Just in time for waterfall hunting season to shift into high gear in the Sierra Nevada, we’re breaking down for you where to find the 10 Best waterfalls in the state of California. Now, anyone who is familiar with the waterfalls in California should know that this list will basically be Yosemite National Park-centric, since the falls found there are so far above and beyond 99.9% of the rest of California’s waterfalls. But there are a couple of exceptions, so read through to see what else makes the cut:
While maps indicate otherwise, Horsetail Falls does its best to convince visitors that it actually is located in Yosemite National Park. Situated along Pyramid Creek as it flows out of the Desolation Wilderness to the west of Lake Tahoe, Horsetail Falls lives up to its name as it skips and slides 791 feet down the polished granite valley above Twin Bridges. The falls are prominently visible from Highway 50 between Twin Bridges and Phillips, but its scale and power cannot be adequately appreciated without hiking a relatively easy 2 miles to the base of the falls.
With a sheer drop of 1,612 feet, Ribbon Fall is the tallest recorded free-falling waterfall in North America. This claim to fame alone makes it a noteworthy waterfall to seek out when visiting Yosemite National Park, but while Ribbon Creek is a seasonal stream which usually runs dry by July, Ribbon Fall can exhibit an impressive volume of water during the spring melt – during some years it can rival Yosemite Falls in terms of sheer spectacle – and it should in no way be thought of as a minor waterfall.
Perhaps the most well known of California’s waterfalls which are not located in Yosemite National Park, Feather Falls is a spectacular cataract which hurtles 410 feet into the North Fork Feather River canyon just upstream from where it empties into Lake Oroville. The falls can range from an explosive, thunderous plume of water during the spring months to a more delicate lacy veil during the late summer, but with a significant drainage basin feeding the falls, there is ample water to justify the 3 1/2 mile hike that a visit mandates at any time of the year.
Essentially the neglected middle child of Yosemite Valley’s waterfalls, Illilouette Fall is the most consistent waterfall found in the valley. Fueled by the largest tributary to the Merced River the falls thunder 370 feet into a narrow side canyon below Glacier Point, below which the stream cascades steeply among huge boulders for another thousand feet. While the falls are partially visible at a distance from the John Muir Trail heading towards Vernal and Nevada Falls as well as Half Dome, to appreciate it in full one must start a 2-mile hike from Glacier Point and the lengthy detour necessary to achieve this goal is enough to keep the majority of the valley’s crowds away.
You’ve probably never heard of this waterfall for a couple good reasons – it’s sort of out of the way and it’s been regulated by the Shaffer Lake Dam so that Stevenson Creek runs dry for a portion of the year. However, during the snow melt, when the creek bursts from its banks, Stevenson Creek puts on a spectacular show, plunging into the San Joaquin River Canyon in a massive 1,200-foot tall, 4-stepped waterfall which quite literally sprays right onto the road. In fact, when the creek is running at its peak, the road is actually closed because of all the water falling onto the road. This also makes it very difficult to see the entire waterfall at peak flow, since the shortest approach to the falls requires crossing the bridge. Unfortunately it’s canyon also makes viewing the entire waterfall difficult, but what can be easily seen is quite jawdropping in its own right.
Jumping back to Yosemite for the final five entries finds us at what is perhaps one of the most recognizable waterfalls on earth – the Merced River’s Vernal Fall. The 200-something foot tall, 80-foot wide falls are nearly as famous for being a deadly attraction as it is for being one of the most powerful and scenic waterfalls in the United States. Drawing thousands of visitors every year, the falls have racked up a startling death toll thanks to those who stray beyond the safety railings. This unfortunate statistic speaks to the dangers that waterfalls pose and the respect that people must bestow upon the power of water, and Vernal Fall is quite visually a reminder of exactly how powerful water can be.
If there is one image synonymous with California (other than the infamous Hollywood sign at least), it has to be the spectacular vista from Yosemite National Park’s Tunnel View, punctuated by the delicate plume of Bridalveil Fall as it sprays 620 feet into Yosemite Valley in a perfect free-falling plunge. Though visitors who make the easy walk to the base of the falls might not so easily describe it as “delicate” since the falls can send forth a blinding wall of spray during the melt season that makes photographing the falls up close a near impossible task until the water level has waned considerably. Fortunately there are literally dozens of other locations to appreciate this impressive cataract without having to deal with the elements.
Nevada Fall marks the beginning of the Merced River’s descent into the Yosemite Valley proper and it does so in gratuitous style, plunging then smashing onto an angled apron of rock and veiling for the final half of its roughly 480 foot descent. With the considerable volume of the Merced present in the spring, Nevada Fall is in all likelihood the most powerful waterfall in California, but even with the immense drainage basin the river can shrivel and all but dry up by the autumn months thanks to the lack of soil to retain ground water in the basin above. Those who visit the falls in the spring and early summer months would probably find this to be an astonishing fact considering how much water moves down the falls earlier in the year.
The Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park is essentially devoid of visitors when compared to the summer overcrowding seen in Yosemite Valley itself. Those who do visit the valley will see the immense cataract of Wapama Falls thundering over 1,300 feet into the Hetch Hetchy, billowing up such an immense volume of spray that even though seeing the falls up close is easy, taking a picture is nearly impossible. So much water descends Falls Creek in the spring time that the trail to the falls has to be closed because the bridges are over-topped by the booming stream as it cascades down below the falls.
As if there could be any doubt, Yosemite Falls is not only the best waterfall in California but arguably the best waterfall in the country (we’ll debate that topic at a later date). With a cumulative drop of 2,425 feet Yosemite Falls is widely regarded as among the most significant waterfalls on the planet and features one of the tallest free-leaping drops in North America. This waterfall was largely responsible for inspiring John Muir, James Hutchings, Lafayette Bunnell and many other early visitors to push for protecting Yosemite Valley. It is an attractant of tens of thousands of visitors annually, and it maintains this regal stature and status despite the fact that it does not flow all year long.