Ten ‘Best’ Waterfalls
What makes a waterfall great? What makes for a "best" waterfall? There are probably as many different opinions of 'great' and 'best' as there are people asked. One thing is for sure -- there is something special and alluring about waterfalls. They make great destinations for hikes and subjects for photography. Our article is going to attempt to define what makes a "best" (and therefore 'great') waterfall.
We are going to get a few things out of the way at the beginning. Our opinions are just that -- our opinions. While we have visited many waterfalls in person and have seen hundreds of waterfalls on many web pages of the Internet, we make no claim that ours is the definitive answer to the ten 'best' waterfalls. There may be no such animals. We also make no claim that we have seen all the waterfalls there is to see. America is truly 'the beautiful' when it comes to the natural world. This country is full of great destinations with great waterfalls, regardless of the definition. We limited our ten best waterfalls to the continental US excluding Canada and Hawaii.
What is "Best"?
For the benefit of our article and to make some means of determining the order of our list of the ten best waterfalls, we had to come up with a working definition of a 'best' waterfall. We asked several authorities and arrived at our definition. We believe a 'best' waterfall should inspire the viewer, should not be seasonal (it should be relatively consistent year round) and it should be unique in some way. Several elements went into our decision to choose one waterfall over another. Magnitude, height, width, power, location, surroundings, type, volume, season. These are some of the variables of waterfalls. Magnitude and power have to do with the force of the water over a waterfall. Height and width are obvious variables. By location we mean whether the waterfall is in the mountainous West or the forested East or the desert Southwest or the Northeast. However, we did not choose any certain number from the sections of the country. We also did not choose a certain number from any particular state. That will become very obvious. There are an overwhelming number of great, high waterfalls in the Yosemite area. Choosing the best of those was a difficult decision. In that instance, our other criteria aided in making that and other decisions. Surroundings means what is the waterfall near and how difficult is getting to this waterfall. We did not eliminate a waterfall because it was difficult to find. On the contrary, some of our waterfalls made the list because of where they are.
Type of waterfall refers to whether the waterfall is tiered, a cascade or plunging. The plungers tend to be more dramatic and spectacular. Of course, there are plunging and tiered falls that cascade. Volume and seasonal are also obvious and related to each other. Most waterfalls have better viewing times throughout the year. We tried to chose those that were not seasonal.
Our list of the ten 'best' waterfalls will go in descending order, not like most contests that use suspense to save the best for last. At the end of our article we will list a few "honorable mention" waterfalls that were so good we just had to give them some recognition.
Number one is the waterfall by which all others are rated and measured -- Niagara Falls. Even though Niagara is partly in Canada and the US, it still makes our list as #1. Many waterfalls are billed as "Niagara of the west or south or whatever", but there is only one Niagara Falls and therefore Niagara is our Number One. There are reasons why Niagara is the basis for comparison. Huge. Magnificent. Breathtaking. In every sense Niagara has all the characteristics is what makes a “best” waterfall. I suppose we used Niagara for our basis of comparison also.
Niagara is a triple falls -- Horseshoe on the Canadian side and Rainbow and Bridal Veil on the US side. Horseshoe and Rainbow are impressive. The Canadian Horseshoe Falls plunges one hundred seventy feet into the Maid of the Mist Pool. On the American side (Rainbow) the water plunges at a range of from seventy to one hundred ten feet to the rock at the base of the Falls. To get an idea of the volume of Niagara Falls, more than 6 million cubic feet of water go over the falls every minute during peak daytime tourist hours. That is an almost unimaginable amount of water. Amazing as it is, Mark Twain said of Niagara Falls, “Although it was wonderful to see all that water tumbling down, it would be even more wonderful to see all that water tumbling up."
Our pick for Number Two best waterfall is Yosemite Falls of California. We are combining the Upper and Lower into one falls although both exist and both in their own right would make our ten best list. But since this is our list, and if we combine the two, it makes space for another great waterfall to be ranked. Yosemite has a combined height of 1750 feet (Upper Yosemite at 1430 feet and Lower Yosemite at 320 feet) and is set against the magnificent backdrop of Yosemite National Park. The watercourse for this falls is Yosemite Creek. 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.
Yosemite Falls dominates most views from the upper part of Yosemite Valley. To best appreciate it, the visitor should take the trail that zigzags up through an oak forest behind Camp Four. It then cuts diagonally across over Columbia Point. The trail rounds a corner and the visitor is suddenly face to face with the base of the thundering falls. Quite impressive.
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 the high cliffs to the river below. The falls actually spills down in two tiers, the first 542 feet, the second 68. A pedestrian bridge crosses in front of the top of the lower level, so close that you'll get damp walking by. Another vantage point is a little more distant, but dry. To get to Multnomah Falls, drive east from Portland on Interstate 84 to the Multnomah Falls exit and follow directions.
Our Number Four best waterfall is Bridal Veil Falls, also in Yosemite National Park. Bridal Veil Falls – such a popular name among waterfalls -- softly plunges six hundred twenty feet. Almost as famous as Yosemite Falls, this is the falls that travelers arriving from the south see first. That first view of the valley is one of the most famous in California.
Another waterfall in Yosemite making our top ten 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 best waterfall. So we will describe Nevada and Vernal together. A great day-long hike in Yosemite is to take the Panorama Trail from Glacier Point down past Illilouette Falls, along the edge of Panorama Cliff to the top of Nevada Falls. Then walk down the Mist Trail past Vernal Falls to Happy Isles. Arrange a car shuttle, or take the bus, so it will be a one way trip downhil - it looses over 3500 feet of altitude.
Nevada Falls at 594 feet is another beautiful waterfall. There is a deep green pool just above the falls in which hikers wade and sometimes swim despite the warning signs. "IF YOU SLIP AND GO OVER THE WATERFALL YOU WILL DIE." Vernal Falls, whose name means ‘springtime’ is 317 feet. The valley below the falls is kept ‘spring-like’ by the mist of the falls.
Yellowstone Falls is our Number Seven waterfall of the US. Again we are combining a falls’ upper and lower portion into one. The Lower Falls - 308 Feet – is viewable 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 also is viewable from the roadside or from a 1/8-mile hike. Upper Falls is a magnificent display at the head of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It is often overlooked because of its proximity to its greater downstream sibling, Lower Falls. As a side note, sandwiched between Upper and Lower Falls is another waterfall -- the graceful Crystal Falls.
Moving toward the end of our top ten list to Number Eight – Snoqualmie Falls in Washington State is twenty-five miles east of Seattle. Snoqualmie plunges from the Snoqualmie River two hundred sixty-eight feet into a sixty-five foot deep pool. Of course, the volume fluctuates throughout the year. 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. Salish Lodge and Spa (at $229 per night) is unique in offerings and location.
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, it was 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. Today, more than a century after start up, the four original Plant 1 generators are still producing power. Even though Snoqualmie Falls is a developed area, the size and the history associated with its power plants make this falls notable.
Washington State is the location of the Number Nine best waterfall – Rainbow Falls. ‘Rainbow’ is a popular name for a waterfall. There are at least four in Washington State. 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 the North Cascades National Park, there are no roads to Rainbow Falls. Because of the sheer walls of Lake Chelan, the only way in and out of Stehekin is by boat, floatplane, or by foot.
Rainbow Falls is accessible by hikers from one of several trails of the area. The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail passes through the North Cascades National Park near Rainbow Falls. From Chelan along US Highway 97 visitors can either take a toll ferry for the fifty-five mile trip up Lake Chelan to Rainbow Falls or charter a float plane. The Lake Chelan Boat Company has several boats with a variety of schedules for seeing Lake Chelan and Stehekin. Rainbow Falls is near Stehekin.
To locate our Number Ten best waterfall in the US one must cross the country from the waterfall-dominated Western United States. Eastern waterfalls are different critters than their western relatives, mainly because of the contrast of terrains of the two sections of the country. While the majority of our top ten waterfalls are in the western part of the country in areas characterized by rugged and rocky mountains, only two are located in the eastern portion. Along with Niagara, the one waterfall that is the basis of comparison of most of the others, Cumberland Falls in south central Kentucky makes our list as Number Ten. Cumberland Falls is called the “Niagara of the South” and has a special distinction that qualifies it for our top ten list. Cumberland Falls is sixty feet tall with a width of about one hundred twenty feet. That hardly qualifies it as a large waterfall. It flows year-round and is an impressive waterfall. But the feature that makes Cumberland Falls distinctive is its moonbow. Cumberland is the only waterfall in the Western Hemisphere that regularly exhibits a moonbow on clear nights with a full moon. Other waterfalls have moonbows appearing on occasion, but not with the consistency that Cumberland Falls does. Check out the Kentucky State park website for a schedule of moonbows.
Cumberland Falls is 20 miles southwest of Corbin, Kentucky. In Kentucky, if traveling south on Interstate 75, take Exit 25. That is US Highway 25 West. If traveling north on I-75, take Exit 15. That is also US 25W. US 25W intersects with Kentucky Highway 90. Cumberland Falls is ten miles west of that intersection.
There is a selection of waterfalls that are just too good to pass up without mentioning them. It was a very difficult task to choose the best waterfalls of the US. However, some had to be left out. So, our honorable mentioning them is our way of saying these waterfalls are also great but do not exactly meet all the criteria for our "best". Among them are: Palouse Falls in Washington State; Upper Mesa Falls of Idaho; Shoshone Falls of Idaho; Illilouette Falls of Yosemite.
In Washington State long ago, 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 and the Snake River
Lower Mesa Falls and Shoshone Falls of Idaho and Illilouette Falls of California are also Impressive waterfalls, but we limited our selection to the top ten waterfalls, so many have to be omitted.
Our selection of the ten “best” waterfalls of the US was a labor of love. We understand there would probably be as many different ‘ten best’ as there are writers that would attempt such a quest. Additionally, there are waterfalls that were probably overlooked, but we think these ten waterfalls are among the very best in the country.
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