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Backpacker Magazine – June 2002

Best Waterfall Hikes

Learn the weird science behind our addiction to waterfalls, and the location of the best trails in North America.

by: Steve Howe

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Mike Stevens is a bit manic about falling water. Along with friends Lee Whittlesey and Paul Rubinstein, the high school math teacher has hiked thousands of off-trail miles in Yellowstone National Park's backcountry searching for previously undiscovered waterfalls. In 7 years, the trio has cataloged 240 cataracts, nearly quintupling the number of known falls in the park.

Why such effort? Stevens and crew admit to enjoying their brush with immortality. "I'm in awe of Yellowstone," he admits. "And the prospect of one day being connected to a place I love so much is very satisfying." But they insist there's a deeper urge to their fall-bagging mania, a passion that resonates across time and cultures.

Poets, priests, and artists have known this passion. So have pilgrims and pioneers. Waterfalls factor in many mythologies, and the literature of the American West is littered with tales of mighty rivers plunging over magnificent cliffs. John Muir delighted in the roaring falls of California's Sierra Nevada, calling them "a fit voice for such a landscape."

Backpackers understand the fascination, too. When a bend in the trail reveals a torrent in freefall, we're struck dumb by wonder. Even the quiet burbling of a small stream exerts a seductive, hypnotic attraction.

"I have an obsession going with waterfalls," admits Bryan Swan, 20, of Bellevue, WA. As a hiker and Web master for the Pacific Northwest Waterfall Database (, Swan estimates he's visited 425 falls in the Northwest alone, and suspects his overall tally might be 700.

"Waterfalls are like snowflakes-no two are alike," Swan contends. "And you get that charge when you go in there. I can't put a finger on the exact attraction, but there's a primal force you can't get anywhere else."

Turns out there's some weird science to explain the attraction. Sun, lightning, seashore waves, and waterfalls all create electrically charged particles called ions. Scientists credit negatively charged atmospheric ions, a by-product of misting water, with the "fresh" feel of clean air. They've also been found to calm moods by altering the brain's serotonin levels in much the same way that Prozac does. Waterfalls produce negative ions in abundance; the concentration near a pounding cascade is 5,000 times that of an office or on a city street, and hundreds of times higher than sea or lakeshores.

The bottom line to all this biochemistry is that there are few things so uplifting as a wild waterfall. But where does the water come from? And what makes a good cascade? Some answers lie in the ways they're created.

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