Top 3 Waterfall Hikes

There's a science to why we love waterfalls: When water crashes earthward, it releases negatively charged ions that--you can't make this stuff up--some researchers think can reduce anxiety. Spring is when cascades' spigots open full bore, so head off on these three beguiling treks for a dose of nature's backcountry Rx.
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There's a science to why we love waterfalls: When water crashes earthward, it releases negatively charged ions that--you can't make this stuff up--some researchers think can reduce anxiety. Spring is when cascades' spigots open full bore, so head off on these three beguiling treks for a dose of nature's backcountry Rx.

VIRGIN FALLS, TN

GAWK AT CUMBERLAND GUSHERs

The Hike

Hikers have the South Cumberland Gorge's rugged terrain to thank for the presence of the stately Virgin Falls. In 1970, the clear-cutting paper company Bowater, Inc. granted amnesty to 317 surrounding acres after deeming it too inaccessible to log. The splashdown is on full, gushing display in spring, when the falls emerge from an icy cave, topple 110 feet, and vanish into a limestone cavern. The 4.5-mile, mostly downhill hike to get there descends from a laurel-tipped forest into Scott's Gulf, a fern-filled canyon flush with streams and whitetail does. On the climb out, take a breather in the amphitheater hollowed out by the smaller (but still stunning) Big Laurel Falls.

AFTER THE FALLS

Arrive early and nab a cascade-serenaded campsite on the falls' flat top. Or stroll three-quarters of a mile down-valley and pitch a tent on the Caney Fork River.

The WAY

From Nashville, take US 70 east to DeRossett; turn right on Eastland Road, and right on Scott's Gulf Road. Drive 2 miles to the trailhead.

COMET FALLS, WA

SEE MONOLITHS IN THE MIST

The HIKe

The 3.8-mile roundtrip hike to Comet is one of the few in Mt. Rainier National Park on which you never see the namesake peak--and you hardly notice its absence. There's too much else to absorb while you switchback 1,600 feet up to the 320-foot pour-over, named for its resemblance to a comet's tail. Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and several Tatoosh Range peaks are visible through the old-growth canopy of hemlock, fir, and cedar. The trail is also a hotbed for mountain-goat sightings, and a mile past the falls you can see the Van Trump and Kautz Glaciers. The trail crosses avalanche slopes, so wait until the area's free of snow, and start early to avoid crowds.

AFTER THE FALLS

Kick back in a caboose at the Hobo Inn, in nearby in Elbe. Rent a refurbished railcar ($86; 360-569-2500), then head across the street for a Scaleburgers shake.

The WAY

From Seattle, go south on WA 7 and east on WA 706 to the Nisqually Entrance. The Van Trump Park trailhead is 4 miles east of Longmire.

ANGEL FALLS, AZ

HIKE TO A RED-ROCK CASCADE

The HIKe

The 3-mile-long Brins Mesa Trail has everything you'd expect from a northern Arizona classic: a thick manzanita carpet; a rocky palisade of wind-carved sandstone; and several whopping vistas of the scorched and oxidized skyline of nearby Sedona. Most compelling, though, is the 300-foot seasonal waterfall that drains 7,122-foot Wilson Mountain near the hike's halfway point. In early spring and after summer monsoons, the falls are visible from the rim of 4,800-foot Brins Mesa. Take an off-piste rock-hop to the falls' base, then climb another 250 feet to an overlook that takes in the juniper and pinon playland of Coconino National Forest.

AFTER THE FALLS
Grub on rattlesnake brochettes and buffalo sirloins at the Cowboy Club (928-282-4200) in uptown Sedona; ask for the booth once occupied by John Wayne.

The WAY

In Sedona, turn right on Jordan Rd. and right on Park Ridge Dr. Coast another half-mile down to the trailhead.