Few sights on Earth—our grand and mostly liquid planet—are quite so bewitching as a waterfall. Freefall plunges off overhangs, horsetail falls rivuleting down slanted rock faces, whitewater cascades frothing through a long forest chute: There are many kinds of waterfalls, many shapes and configurations, and of course a vast size spectrum—from tiny streamers on a steep-coursed brook to immense cataracts such as Angel, Iguazú, Victoria, and Niagara falls. What’s remarkable is how even a little waterfall, or a drought-diminished one, retains almost magnetic appeal. Who knows: Maybe there’s something to the whole negative-ion effect said to be at play around these careening flows.
The United States harbors countless magnificent waterfalls in all its corners, including some that rank among the most celebrated in the world. Here we’ll spotlight some of the best US waterfalls—“best” being determined based on both cold, hard facts (height, volume, etc.) and more subjective values of waterfall form, scenery, and the like.
Speaking of subjective, we’re going to limit our focus to the conterminous US. Let’s acknowledge up front that Hawaii boasts the country’s tallest waterfalls (Olo’upena, Pu’uka’oku, and Waihilau, according to the fascinating World Waterfall Database) and among the globe’s most stunning; and that Alaska claims its own spectacular (and often super-remote) falls, including Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve, modest in size but famously serving as a world-class fishing hole for titanic brown bears.
We’re also leaving off a ton of fabulous falls in the Lower 48. Rather than any kind of exhaustive list, think of this roundup of some of the best waterfalls in the US as a geographically representative highlights reel.
Well, let’s get this titan—the biggest waterfall in the US—out of the way first, shall we? This 85,000-cubic-foot-per-second (cfs) cataract is by far the most voluminous in North America, and its nearly 4,000-foot span on the US-Canada border certainly makes one of the continent’s most iconic landmarks. Niagara Falls comes shackled with an unfortunate degree of development, but the massive power of the Niagara River—modified as it is by hydroelectric management—remains awe-inspiring.
What with Niagara, Cohoes, Taughannock, and others, New York isn’t skimpy with its heavy hitting waterfalls, to say the least. Kaaterskill Falls is another: a double-tiered, 260-foot fall in the Catskill Mountains that has been celebrated for centuries as a picture of wild American beauty. And we mean "picture" literally: Kaaterskill stars in more than a few Romanticist paintings out of the 19th-century Hudson River School.
Screw Auger Falls is definitely a case in point that waterfalls needn’t be gigantic to take your breath away. It’s a 15-foot drop into a grottoed plunge pool within the gullet of one of the great canyons of the Northeast: Maine’s Gulf Hagas. This gorge is a fine place for waterfall lovers, as more cascades and plunges lie along Gulf Hagas Brook: Check out this New England Waterfalls profile for more info.
The streaming descent of the Passaic River over basalt cliffs marks both one of New Jersey’s most impressive natural landmarks and a fascinating piece of American history. The town of Paterson arose here from a vision of Alexander Hamilton—yes yes, that Hamilton—who was inspired to establish the first planned industrial city in the US around the Great Falls’ hydropower.
Wisconsin’s mightiest waterfall ranks among the most scenic in the Midwest. At Big Manitou Falls, the Black River flows off the old basalt of the Douglas Range into a rapids-strewn sandstone gorge; the smaller but also-impressive Little Manitou Falls roars upstream. They’re the scenic centerpiece of Pattison State Park just a stone’s throw from Superior.
Broad and elegant Tahquamenon Falls, stained rusty by Northwoods tannin, stands tall amid the prodigious wilderness scenery of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. During spring snowmelt Tahquamenon is one of the burliest waterfalls in the East, while autumn visitors get to savor its shimmery splendor against a canvas of fall colors.
As the Falling Water River drops off the Highland Rim in central Tennessee, it forms a series of gorge-set waterfalls, the last and most spectacular of which is Burgess Falls. This 136-foot cataract is one of the natural wonders of a state with no shortage of gorgeous whitewater plunges and streamers.
Burgess Falls, along the Falling Water River at Burgess Falls State Park in Putnam County, Tennessee By Brian Stansberry
The impressive breadth of Sandstone Falls and its backdrop of lovely forested highlands puts it right up there among America’s great cataracts, shallow as it is. Here the New River foams down a broken ledge some 1,500 feet across to muscle its way through the Appalachian Plateau via the New River Gorge.
Picture of Sandstone Falls (or New River Falls) in Sandstone, West Virginia. By Leepaxton
Perhaps the biggest waterfall in the US Rockies, the Lower Falls surge more than 300 feet into the pinnacled Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to create one of the defining landmarks of the world’s oldest national park. A wonderland scene if there ever was one…
Lower Yellowstone Falls closeup. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA By Scott Catron
Another spectacular cataract of the Yellowstone country, Upper Mesa Falls is the broad and powerful tumble of the Henrys Fork of the Snake River over a layer of tuff deposited by an eruption of the Yellowstone hotspot. You can appreciate this fluvial majesty as well as the narrower Lower Mesa Falls on the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway through the Targhee National Forest—an easy and rewarding addition to a trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
Upper Mesa Falls on Henrys Fork of the Snake River in Caribou-Targhee National Forest, Idaho By Zechariah Judy
The second biggest waterfall in the US after Niagara, Willamette Falls in Oregon (Mountain House’s home state!) is a huge crescent-shaped basalt cataract on the Willamette River, edged by the Portland metro towns of West Linn and Oregon City. The Falls were an important fishing ground for the Kalapuya, Molalla, and other American Indian peoples, and still serve as a tribal lamprey-harvesting site; just downstream, meanwhile, anglers compete with sea lions for salmon amid leaping white sturgeon. The industrial setting of the cataract has long limited up-close views, but the in-development Willamette Falls Riverwalk will provide better public access to this surprisingly underappreciated landmark of greater Portland.
Willamette Falls, Oregon looking upstream. Photo taken with a DJI Mavik Pro drone on July 19,2017. By Mrgadget51
Speaking of those Missoula Floods—a truly profound influences on the landscape of the Pacific Northwest—they’re also responsible for this amazing waterfall in southeastern Washington’s ethereal Palouse country. Here the Palouse River hurdles nearly 200 feet clear into a plunge pool within a chasm scoured out by multiple Ice Age megafloods over thousands of years.
Palouse Falls on the Palouse River about 4 miles (6.4km) upstream of the confluence with the Snake River By Williamborg
The Yosemite Valley on the west slope of the northern Sierra Nevada is such a haven for gobsmacking waterfalls roaring off gorgeous and monolithic granite faces that we can’t restrict ourselves to just one. At 2,425 feet, Yosemite Falls is the tallest, and indeed one of the tallest in the country; it’s composed of multiple plunges and cascades, mightiest of which is the 1,430-foot Upper Yosemite Fall. May and June are prime time for appreciating this singularly beautiful waterfall, as it diminishes significantly in the summer dry season, sometimes drying up completely.
Just about as famous is 620-foot Bridalveil Fall, which helps paint the classic introductory vista of Yosemite Valley that bowls visitors over past the Wawona Tunnel. Other Yosemite Valley stunners include 1,000-foot Horsetail Fall off El Capitan, famous for its infernal “Firefall” glow during February sunsets; nearly 2,000-foot Sentinel Fall, another of the nation’s tallest; and the year-round-flowing, postcard-perfect double-whammy of Nevada and Vernal falls.
Arizona’s Grand Canyon is so unbelievably immense that it can take a much smaller-scale feature to sort of anchor the scenery. Havasu Falls in the depths of the canyon on the reservation of the Havasupai people is one of those magical places that focuses the beauty of the entire monumental landscape.
Havasu Falls after the August 2008 flood in Havasupai. By Gonzo fan2007
Tucked into a broad and comparatively verdant canyon amid the slickrock wilds of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Calf Creek Falls describes a nearly 130-foot-tall plunge into a genuine desert-oasis pool amid monumental cliffs and domes.
Calf Creek Falls in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah By Scott Catron