs. The Upper Falls, slightly smaller but no less mesmerizing, tumbles gracefully downstream, painting the air with a misty spray and enchanting visitors with its ethereal allure. Surrounded by a picturesque wilderness of vibrant forests and dramatic canyons, Yellowstone Falls presents an unparalleled spectacle of nature's grandeur, beckoning travelers from far and wide to witness its timeless majesty.

7. Palouse Falls, WA

A waterfall cascading into a pool below, with rocks and cliff faces surrounding on all sides One of the most picturesque falls in the PNW. Photo by Michael Denning(Opens in a new window)

Arguably no other North American waterfall fits the bill of a “road trip waterfall” quite like Washington’s Palouse Falls. Located right off State Route 261, this plunge pool waterfall doesn’t so much earn plaudits for its 0.1-mile approach hike, nor even for its surrounding natural beauty (just out of frame is a chain-link fence and the trailhead parking lot). Palouse is just a straight-up, honest-to-goodness behemoth of a waterfall. What you see is what you get. And what you get is a dizzying 200-foot drop, a roaring plunge pool waterfall, and one of the most picturesque photo-ops in all of the PNW. 

8. Multnomah Falls, OR

A two-tiered waterfall with a bridge overlooking both, surrounded by moss and trees on either side An elfin fantasy world, or Oregon? Photo by Karsten Winegeart(Opens in a new window)

Welcome to Waterfall Alley—aka the Columbia River Gorge. Nestled amongst this adventure corridor are no less than 70 named waterfalls of varying epic proportions. From Latourell Falls, with its cacophonous splattering of water against rock, to Oneonta Gorge Falls, with its mossy walls creating a labyrinthine tunnel of green, the waterfalls in this neck of the woods are, without a hint of hyperbole, some of the most breathtaking in the world. And arguably the best of the bunch is Multnomah(Opens in a new window). Plummeting a staggering 620 feet, this two-tiered cascade is the tallest waterfall in Oregon. Surrounded by towering basalt cliffs and lush greenery, the best vantage point is the picturesque Benson Footbridge, which gracefully arches over the lower cascade like some sort of Rivendale utopia from Lord of the Rings.

9. Burney Falls, CA

A large cliff face with waterfall(s) falling across it, and a blue swimming hole below Burney Falls is as pristine as it gets. Photo by Brett Lowrey(Opens in a new window)

Cloaked in ferns and silky strands of cascading whitewater, Burney Falls(Opens in a new window) looks like something out of an Avatar movie. “Verdant” doesn’t do it justice. Nor does “epically beautiful.” This is one of those destinations where both words and photos forever fall short. Once you’ve basked in its serene glory, there are half a dozen other glorious waterfalls to explore in the Redding, CA(Opens in a new window) area—from Potem Falls to Middle McCloud Falls and Upper McCloud Falls to Whiskeytown Falls.

10. Yosemite Falls, CA

A landscape view of Half Dome from a waterfall lookout, with a rainbow in the mist of the falls. Half Dome from the tallest falls in North America. Photo by Sam Goodgame(Opens in a new window)

What better way to end your waterfall road trip than with the tallest falls in all of North America? Falling 2,425 feet from top to bottom, Yosemite Falls(Opens in a new window) is a downright legendary waterfall and truly a sight to behold. Forget the endless outdoor splendor of Yosemite National Park for a second. Set aside the obvious surrounding beauty of granite cathedrals contrasting an ocean of evergreen forests. What seriously sets Yosemite Falls apart, what firmly positions it in a star-studded league of its own, is its downright awesome scale. It’s almost too big for the human brain to adequately comprehend. For instance, most geologists classify a mountain as “a landform that rises at least 1,000 feet above its surrounding area.” This waterfall is taller than most mountains! To see it in person is an almost spiritual experience.

And herein lies the terminus of your waterfall journey. Our measly ten falls will, of course, never cover the full breadth and depth of North America’s staggeringly robust network of world-class waterfalls. But the true beauty of a waterfall road trip is the hidden cascades you find along the way. Happy chasing!


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