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California’s Top 10 Waterfalls

Saturday, April 7th, 2012

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:

Horsetail Falls CA 319 4 Californias Top 10 Waterfalls

Horsetail Falls, click for more

10. Horsetail Falls

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.

9. Ribbon Fall

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.

8. Feather Falls

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.

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Ribbon Fall, click for more

7. Illilouette Fall

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.

6. Stevenson Creek Falls

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.

5. Vernal Fall

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.

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Bridalveil Fall, click for more

4. Bridalveil Fall

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.

3. Nevada Fall

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.

2. Wapama Falls

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.

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Yosemite Falls, click for more

1. Yosemite 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.

Utah’s Best and Most Unique Waterfalls

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

Some states or countries might not be quite as well endowed when it comes to waterfalls as the regions which we posted at the time of launch.  In cases like this – such as with the state of Utah – we’re going to do a condensed post outlining both the best and most unique waterfalls at the same time because there may not necessarily be enough waterfalls to fill up a more extensive version of each list on its respective own.

Utah’s 5 Most Unique Waterfalls

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Doughnut Falls - Conor Barry, Flickr

Doughnut Falls

If you’ve been following our “Most Unique” series, you’ll undoubtedly be aware that waterfalls which feature arches or natural bridges are sure bets to make the list.  Doughnut Falls is Utah’s obligatory participant in this category.  Though the falls drop no more than about 25 feet, the incorporation of the arch is unique – rather than spanning across the face of the falls, the stream plunges into a pothole which has punched straight through the undercut cliff into the alcove below.  The result allows for visitors to stair straight up through the skylight while the water falls in the opposite direction.

Sinawava Falls

Zion National Park is rather famously known for its spectacular scenery, but not so much for its waterfalls – largely because the waterfalls are short lived.  But when flowing there are several noteworthy and unique which could qualify for this article.  We chose Sinawava Falls because of its seemingly ethereal origins.  The stream in Telephone Canyon – when it flows – is squeezed out of a slot canyon perhaps 2 feet wide at most, from which it explodes into a 600-foot tall plume of mist to meet the Virgin River on the floor of the canyon.  That the falls typically flow at their most violent immediately after a passing thunderstorm adds further to the fleetingly fascinating nature of the falls.

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Water Canyon Falls - TMullenaux, Flickr

Water Canyon Falls

This waterfall isn’t really unique on its own, but among Utah’s modest offerings it holds one distinct characteristic which is uncommon: this is a waterfall which flows all year long while being situated in the heart of canyon country, or more specifically in Bryce Canyon itself.  Water Canyon Falls only drops about 20 feet, but feature very interesting geology (as does pretty much all of Bryce Canyon.  Hoodoos line the sides of Water Canyon above the falls and the slightly blue-tinted small stream meanders along in a copper-hued wash that creates a very colorful scene.

Ogden Canyon Falls

The well-known falls in Ogden Canyon are included here because for better or worse they are not naturally occurring.  Water diverted from the Ogden River at the Pineview Dam several miles upstream is channeled into the Ogden Canyon Conduit, which in turn fuels several aqueducts which distribute to various municipal water supplies.  Just before the mouth of the canyon where the canal is split to distribute to the north and south, a wasteway channel was constructed, which allows excess water to spill back into the Ogden River, forming a rather impressive waterfall on the order of 300 feet in height.  Because the falls will effectively be regulated by how much water is being drawn off in the canal, the falls can turn off or on in an instant.

Cascade Falls

While the modest size of Cascade Falls – a clean plunge of maybe 10-15 feet at most – isn’t going to impress anyone, the nature of the falls will certainly turn heads.  Cascade Falls is the natural outlet of Navajo Lake, found about a mile and a half to the northwest, but it’s a subterranean outlet.  Cascade Falls marks the emergence of the stream from the underground channel, plunging directly out of the cave and beginning the North Fork of the Virgin River.


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Stewarts Cascades - edmond.k, Flickr

Utah’s 5 Best Waterfalls

5. Malan Falls

The aptly named Waterfall Canyon just outside of Ogden harbors a surprisingly impressive cataract despite its small drainage area and relatively dry climate.  Malan Falls veils a good 200 feet down from a narrow hanging valley, and though the falls certainly suffer from the lack of precipitation in the summer months, during the spring the volume of water launching into the impressive amphitheater can be quite impressive.

4. Timpanogos Falls

Mount Timpanogos harbors some of Utah’s best waterfalls.  As the North Fork of the Provo River cascades out of Primrose Cirque, it cascades over a series of as many as nine distinct waterfalls.  While at the time our Utah data was posted we only have one distinctly inventoried, the high concentration of significant waterfalls (all likely over 50 feet in height, if not substantially more) in this area is quite worthy of attention in a state as (relatively) deficient in waterfalls as Utah.

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Lower Calf Creek Falls - Trevor Anderson, Flickr

3. Lower Calf Creek Falls

While not swamped with the crowds seen in some other parts Utah’s canyon lands, Lower Calf Creek Falls is a scene that is synonymous with the desert southwest.  Plunging 126 feet over a cathedral sandstone cliff stained with lichen, Lower Calf Creek Falls is an ethereal, impressive and exceptionally photogenic waterfall.  Though not terribly tall even by Utah standards, the falls are exceptional in their consistency and resilience amid the arid climate and create an eagerly welcomed oasis for hikers venturing into the canyon.

2. Stewarts Cascades

The other set of impressive waterfalls on the east side of Mount Timpanogos is found in Stewarts Cascades, a booming 300 foot tall set of falls situated behind the Sundance ski area.  While the falls are composed of five distinct steps, it’s the bottom two drops which are most eye-catching.  The lowermost tier isn’t terribly significant, but coupled with the broad, veiling, nearly 200-foot tall fourth tier the stair-step combination is exceptionally scenic, and in the early summer very powerful as well.

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Bridal Veil Falls - chrotting, Flickr

1. Bridal Veil Falls

Certainly the most well-known waterfall in Utah, Provo Canyon’s Bridal Veil Falls is also the state’s most impressive fall and is said to be the tallest as well (though this remains to be tested).  Falling a reported 607 feet in two (possibly three) eye-catching, veil styled steps the falls are an instant attention grabber for motorists traveling through the canyon.