It doesn’t matter to me if they’re just little streams tumbling over a few rocks or mighty rivers plunging a hundred feet down, waterfalls have always held a special allure for me. I’ve never entertained the idea of going over one in a barrel; instead, I remain perfectly content to admire their sheer beauty and power from the safety of land. More often than not, they’re the main attraction on one of my hikes, but every so often, one just appears next to me on a road. These are my favorites.
#1 Iguazú Falls (Argentina / Brazil)
Taller than Niagara and wider than Victoria, Iguazú Falls on the Argentina-Brazil border is in a class by itself. My hike deep into the jungle at Iguazú National Park offered up reward after reward on my way to the main attraction: tremendous birdlife and flights of butterflies, the occasional coati strolling by, catwalks over the powerful Iguazú River. Of course, it’s the 275 individual falls that compose Iguazú that are the highlight, and they are truly breathtaking. The most dramatic, the horseshoe-shaped Devil’s Throat, drops down 269 feet to the river below in a thunderous roar that I heard long before I caught my first sight of it. “Poor Niagara,” Eleanor Roosevelt reputedly said when she visited Iguazú. Indeed, even the mightiest falls fall before this peerless force of nature.
#2 Gullfoss (Iceland)
Iceland‘s most famous waterfall is a two-for-one special. On a clear day, the waters of Gullfoss (“Golden Falls”) do, indeed, look golden. I was there on a completely overcast day; although I couldn’t appreciate the “gull,” I was thrilled by the “foss.” The Hvítá River plunges into a 105-foot-deep crevice in two stages: The first drop is about 36 feet, and the second about 69 feet. From certain angles, the crevice is invisible, so it looks as if the falls just vanish into the earth. The majesty of these falls is matched by the romance of the legend of a woman who walked from the falls to the Icelandic capital, threatening to throw herself into the falls if they were sold to foreign investors who wanted to develop it to generate electricity, and by doing so prevented the sale. The truth? The investors didn’t have the money for their plans, and Gullfoss today is a protected treasure.
#3 Niagara Falls (New York / Ontario)
I don’t know of any other waterfall that evokes as much imagery as Niagara: honeymooners, Napoleon’s brother, tightrope walkers, Marilyn Monroe, barrels, the Maid of the Mist, the frozen falls in 1911, and the “turned off” falls in 1969. But as soon as I first saw Niagara’s trio of waterfalls — Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls — I understood the fascination. From the top of the Skylon Tower on the Canadian side, I was treated to sweeping views of the falls; the Niagara River, which feeds them; and Goat Island, which separates them. On ground level on the American side, I took in the staggering force of water flow just before the drop. On the Maid of the Mist, I was grateful for the rain gear protecting me from the mist as the boat edged closer to the base of the falls. All three vantage points combined to give me a complete understanding of why Niagara has been attracting people for centuries. Not so poor, Mrs. Roosevelt.
#4 Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe / Zambia)
Your experience at Victoria Falls, on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, all depends on when you go. If you visit during the sub-Saharan summer, the waters are low: You’ll have great views of the falls and the gorge, but you won’t be exposed to the staggering power of the falls. If you go in winter, as I did, the falls are in full force, but half the views are obliterated by mist (“mist” is a bit misleading; at spots, torrential downpours will positively soak you). Of course, the solution is to go at both times! Fueled by the Zambezi River, Victoria Falls stretches for 5,600’ and drops 354’, which makes it neither the widest nor tallest falls in the world. Those two stats combined, however, make Victoria the world’s largest. Its autochthonous Tonga name, “Mosi-oa-Tunya,” accurately describes the falls: “The Smoke That Thunders.” Indeed, the smoky mist is easily visible from your airplane as you start your descent into town, and the rush of the falls in winter while you’re walking along the clifftop trail is shockingly powerful, enough to easily drown out the drone of half a dozen tour helicopters circling over you. The trail includes 16 branches that provide viewpoints of the ever-changing scene the farther you walk, including Devil’s Cataract, Cataract Island, the Main Falls, and Livingstone Island. Toward the end, Danger Point provides wonderful views of Horseshoe Falls, Rainbow Falls, and Eastern Cataract — if the mist isn’t thick and saturating you. Rainbows that never seem to dissipate add arcs of brilliant color to the whiteness of the rushing water and mist. And keep an eye out for red-winged starlings, warthog families, and fearless vervet monkeys along the way.
#5 Veliki Slap (Croatia)
A public bus out of Zagreb took about two hours to drop me off across the road from the entrance to Plitvička Jezera (Plitvice Lakes) National Park, the largest (73,000 acres) and oldest (1949) national park in Croatia. This pristine and gorgeous park boasts 16 interconnected azure, turquoise, green, blue and gray lakes; wooden bridges and planked boardwalks; choruses of croaking frogs; and dozens of waterfalls. The most impressive waterfall was also the first one I saw, only a few minutes into my five-hour hike. Veliki Slap (“Large Waterfall”) drops 255 feet into the most brilliant turquoise lakes imaginable. Surrounded by rocky outcrops and forest, this captivating waterfall was a truly impressive welcome to one of the most beautiful national parks I’ve ever been to.
- Skógafoss (Iceland)
- Montmorency Falls (Québec)
- Seljalandfoss (Iceland)
- Waipunga Falls (New Zealand)
- Falls of the Big Sioux River (Sioux Falls, South Dakota)