· Yosemite National Park (Yosemite, Bridalveil, Vernal, Nevada, Ribbon, and Horsetail Falls)
It’s no coincidence that great scenery and great waterfalls go together. The water needs something to fall from, which usually means cliffs and mountains and canyon walls. California’s Yosemite Valley claims them all and produces spectacular waterfalls at every turn. Bridalveil, near the entrance to the valley, is 620 feet high. A torrent in spring, it becomes a diaphanous, shifting veil as the summer season wears on.
· Haleakala National Park (Waimoku Falls)
Waimoku Falls could be a natural haiku, minimal and eloquent but at the same time powerful. It slips rather than falls, sliding 400 feet down a near-vertical lava wall painted with bright green vegetation. Getting there is a delight. The falls is located in the Kipahulu area of the park, on the southeast coast of the island of Maui, reached by driving the Hana Road, which itself is a sort of waterfall alley. Practically every watercourse along the coast offers one or more falls and cascades.
· Glacier National Park (McDonald, Redrock, Bird Woman, and Running Eagle Falls)
With its many high mountains, northwest Montana’s Glacier is a wonderland of waterfalls. A high ribbon of white that falls nearly 1,000 feet in two main drops, Bird Woman is typical of the park’s numerous hanging valley waterfalls. Hanging valleys result when a large glacier cuts deeper than a tributary glacier. The tributary, in effect, is left hanging high above the main valley, a perfect recipe for dramatic waterfalls.
· Katmai National Park and Preserve (Brooks Falls)
Brooks Falls might warrant no special attention were it not for the brown bear show. Together with leaping salmon and the Alaska landscape, the scene ranks among the world’s top wildlife-viewing experiences. In summer, great numbers of sockeye salmon return from the ocean to spawn. Making their way upriver, they encounter the falls—and a gang of hungry bears waiting for them, sometimes a dozen or more.
· Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Brandywine Falls)
When water levels are low in this Ohio national park, 65-foot Brandywine Falls makes the best use of it. Hardly more than a trickle is needed in the smooth sandstone bed of Brandywine Creek above the falls to become a lovely sheet of water. Below the sandstone, a series of step-like shale ledges at the top spread the water, then set it loose to whisper down the sloping ramp to a lucid pool at its base.
· Yellowstone National Park (Lower Falls of the Yellowstone)
Waterfalls often mark the point in a river valley where hard rock gives way to softer rock. The river erodes the soft rock more quickly while the hard rock resists erosion. Nowhere is this more dramatically illustrated than in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where the Lower Falls drops 308 feet to the bottom of a bright yellow canyon.
· Grand Canyon National Park (Deer Creek Falls)
In the enormous sharp-edged gorge of the Grand Canyon there exist hidden grottoes rounded by water, decorated with tender moisture-loving vegetation, frequented by creatures like tree frogs and warblers. The epic landscape hides sweet delicacies. Places like Elves Chasm, Thunder River, and Havasu Canyon stand out.
· Little River Canyon National Preserve (Little River Falls and Grace’s High Falls)
They call Little River a mountaintop river because it flows for most of its length on Lookout Mountain in northeast Alabama. But it’s also a canyon river, running beneath sandstone walls hundreds of feet high. The Little River Falls stands in the middle. In autumn, when water levels are low, the falls is a peaceful white curtain surrounded by bright yellow and red foliage. Spring floods transform it into a roaring maelstrom.
· Zion National Park (Temple of Sinawava Waterfalls)
Speaking of ephemeral flows, a wondrous magic happens in the desert Southwest during heavy rainstorms. Dry streambeds suddenly burst into life. Waterfalls appear where hours ago there was nothing. Where cliffs are high, the result is unforgettable, as in the Temple of Sinawava at the upper end of Zion Canyon in Utah. The red-rock temple is a stunning place any time. High walls glow with reflected light, giving a particular luminescence to leaves of trees and flowers, be they green in the summer or gold in the fall.
· Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Grotto, Indian Creek, Toms Branch, Laurel, and Rainbow Falls)
Mountains everywhere are rain catchers, and the higher the better. On average, the upper elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee/North Carolina pull down 85 inches of rain each year. The runoff feeds more than 2,000 miles of streams, which makes for a lot of waterfalls. Seeing the best of them requires some hiking. It’s a pleasant feeling, on a hot summer day, to arrive in a zone of cool, forest-fragrant mist.