Reader Participation Day: Where Are the Best Waterfalls In the National Park System?

Waterfall Ohe o Gorge, Haleakala National Park, copyright Q.T. Luong
Where's your favorite waterfall in the National Park System? Is it this one, a waterfall in Ohe o gorge in Haleakala National Park? Photo copyright by Q.T. Luong, used with permission.

Two of the most incredible waterfalls in the National Park System can be found in Yellowstone National Park. But it certainly doesn't have a monopoly on waterworks. Olympic National Park boasts the beautifully secluded Marymere Falls, Glacier National Park the towering Bird Woman Falls, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park the comparatively small but gorgeous-just-the-same Abrams Falls.

What other waterfalls in the park system deserve to be singled out for their beauty? No doubt there are thousands to choose from. Nevada and Vernal falls in Yosemite National Park (not to mention that big one, Yosemite Fall), in Sequoia there's Tokopah Falls, and even Acadia National Park has some beauties, such as the 40-foot cascade known as Hadlock Brook Waterfall.

Shenandoah National Park is cut with waterfalls, one of which, Overall Run, plunges 93 feet. Even Arches National Park, that red-rock gem that's normally talc dry, has some spectacular waterfalls ... that result from torrential downpours and quickly vanish.

So, where would you begin in building a list of the top 100 waterfalls in the National Park System?


Personally I find Vernal Fall with a moderate water level (last July was almost ideal) to be perhaps the most perfect looking waterfall on the planet. It's like a sheer curtain of water with a straight edge. I've seen photos of it at maximum flow, and it was interesting but not my ideal.

Aren't there a ton of waterfalls in the Grand Canyon that aren't easily accessible?

I'm looking to check out Alamere Falls at Point Reyes NS. It may not be huge or dramatic like some other waterfalls, but it drops right onto a beach into the Pacific Ocean.

yosemite tops em all. vernal, nevada, yosemite, ribbon, wildcat are all great. my favorite is illiouette (hope i spelled that right). sentinal can be very pretty and for a little fall - silver strand is nice.

Upper Stevens Creek and Fairy Falls, Mount Rainier National Park.
(In fact a slow many stop drive along Stevens Canyon from Paradise is not to be missed..)

My favorite waterfalls in Great Smokey are those that require a half day of hiking to reach. There are many examples throughout the park. While many are small, it is still an unforgettable, and sometimes chilling, experience to wade or swim in the pools just below the falls.

I'm spoiled by Yosemite waterfalls. Most other parks' waterfalls are puny compared to Yosemite.
Beyond the obvious ones in the Valley, my personal favorites are: Staircase Falls behind Curry Village, because it's fun to trace the water; Ribbon Falls, when it runs, because it's such a long, thin, ephemeral fall; and Waterwheel Falls near Tuolumne Meadows, because it's unique.

We visited the NPs in Washington in May 2008 and although snow was still present, it was melting rapidly, making for prime waterfall season. I remember North Cascades and Olympic both having a great selection of falls. But Mt. Rainier did too, not only Narada Falls but waterfalls literally sprung up along the road. Pretty cool.

One of my favorites from North Cascades (well, Ross Lake NRA):

TOKOPAH Falls in SEKI is beautiful and has given us a once in a lifetime (and anxiety producing) experience of 2 black bear cubs crossing the trail in front of us!

The hike to VERNAL & NEVADA Falls in Yosemite is a favorite of ours, the overlook peering down over the brink is enough to curl my toes just thinking about it!

IRIS Falls and COLLANADE Falls in the Bechler River System backcountry of Yellowstone are 2 spectacular waterfalls as is UNION Falls. On our recent Christmas in Yellowstone trip I spoke with a Xanterra employee (Dave) who shared with me how he was the driver/guide for a small group celebrating an elderly gentlemen's 97th Birthday! He had always wanted to see the LOWER Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and his family had arranged this particular trip for his birthday. Dave spoke of reading aloud journal entries by some of the regions first explorers and their lack of words to adequately describe the majesty they had seen. Upon arrival they slowly made their way to the viewing area and the old gentleman stood there with tears streaming down his face, his life long dream had been fulfilled. No one could speak for what felt like an eternity.

Waterfalls are magical, mystical and evoke great power over the human spirit. It's in these waters tumbling over the precipice's edge that we somehow become transfixed and transported away from everyday cares and worries.

I have to say that I've encoutered very few waterfalls in my time. Working in the desert parks I was only able to see the rare waterfalls caused by heavy rains. But the two seasons I spent in Shenandoah gave me the chance to explore the falls and I hiked to everyone I could reach. My favorite had to be Rose River Falls. It isn't a large fall, more like a series of cascades, but I found them to be the most relaxing and peaceful falls there. It was always where I headed after a bad day at the office and I would sit by the falls for hours. There was just something special about them.

I can't remember the name of it now, but there is a breathtaking fall just beside the road along the South Shore Road at Lake Quinault. I believe it's more Forest Service than NPS right there, but still worth experiencing.

Cumberland Falls in Kentucky though small has the special showing of a Moon Bow whenever there is a full Moon. It is something special to behold!

Certainly there are plenty of waterfalls that are just off NPS land. I remember traveling Tioga Road back in 2006 a week or so after plowing was completed. The water flow was high and there was one really nice one on Forest Service land just before the Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite NP. With runoff everywhere, there were also temporary falls along the side of Tioga Road.

In addition, Rainbow Falls at Devil's Postpile National Monument is rather impressive:

Horsetail Fall in Yosemite is supposed to be temporary when the snow melt drops off the side of El Capitan. Under just the right lighting (just around sunset with the right angles and an orange glow) conditions, it can look like it's on fire.

It's hard to make the comparisons -- tall, full falls in Yosemite (Vernal, Nevada, Yosemite, Illilouette, even Bridalveil) can knock your socks off.

But for more subtle pleasures, look in the Appalachians. The suggestion above about half-day hikes in the Smokies is great. Abrams, Laurel, and Rainbow are three pretty examples on the Tennessee side.

The permanent/ semipermanent waterfalls in the Grand Canyon are great because water is such a precious commodity there. All of them a hard to get to also , with a long hike or a river trip necessary. The best:

1. Thunder River Falls- Massive amounts of water pouring out of a cave on the side of a cliff and then cascading down for a half mile until it pours into Tapeats Creek. It's one of those places you never forget.

2. Deer Creek Falls- Large waterfall that falls almost directly into the Colorado River as you float by. A great place to take a shower!

3. Cheyava Falls along Clear Creek- The tallest in the Park, it may not run in the dry season but is spectacular in the Spring.

4. Vasey's Paradise- A beautiful cascade along the Colorado River.

5. Elve's Chasm- A small but beautiful grotto.

6. The inner gorge of the canyon after a large summer thunderstorm creates literally scores of temporary falls that plummet into the river.

Just outside the park, on the Havasupai Nation, but which are part of the Grand Canyon's canyon system, are the 4 spectacular falls of Navajo, Havasu, Mooney, and Beaver.

The waterfall complex at horseshoe basin in North Cascades NP is pretty spectacular in mid summer at the height of the melt-out 12-18 waterfalls in one Glacial circ

Waimoku Falls at Haleakala National Park is amazing. The hike through the bamboo forest to get there is awe inspiring.

The Waterfalls in the Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio are very nice, shady and accessible to just about anyone. Brandywine Falls has a boardwalk with ramps so anyone can enjoy the waterfall and for the able-bodied there is a very nice loop trail that goes down into the valley, crosses the stream and back along the other side.

Also, any waterfall is beautiful when it freezes.

I love the Jacks river falls in the cahutta wilderness on the Ga Tn line. It's a cool hike with about 38 to 40 river crossing to get there. But it's worth it just to see it. You use to be able to camp out there on the falls but now they won't let you due to the bears. But still have lots of great spots to set up the Eno and relax. I'm planning a trip there in the beginning of October hope it's not to cold.

Yosetmite Falls. I had a transcendent experience on a May night with the falls raging with snow melt. The valley below was bathed in the light of a full moon. I'll never forget it.