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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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Anatomy of a waterfall
As befits Yellowstone's volcanic geology, the waterfalls Stevens, Whittlesey, and Rubinstein discovered were mostly of the ledge variety, where water falls off a ledge of sedimentary or volcanic rock. Over time, the water's falling force pummels the landing area, undercutting the harder caprock until it collapses, slowly backing the waterfall upstream.

There is no universally accepted classification system for waterfall types, but cataract devotees typically refer to three main kinds of falls:

  • Plunges, where water drops vertically and loses contact with the rock face
  • Horsetails, where the stream drops near-vertically, but maintains rock contact
  • Cascades, where the stream drops down an incline, forming a steep flume or breaking into a series of steps
Beyond these basic divisions, more specialized and descriptive terms help hone your waterfall life list:
  • Block waterfalls form bank-to-bank and are wider than they are tall.
  • Curtains are likewise bank-to-bank but taller than they are wide.
  • Punchbowls forcefully shoot out and down into deep pools.
  • Slides slope gradually.
  • Fans expand outward as the water descends.
  • Tiered falls have multiple distinct drops visible from a given vantage.
  • Segmented entail multiple side-by-side falls.
  • Serial falls have different cataracts and tiers that are invisible from some vantages.
Then there's a type of cataract that resists all scientific classification. It's the Holy Grail of wilderness waterfalls: a cool cascade that showers into a clear green swimming hole. You may already have found such falls. If not, here are four places to start looking.

Turkey Creek Trail, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan National Forest

Spring snowmelt feeds numerous spectacular falls in this Rocky Mountain paradise. Take Forest Service Road 037 (turn north off CO 160 about 8 miles northeast of Pagosa Springs) to the Turkey Creek Trail (TR #580). Hike up the drainage past Eagle Creek Falls and others, and then across the high Cherry Cairn Plateau to a cataract beneath Puerto Blanco Mountain, at mile 12.5. Contact: Pagosa Ranger District, (970) 264-2268; www.

Panther Creek Trail, Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests

The 8-mile round-trip hike to Panther Falls begins off US 23/441, just south of Tallulah Falls. The trailhead sits just across historic Rt. 441 from Panther Creek Recreation Area. The hike along Panther Creek gorge sports several campsite possibilities. Above the falls, traffic declines sharply, but it's best to avoid weekends and holidays. Contact: Tallulah Ranger District, (706) 782-3320;

North Country National Scenic Trail, Ottawa National Forest

The NCT runs 118 miles across the Ottawa National Forest. Follow its Black River segment 5 miles from Copper Peak Road, north of Bessemer, to Black River Harbor on Lake Superior, passing at least eight major waterfalls along the narrow riverine canyon. Contact: Bessemer Ranger District, (906) 667-0261;

Thunder Creek Trail, North Cascades National Park

This path runs some 20 miles from Diablo Lake on the North Cascades Scenic Highway (WA 20) to Park Creek Pass. From there it descends to the isolated town of Stehekin, at the north end of Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. Along the way, you'll pass at least four large falls, with numerous smaller cataracts pouring off the glaciers and side valleys. Take the NPS shuttle van (reservations recommended) down Stehekin Valley, and the ferry across Lake Chelan to road's end. Contact: North Cascades National Park, (360) 856-5700;

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