9 Unforgettable Urban Waterfalls

Nature in the city

Photo: Jorge Moro/Shutterstock

For many, the word "waterfall" conjures a distinct image of an idyllic, semi-secret place that can be accessed only by committing to an arduous hike through the woods. This, of course, isn’t always the case.

Across North America, there are a handful of significant waterfalls located smack dab in the downtown core of major cities. For what they lack in seclusion or unspoiled natural beauty, these urban waterfalls — most of them natural or once-natural features of rivers — make up for in history-changing impact. These are the waterfalls that America’s early manufacturing hubs sprayed forth from. After all, what’s a bustling 19th century mill town without a raging, hydropower-producing waterfall in the middle of it?

Over the decades, many urban waterfalls have been used, abused, altered and largely forgotten as the cities around them eventually fell into decline. Others have survived as tourist attractions or energy producers. Others, once blighted and near-erased by development, are being cleaned up, revitalized and rediscovered by a generation looking for beauty in unexpected places.

We’ve rounded up nine of North America’s most noteworthy waterfalls surrounded by sizable cities — and in the case of the mighty Niagara Falls, two sizable cities. Ranging from 20 to 167 feet tall, all are unique in size, strength and historical impact. All of them have a story to tell.

High Falls — Rochester, New York

Photo: Richard A. McGuirk/Shutterstock

Perched on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, New York’s third most populous city, Rochester, is famed as a tech-centric innovation and manufacturing hub, birthplace of Eastman Kodak, the Xerox Corporation, Bausch & Lamb and others. However, the presence of the High Falls, a roaring waterfall on the Genesee River that’s smack dab in the middle of the city, serves as a potent reminder of Rochester’s early days as a bustling flour mill boomtown.

In fact, during the first half of the 19th century, bustling Rochester reigned as America’s so-called Flour City with dozens of mills lining the mighty Genesee. However, Rochester’s flour-milling heyday didn’t last long, and by the 1850s, the city’s economy was dominated by plant nurseries. Yep, within just a couple of decades, the Flour City had become the Flower City.

Today, the 96-foot-tall cataract often referred to as a mini-Niagara is a popular stopover for Niagara Falls-bound tourists — a little taste (emphasis on little) of what’s to come 90 minutes down the road, if you will. The surrounding Brown’s Race Historic District, home to the High Falls Center and Interpretive Center and the pedestrians-only Pont De Rennes Bridge, is chock-full of gritty, post-industrial charm. And for an authentic Rochester experience, no visit to High Falls and the lower Genesee River Gorge is complete without a pilgrimage to the Genesee Brewing Company. Established in 1878, it's New York’s oldest brewery and one of the oldest continually operating breweries in the U.S. (Try a Cream Ale and a Zweigle’s White Hot.)

Idaho Falls — Idaho Falls, Idaho

Photo: Luis Boucault/Shutterstock

If you show up in the outdoor recreation-blessed burg of Idaho Falls expecting to be blown away by raging urban rapids or a cataract of significant height in the middle of the Gem State’s fourth-largest city, you might be disappointed as Idaho Falls’ signature waterfall system is only 20 feet tall and largely man-made.

Idaho Falls wasn’t even Idaho Falls until 1891 when the residents of Eagle Rock, Idaho, voted to change the town’s name to reflect a series of picturesque natural rapids on the Snake River. In the following years, the falls were converted into a man-made hydroelectric diversion dam with a 600-foot-wide concrete spillway filling in for natural cascades. Whatever the case, the falls, located along a lovely urban greenbelt system, remain one of downtown Idaho Falls’ top attractions.

While Idaho Falls’ namesake waterfall may not be all that huge of deal (both figuratively and literally), this isn’t to say the state of Idaho is lacking in show-stopping natural cascades. Follow the Snake River along a roughly two-hour drive to the southwest of Idaho Falls and you’ll come face to face with the mighty Shoshone Falls, a horseshoe-shaped behemoth that, at 212 feet tall, towers 45 feet higher than Niagara Falls. (Hey, they don’t call it the Niagara of the West for nothing.)

Niagara Falls — Niagara Falls, Ontario

Photo: Scazon [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Niagara Falls, hypnotizing honeymoon destination for the ages, can be overwhelming for the uninitiated. For those who find themselves wandering about mist-drenched and dazed, it helps to remember the numbers: three waterfalls (Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls), two countries (the U.S. and Canada), two cities with the same name (Niagara Falls, New York, and Niagara Falls, Ontario), four wax museums, 22 Tim Hortons locations and a couple hundred heart-shaped Jacuzzi tubs.

That said, Niagara Falls is about as urban as urban waterfalls can get. So then, what Niagara Falls city is the best? A tough question, given that they’re so different. Home to Niagara Falls State Park, the city of Niagara Falls, New York, is smaller and less intense than its Canadian counterpart. It’s touristy, no doubt, but it’s also more subdued, approachable, even a bit old-school.

Niagara Falls, Ontario, is a significantly larger and, for better or worse, kitschier city. Case in point is Clifton Hill, a neon-lit promenade best described as the hyperactive Canadian lovechild of the Las Vegas Strip and the Coney Island Boardwalk. Home to a Ferris wheel, no less than five haunted houses and about 1,001 places to buy fudge, Clifton Hill is a three-Advil type of diversion. The city’s casinos, botanic garden, indoor aviary and space-age observation tower also lure in the falls-peeping masses. And it’s no big secret that Canada rules when it comes to knockout panoramic views of North America’s most spectacular trio of waterfalls.

Sioux Falls — Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Photo: Steven Frame/Shutterstock

So, what’s there to do in the fifth least populous state’s most populous city? The Butterfly House at Sertoma Park is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. And you bet the full-sized bronze replica of Michelangelo’s “David,” controversial when first unveiled in this pious patch of the Heartland, is always good for Instagramming. Or there’s the Empire Mall, a South Dakotan destination that’s popularity is only rivaled by Mount Rushmore. (Hey, it’s home to the only Piercing Pagoda in the state).

But the top draw in Sioux Falls is, you guessed it, Sioux Falls. Straddling the Big Sioux River just north of downtown, the 123-acre Falls Park (pictured) is home to the city’s namesake three-tier waterfall. While certainly not Niagara-level in terms of size and strength, the cascades, in which 7,400 gallons of water drop 100 feet every second, are crowd-pleasing and highly photogenic — only fitting for an incredibly flat city with “Falls” in its name. Also highly photogenic are the ruins of the Queen Bee Mill, a seven-story flour mill erected from quartzite in 1881 and shuttered just two years later due to bankruptcy. As it turns out, the river wasn’t quite powerful enough to keep the mill, heralded back in the day as "the most ambitious attempt ever made to use water power west of the Mississippi River," running at full capacity.

Paterson Great Falls — Paterson, New Jersey

Photo: Jorge Moro/Shutterstock

The only waterfall on this list to serve as a place of corpse disposal for mobsters (that we know of, at least), the Passaic River’s Great Falls in Paterson, New Jersey, is a hugely commanding cataract with or without the requisite “Sopranos” cameo.

Towering 77 feet over the Passaic River Gorge, the Great Falls is second only to Niagara Falls as the largest waterfall east of the Mississippi by volume. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, the falls have served as the centerpiece of the National Park Service-administered Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park since 2011. This doesn’t mean Great Falls — aka “New Jersey’s Niagara” — is located at a remove from the hustle-bustle of Paterson. An urban waterfall through and through, Great Falls is very much in the thick of it all.

Paterson, established in 1792 as America’s first planned industrial city at a site cherry-picked by Alexander Hamilton, long reigned as a manufacturing powerhouse with dozens of textile mills, most notably silk mills, harnessing the hydropower of the roaring falls. This all being said, the park itself is in flux. New features and amenities are on the horizon as park officials attempt to strike a meaningful balance between natural beauty-driven recreation and history lessons. “It’s really a matter of emphasis,” park superintendent Darren Boch tells The New York Times. “Part of our job is to maintain and preserve the beautiful view of the waterfall. But it’s also to let people understand the significance of the area around the falls. Why is Paterson’s story integral to the history of the United States? There are resources in need of investment and we need to prioritize those resources.”

Reedy River Falls — Greenville, South Carolina

Photo: Nicolas Henderson [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Charleston has churches and colonial architecture. Columbia has boiled peanuts and college football. Hilton Head has lighthouses and golf courses. And Greenville, the Palmetto State’s sixth largest burg, has a fabulous urban park centered around Reedy River Falls, a 28-foot cascade that once powered the city’s many textile mills.

Like with so many former mill towns, Greenville, a historic Piedmont textile hub, suffered economic decline and urban decay during the mid-20th century, not to mention devastating pollution along the Reedy River, a tributary of the Saluda that bisects the city’s downtown core. The revitalization of Greenville’s once down-and-out riverfront began in earnest during 1967 when the Carolina Foothills Garden Club reclaimed 23 acres of land with plans to transform it into a public green space known as Falls Park on the Reedy. Beginning in the late 1990s, the “new” Falls Park on the Reedy began to flourish as a regional attraction, spurred by adaptive reuse-driven development (think: cotton warehouse-to-luxury condo conversions), multipurpose recreational trails and the creation of lushly landscaped gardens surrounding the falls.

In 2004, the park’s signature attraction (aside from the waterfall itself), Liberty Bridge, was completed. Located just downstream from the falls, Liberty Bridge is a curvaceous, 345-foot-long suspension footbridge that replaces an unsightly six-lane highway bridge dismantled two years prior. Today, Greenville remains a prime example of a mill town that’s managed to shake off its gritty past and reinvent itself — a city both founded and reborn around a waterfall.

St. Anthony Falls — Minneapolis

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Sure, St. Anthony Falls may lack the beauty of the Twin Cities’ other famed urban cascade, the postcard-perfect Minnehaha Falls. And yes, it’s hard to classify St. Anthony Falls as “natural.” After all, the falls themselves technically consist of a concrete overflow spillway erected in the late 1860s following years of irreversible damage brought on by erosion and increased industry (logging, textile manufacturing and flour production) along the banks of the Upper Mississippi River.

Yet there’s no denying the city-birthing power of St. Anthony Falls, an iconic hydropower source-cum-19th century tourist attraction that yielded not one but two towns, Minneapolis on the west bank of the Mississippi, and the east bank, St. Anthony, which was merged into Minneapolis in 1872.

Today, St. Anthony Falls, the 17th largest waterfall in the world, is integrated into the busy urban fabric of Minneapolis. The falls, along with its mid-20th century lock and hydroelectric dam system, can be best enjoyed by biking or hiking the St. Anthony FallsHeritage Trail. Located entirely within the National Register of Historic Places-listed St. Anthony Falls Historic District, this two-mile self-guided tour passes through many of the must-see riverfront sights including the landmark Stone Arch Bridge, Nicolett Island, Jean Nouvel’s Guthrie Theater, the old Pillsbury A-Mill, historic Main Street and Mill Ruins Park.

Spokane Falls — Spokane, Washington

Photo: Nick Bramhall [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

Spokane, principal city of the Inland Northwest, is one of those weird places that, unless you’ve visited before or know its history and terrain, you wouldn’t suspect of possessing a raging inner-city waterfall. It kind of catches you by surprise. After all, Spokane isn’t named Spokane Falls.

But it once was. Incorporated in 1881 as Spokane Falls (the "Falls" was officially dropped in 1891), the fur trading outpost-turned-mining-boomtown-turned-Expo ’74 host currently known as Spokane was established and flourished in the shadow of two falls on the Spokane River: the Upper Falls and Lower Falls. Once lined with sawmills that harnessed the power of the cascading river, both falls are the site of long-operational hydroelectric facilities.

Both falls, which together comprise the largest urban waterfall in the United States, are also home to two vantage point-filled downtown parks. Upper Falls is located within the confines of Riverfront Park, a 100-acre leftover from Expo ’74 that’s home to a historic carousel, ice rink and other family friendly diversions. Public art-filled Huntington Park and its mobbed-in-summer spray zone was opened to the public on the south bank of the Lower Falls adjacent to City Hall Plaza in 2014. The best views, however, can be enjoyed as a passenger aboard the Spokane Skyride, a 15-minute gondola excursion that swoops and sails over Spokane’s signature falls.

Willamette Falls — Oregon City, Oregon

Photo: M.O. Stevens [CC BY 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Ask anyone in Portland to point you in the direction of a must-visit waterfall within a 40-mile radius and they’ll likely advise a scenic sojourn to the Columbia River Gorge, home to Multnomah Falls and a number of other commanding cascades.

However, those who opt to venture south, not east, of Portland may find themselves face-to-face with the horseshoe-shaped force of nature known as Willamette Falls. The largest waterfall in the Pacific Northwest by volume with an impressive span of 1,500 feet, Willamette Falls doesn’t boast the crowd-drawing, postcard-perfect good looks of its brethren in the Gorge. In fact, the immediate area surrounding Willamette Falls is a bleak and tattered landscape dominated by aging-but-still-active hydroelectric facilities and abandoned paper mills.

Despite the industrial decay-heavy scene around the falls themselves, Oregon City, the historic terminus of the Oregon Trail and home to America’s only outdoor municipal elevator, isn’t all that bad — it’s quirky, quaint and slightly disarming in a “Twin Peaks”-ish kind of way. Plus, Oregon City is the site of the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, an ambitious redevelopment and revitalization scheme that aims to open public access to the falls — dubbed “the most spectacular place we don’t visit” — while reversing decades of environmental degradation and linking a previously verboten industrial site to downtown Oregon City. The subject of one of the most fascinating adaptive reuse projects in the country, Willamette Falls is a waterfall ripe for rediscovery.