Best Waterfall Hikes

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

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 (www.wpnw.addr.com/pnwd/index.html), 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.

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.

Colorado

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.

fs.fed.us/r2/sanjuan.

Georgia

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; www.fs.fed.us/conf.

Michigan

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; www.fs.fed.us/r9/ottawa.

Washington

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; www.nps.gov/noca.