From Palau to Venezuela to California, we present to you our top ten favorites of the world’s breathtaking vertical rivers:
1) Angel Falls, Venezuela – Yes, the tallest is also the best. But not simply because of its neck-straining height of 3,000+ feet. No, it’s really the complete experience of the journey to see this gem up close that gives it top honors. Rising pre-dawn from Canaima village in the remote Venezuelan national park of the same name, you travel upriver by motorized dugout canoe for hours, passing through increasingly stunning scenery as you enter the heart of the Conan Doyle’s “Lost World,” where giant jungle-covered mesas, or tepuis, rise dream-like through the swirling clouds and vegetation. Once you get close, it’s an hour hike through rainforest and Tarzan vines to reach a lookout point, where the falls plunge over the edge of a cliff into an impossibly clear pool far, far below, with much of the water turning to mist long before it reaches the ground. Add it to your life list.
2) Yosemite Falls, California – Popularity can be devastating to a place’s special character. Fortunately, Yosemite Falls manages to maintain its iconic status despite the overdose of human love and interest leveled upon it. For the most impressive display, go between March and June, when high country snowmelt turns the falls into a rushing torrent. While the view from the valley is superb, an even better choice is to hike to the top for an entirely different perspective. Partway up, you’ll be at the main base (and in winter, you’ll be treated to a snowcone of frozen spray. From there, switchback up to the lookout next to the sheer precipice. You’ll have left the tourist crowds behind and get a world-class view of the falls with Yosemite Valley and Half Dome as the ultimate backdrop. If you can’t take a good photo here, you don’t deserve to own a camera.
3) Iguazu Falls, Brazil/Argentina
With waterfalls, bigger doesn’t always mean better. However, in the case of world-famous Iguazu, the sheer scale of the spectacle takes your breath away, and the images will be burned into your brain forever (in a good way). Plus, it’s not just one viewpoint: the experience of the overwhelming wall of water in the “Devil’s Mouth” on the Brazilian side is completely different from the walk through subtropical foliage amidst hundreds of smaller falls on the Argentine side. Take a few days to experience all the area has to offer, from a birds-eye flight over the falls to a night at a churrascaria where you’ll eat more meat in 15 minutes than you thought possible.
4) Afareaitu Falls, Moorea, French Polynesia – The image of a hidden jungle waterfall is cliché, but it’s cliché for a reason: it’s really, really cool. On Moorea, you can hike through rainforest clinging to the rugged volcanic hills, eventually reaching a perfect plunge spot beneath a surprisingly high waterfall. You’ll likely be all alone, so clothing may be optional for a few precious moments.
5) Virginia Falls, Northwest Territories, Canada – As with Angel Falls, getting here is half the fun. The falls sits in remote Nahanni National Park, and marks the dividing point on the Nahanni River between the ancient winding upstream portion, and the rugged downstream gorges. If you’re rafting or canoeing the Nahanni, you’ll likely fly in above the falls by floatplane, hike down below it, and put in your there. From the pathway down, you can head out to the edge where millions of gallons of cold sub-Arctic water rush by before plunging over the edge. It’s also possible to hike to the summit of a small mountain on the opposite side of the river for a postcard-like view of the river winding through the mountains. Once you’re in the gorge below, you’re in for a treat, as the Nahanni is one of the most scenic and wild rivers in the world, where you’re more likely to spot bears and eagles than other people.
6) Victoria Falls, Zambia/Zimbabwe
Sure, it’s well-known and well-trodden. But it still should be on your life list. First, it’s perhaps the most famous waterfall in the world. Second, the area is home to incredible wildlife, from lounging hippos to elephants to baboons to antelope, ensuring you’ll have some safari moments along with your photo-bugging. Finally, rafting the Zambezi River’s Batoka Gorge below the falls has been called the single greatest whitewater day trip for a reason—epic class V rapids and refreshing but warm water. The dry season (July-October) is high time for rafting, but the falls will be more impressive earlier in the year.
7) Sutherland Falls, New Zealand – Accessible via the famed Milford Track, this towering waterfall benefits from the 300 days a year of rain that fall around Milford Sound the South Island’s rugged West Coast. Midway down the falls, there are a series of rock outcroppings that accentuate the waterfall’s beauty, and the lush vegetation and stunning mountain scenery doesn’t hurt either.
8) Yellowstone Falls - While the falls are certainly impressive, the real star is the entire Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, showcasing the earth in action. The multicolored and multifaced rock formations testify to the area’s active geology, and the view up the canyon toward the rushing falls is nothing short of jaw-dropping.
9) Basaseachic Falls, Mexico – Not many travelers have heard of Mexico’s own Yosemite—Basaseachic National Park. From the trail down to the base of the falls, you’ll be treated to Yosemite-like views of clear water plunging over granite cliffs to a gorgeous valley far below. Unlike Yosemite however, you’ll likely be one of the only people there. It’s worth taking a few days to explore the park, home to Mexico’s largest rock face and some of the most spectacular scenery in the Copper Canyon region.
10) Hanakapi’ai Falls, Kauai – As with other great waterfalls, getting there is part of the experience. After two miles of hiking along Kauai’s famous Kalalau Trail on the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Na Pali Coast, you’ll turn inland and hike another hour up a verdant valley to the base of the falls, where cool, clear water plunges 400 feet from the pali cliffs high above into the rainforest below. It’s a perfect place to cool off after the hot hike, and you’ll bask in the knowledge that you’re having the ultimate Hawaiian experience.
11) Honorable mention:
- Athabasca Falls, Alberta – easy access from the Icefields Parkway and the RV’s and motorcycles in the parking lot can’t completely take away the million-dollar backdrop of the peaks of the Canadian Rockies
- Ngardmau Falls, Palau – there’s just something cool about hiking through tropical jungle on a remote island in the Pacific to reach a gorgeous waterfall
- Niagara Falls, Canada/New York – sure it’s old-school, but the Niagara Falls are just as impressive and history-laden as ever
- Karura Falls, Aberdares, Kenya – gaze out at the falls surrounded by surprisingly lush scenery and, of course, lions, buffalo, antelope, and elephants