10 Spectacular and Stirring Waterfall Hikes in the USA
There are waterfalls that inspire awe with their size and power. And there are smaller cascades that soothe frazzled nerves via painterly scenery and calming woodland soundtracks. We’ve included both kinds of falls in this collection of U.S. hikes that will either bowl you over with liquid majesty or supply a balm in hectic times.
We’ve selected trails of varying lengths and levels of difficulty, and all the falls listed can be reached on foot in a half-day or less (one reason why we had to leave out Arizona’s showstopping yet hard-to-reach Havasu Falls). All trails are open as of this writing, but things can change quickly in nature, so always check conditions and secure the necessary permits or reservations before heading out. And bring the proper gear as well as plenty of drinkable water, especially if you’re hiking in extreme summer heat.
Pictured above: Silver Falls State Park in Oregon
Mighty granite monoliths like Half Dome and El Capitan are the marquee attractions at Yosemite National Park. But the gigantic waterfalls here run a close second, especially during their peak seasonal flow, which happens in late spring. One of the park’s most popular hikes, the Mist Trail originates at Happy Isles on the eastern side of Yosemite Valley, climbing uphill along the Merced River until reaching the base of the 317-foot-tall Vernal Fall (pictured). From there, hikers ascend more than 600 steep, slippery stone steps to the top of the waterfall, getting sprayed all the while with the rainbow-bearing mist that gives the trail its name. Turn back at the top of Vernal Fall or, to complete the full 7-mile round-trip trek, proceed up the rocky, zigzagging route to the top of thunderous, 594-foot-tall Nevada Fall for a commanding view of peaks, pines, and pools. (Note: Visiting Yosemite Valley currently requires a reservation.)
For more information: Visit the Yosemite National Park website.
Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto passed through Cherokee and Creek land (in what is now northern Georgia) during a fruitless quest for gold in 1540. The conquistador supposedly left behind a piece of armor that somebody found much later near a waterfall in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Good luck verifying that tale. In any case, the de Soto legend inspired the European names of the two waterfalls here, and they’re the real treasure—a tiered run of water covering a stretch of more than 300 feet over mossy rocks flanked by a forest of deciduous and pine trees. Originating at the DeSoto Falls Recreation Area campground in rural Lumpkin County, the 2-mile hike to the falls and back is a peaceful tromp through shady woodlands and over footbridges spanning boulder-strewn, trout-filled Frogtown Creek. Who needs gold?
For more information: Visit the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests website.
The Colorado Rocky Mountain town of Glenwood Springs sits amid several unique natural phenomena involving rocks and/or water, from underground caverns to the hot water upwellings that give the place its name. But the area’s most visually arresting geo-hydro formation has to be Hanging Lake, 72 cliffside acres of turquoise water fed by a lacy fringe of cascades. Getting to the boardwalk surrounding the travertine lake entails a steep and stony 1.2-mile hike (paid permit required) from the bottom of Glenwood Canyon in the White River National Forest. The ecology of the lake is too sensitive to allow for swimming, except by the trout easily seen darting through the bright green water. A short detour from the trail brings you to another waterfall, Spouting Rock, which shoots from a limestone cliff face.
For more information: Visit the official Glenwood Springs website.
Another jackpot of woodsy, watery scenery can be accessed at Franconia Notch State Park in New Hampshire’s very green White Mountains. The Flume Gorge is a narrow chasm between walls of granite that rise as high as 90 feet at the base of Mount Liberty. A one-way, 2-mile loop goes through the gorge (buy a timed ticket in advance online) by way of wooden steps, covered bridges, and a boardwalk supplying up-close looks at an array of streams, trickles, pools, and gushes. Among the highlights: a 500-foot-long natural water slide called Table Rock and the roaring, 45-foot-tall Avalanche Falls, which was formed during a historic 1883 storm that washed away what was once a defining feature of the Flume: a huge, egg-shaped boulder suspended precariously between the gorge’s walls.
For more information: Visit the official Flume Gorge website.
Washington’s Snoqualmie Falls makes a prominent appearance in the opening credits of Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s surreal TV series. But despite the impression Lynch creates, the waterfall is not located in the middle of nowhere and it doesn’t tumble over a cliff in luxurious yet unsettling slow motion. In fact, Snoqualmie Falls is only about 30 miles east of Seattle, and the 270-foot-tall waterfall is forceful and noisy, part of a namesake river that keeps power plants as well as whitewater rafting tours in business. The top of the falls and adjacent Salish Lodge & Spa (aka the Great Northern Hotel on Twin Peaks) are accessible to all via a short walk from the parking lot. From there, a 0.5-mile trail will take you down through a mossy and ferny forest to a small meadow and lower observation deck.
For more information: Visit the Snoqualmie Falls website.
The highest single-drop waterfall at Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Rainbow Falls, named after the arc of colors produced by the mist on sunny afternoons. The path to the falls branches off Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, an equally impressive drive through woods and past historic farmsteads not far from the down-home fun of Gatlinburg, the park’s eastern Tennessee gateway city. Rainbow Falls is an enticing reason to get out of the car, but be advised that the 5.4-mile round-trip hike is a moderate-to-difficult half-day undertaking. The terrain is sometimes rocky, the incline unrelenting. But the considerable scenic rewards include trailside rhododendron and mountain laurel, rushing streams, and, at the climax, the 80-foot-tall cascade. Expert hikers can continue another 4 miles to the top of Mount Le Conte, but if you ask us, you’ve earned some rest and some old-fashioned Southern cooking back in Gatlinburg or nearby Pigeon Forge.
For more information: Visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website.
Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge is Oregon’s most famous waterfall, owing to its towering height (620 feet) and highly photogenic appearance (basalt cliffs, picturesque footbridge across the midsection). But for a true waterfall feast, head about 80 miles southwest of that site to reach Silver Falls State Park outside of Salem. Oregon’s largest state park at 9,000 acres, this hiker’s heaven centers on a lush canyon with no fewer than 10 different waterfalls, each of which can be seen on one epic, 7-mile loop. Or you can opt out of hiking the trail's full length at one of three trailheads situated along the moderate route, which descends with a canopy of Douglas firs overhead and ferns at ground level. Along the way, you’ll have plenty of chances to see tumbling torrents from above, from the bottom, and from behind—notably at South Falls (pictured), a 177-foot-tall literal shower curtain set in a natural amphitheatre. For those who can’t devour enough waterfall views, this park is your all-you-can-eat buffet.
For more information: Visit the Silver Falls State Park website.
This 260-foot-tall cascade in the eastern Catskill Mountains impresses with its natural grandeur as well as its art-history pedigree. Hymned by poets and immortalized by painters, Kaaterskill Falls was a favorite of 19th-century Hudson River School artists, who regularly depicted the site—with its dramatic, two-tiered layout divided by a clear pool and surrounded by a verdant valley—as an American Eden. In Kaaterskill Wild Forest east of Hunter, a 1.5-mile round-trip trail off Laurel House Road (named after a hotel built in the 1800s, when this was one of the country’s first tourist attractions) starts near a viewing platform overlooking the falls, then descends a moderately steep slope to the pools at the base. If you visit on June 19, keep an ear out for the ghostly barks of a dog said to haunt the spot ever since leaping over the precipice on that date in 1868.
For more information: Visit the Kaaterskill Wild Forest website.
Hawaii is a strong contender for the USA’s waterfall champ. There are huge ones like Akaka Falls on the Big Island, famous ones like Kauai’s Wailua Falls (flown over by “the plane! the plane!” in the opening credits of the Fantasy Island TV series), and hidden ones in tropical forests along Maui’s swoon-worthy Hana Highway. But since we’re focusing on hikes, we went with an option where the journey is as rewarding as the destination. That would be the trek that starts on Kauai’s Kalalau Trail (advance reservations required), located on the steep cliffs of the island’s northern Na Pali Coast. After 2 miles, you'll come to Hanakapi’ai Beach (where it's beautiful but the waves are too powerful for swimming). From there, another challenging 2-mile trail enters a fertile valley filled with streams, mango trees, mist, and mud. At the trail’s culmination: 300-foot-tall Hanakapi’ai Falls, a long ribbon of water running down a mossy cliff and plunging into a pool. Most hikers can’t resist taking dips of their own; here, swimming is not only safe, but it's also a good life decision.
For more information: Visit the Napali Coast State Wilderness Park website.
Are you waiting for us to mention Niagara Falls? We’ve left that particular natural wonder off this list. As spectacular as the views are from Niagara’s New York side, they’re even better across the border in Ontario—and this isn’t a roundup of Canadian waterfalls. At 69 feet high and 125 feet wide, southeastern Kentucky’s Cumberland Falls has been dubbed the Little Niagara because it looks something like a small-scale replica. But Cumberland has something no other waterfall in the Western Hemisphere has: regularly occurring moonbows, which are like rainbows except that they’re caused by refracted light from the moon instead of the sun. Look for a moonbow (like the one pictured) at Cumberland Falls on clear evenings when there’s a full moon and for two nights before and afterward. Cumberland Falls State Resort Park maintains an easy, 1-mile round-trip trail to the waterfall. For a more thorough exploration of the Daniel Boone National Forest, opt for the nearly 11-mile Moonbow Trail.
For more information: Visit the Cumberland Falls State Resort Park website.