|Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park. Courtesy of Photoree.|
Nothing quite demonstrates the awesome power and beauty of Mother Nature like a waterfall – hundreds of gallons of water rushing several stories over a cliffside, the vertical stream nestled in lush greenery, the mist and droplets that splash on you at the fall’s base.
Fortunately, several of our national parks preserve many of the country’s most fantastic falls. Many of them are quire easy to reach via short hikes.
If there is one waterfall that everyone absolutely must see, it’s this one in California’s Yosemite National Park. Actually consisting of seven waterfalls, Yosemite Falls sends water rushing 2,425 feet downward into the valley. Depending on snow melt, the falls’ peak flow typically occurs in May when up to 2,400 gallons of water flow down Yosemite Falls every second.
You can hike 1.2-miles round trip to the base of North America’s tallest waterfall. During spring, you may want to take the trail on a clear night when the moon is full, especially if on a romantic trip. Moonlit rainbows – called moonbows – span the waterfalls.
Queenie and Fido also can enjoy the waterfalls, as leashed dogs are allowed on the trail. Be sure that your dog is comfortable with crowds and other people, however.
Not many travelers have heard of Tokopah Falls, but it’s an incredible site. A series of cascades, it drops 1200 feet – almost the height of the Empire State Building – at California’s Sequoia National Park. It’s a park of tall trees and tall waterfalls.
A glacier carved Tokopah Valley, leaving high gray cliff walls that cradle a meadow, creeks, and a pine and fir forest. The 3.8-mile (600 foot elevation gain) Tokopah Falls Trail leads to its namesake, which is the park’s highest waterfall.
Avalanche Lake waterfalls
With melting glaciers and high mountains, waterfalls can be found aplenty in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Melting glaciers feed several lakes across the park, including Avalanche Lake
Start on the Trail of the Cedars then turn off onto the Avalanche Lake Trail. The 4.7-miles round trip (505-foot gain) trail heads to Avalanche Lake, where several waterfalls from Sperry Glacier drop several hundred feet to fill the valley with its turquoise waters.
You can enjoy this waterfall and then a vista at 7200 feet elevation on Grand Teton National Parks’ Hidden Falls-Inspiration Point Trail. The trail runs 3.8-miles round trip into Cascade Canyon. Though technically not a waterfall but a series of cascades running 200 feet over several multiple steps, Wyoming’s Hidden Falls still impresses.
Because only part of the cascades are steep, there's a lot of confusion among various sources about exactly how high the drop that looks most like a waterfall actually is – some say 80 feet and others say 100. Afterward, visit Inspiration Point, a short walk from the falls.
The trail to Fairy Falls at Yellowstone National Park offers a three-for-one deal: the multi-colored Grand Prismatic Spring, an array of geysers, and the 197-foot waterfall. If going to see Old Faithful, this is a perfect nearby trail to hike the same day.
The 5.6-mile hike begins with geysers then arrives Grand Prismatic Spring, a wonder that boasts multicolored rings of algae. About 370 feet in diameter, Grand Prismatic is the largest hot spring in the United States and the third largest in the world.
Fairy Falls comes next. The waterfalls’ base supports a variety of vegetation. If looking for a place to picnic, the rocks downstream from the falls where raspberry bushes grow make a perfect spot.
A trail through a lush, old growth forest that ends at this waterfall will delight anyone hiking the Marymere Falls Trail at Olympic National Park in Washington. The 1.6-mile round trip trail really is like taking two entirely different hikes in one. Most of the trail heads through a intensely green Pacific Northwest rain forest while the last portion at the destination is purely about the waterfalls.
Marymere Falls is about 90 feet high, and you’ll get really close to it as the trail passes the small plunge pool. Hikers also can take a stairs to see the falls’ upper segment. A few landings on the stairs offers fantastic views of the falls from different angles.
Though Rainbow Falls is the tallest at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, many visitors eschew it because of the strenuous hike. One that’s much easier to reach and still spectacular in its own right is Tennessee’s 80-foot Laurel Falls.
The Laurel Falls Trail runs 2.6-miles round trip through a pine-oak woods with hemlock and beech along the stream, making for a colorful walk in autumn. May also is impressive, as mountain laurel blooms along the trail and near the falls, which runs its highest that month. Deer, often with fawns, wood squirrels, and songbirds are common on the trail.
The waterfall on Laurel Branch consists of an upper and a lower section. A wide walkway crosses the stream where the mist from the falls roils over her head.
This 65-foot waterfalls awaits visitors on the Brandywine Gorge Trail at Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The Brandywine Gorge Trail loops 1.5 miles to the falls then back to the trailhead with several crossings of Brandywine Creek.
The area surrounding the falls is gorgeous in October beneath autumn leaves, but the trail can be hiked any season. It's shaded almost the entire way by red maples with eastern hemlocks and green moss upon the ground once closer to the falls.
Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.