10 Spectacular, Record-Setting Waterfalls

Every waterfall is wonderful, but these superlative cataracts stand apart.

Tugela Falls, South Africa
Tugela Falls in South Africa is one of the tallest waterfalls on the planet.

Emil von Maltitz / Getty Images

Earth is brimming with awesome natural wonders, but there's something uniquely wonderful about a waterfall. Whether it's a quiet creek tumbling off a cliff or a roaring torrent plunging into oblivion, a waterfall often captures the imagination of anyone close enough to see or hear it.

Some waterfalls are so spectacular, in fact, they can mesmerize us even when we're nowhere nearby. Maybe it's their height, width, or volume of water, or maybe it's just the overall scene they create, but these waterfalls call out to us from across the globe, wowing us with their dramatic waterworks. Here are just a few of these superlative waterfalls.

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Tallest Waterfall on Earth: Angel Falls

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Next time you’re in Venezuela, make sure you add a visit to Canaima National Park. This is the home of Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall with a drop of 3,212 feet (979 meters). The main plunge is an impressive 2,648 feet (807 m) and a spectacle not to miss if you have the chance to visit the area. The best time to go is June through December, and you should be prepared for a trek since the falls are in an isolated jungle.

It's undisputed that Angel Falls has the tallest single uninterrupted drop of any waterfall in the world. There is a dispute, however, over whether it is actually the tallest waterfall in the world. Our next slide features the contender.

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Second Tallest (For Now): Tugela Falls

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The claim to tallest waterfall is one rife with controversy thanks to some questionable measurements, and Tugela Falls in South Africa is in the running for the title.

Not only is Angel Falls likely shorter than initially measured in 1949, but Tugela Falls is likely taller than its measurements indicate. So rather than 3,110 feet (948 m) as usually stated (which makes it a bit shorter than the possibly erroneously stated 3,212 feet of Angel Falls), Tugela Falls may more likely be somewhere between 3,255 and 3,320 feet (992 and 1,012 m) in height.

If the two waterfalls are remeasured with more accuracy, we just may see the title for world's tallest waterfall change hands.

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Largest by Flow Rate: Inga Falls

Photo: toxnaija/YouTube screenshot

Another way to measure the size of a waterfall is by flow rate, or how much water rushes over the edge of the falls, regardless of the height of the drop. For this category, Inga Falls in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the clear winner. This waterfall is a cascade that drops 315 feet (96 m) over the course of 9 miles (14 kilometers) on the Congo River. Water rushes down Inga falls at the rate of 910,000 cubic feet (25,000 cubic meters) per second! For comparison, Niagara Falls (the largest waterfall in North America) gets just 85,000 cubic feet (2,400 cubic meters) per second.

Lest you think this is a set of rapids and not a true waterfall, it is indeed a fully fledged waterfall, with one section dropping a full 70 feet (21 m). The World Waterfall Database states, "Many, if not most accounts seem to discount it as nothing but rapids but we suspect that the most substantial portion of the falls are actually quite steep and can be legitimately considered to be a true waterfall..."

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Largest Curtain of Water: Victoria Falls

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Just to prove there are about as many ways to compare waterfalls as there are actual waterfalls, we're going to look at the record-holder for largest curtain of water. The winner is the outstandingly beautiful and weird Victoria Falls, which lies on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

This waterfall rushes into a deep chasm, making it look like the river is disappearing into a mist-filled hole. That alone is pretty neat, but Victoria Falls adds in even more flair.

The falls is 5,604 feet (1,708 m) across and 354 feet (108 m) in height. While the flow is split into smaller channels during the dry season, during times when the river is high, the tiny islands that split the water disappear and the falls create the largest curtain of falling water anywhere on Earth.

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Widest Waterfall: The Khone Falls

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Though the Chutes de Khone, or Khone Falls, may not be the most visually stunning of waterfalls it is the widest waterfall in the world by far. The falls measures 35,376 feet (10,783 m) wide. The next widest is Pará Falls which is a measly 18,400 feet (5,608 m) wide. In other words, the Khone Falls is nearly double the width of its closest competitor.

The Khone Falls in Laos is the reason why the Mekong River isn't fully navigable into China; there is simply no floating down these powerful falls and rapids that stretch down 69 feet (21 m) of river, including a 45-foot (14 m) drop. About 410,000 cubic feet (11,610 cubic meters) of water rush down this waterfall every single second.

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Most Famous Waterfall: Niagara Falls

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This is a little bit subjective, of course. But Niagara Falls is commonly considered the most well-known waterfall anywhere in the world. And the number of visitors it receives proves it. Niagara Falls gets somewhere between 9 million and 28 million visitors annually (sources vary and really, no one actually knows). Even on the lower end, it's way more visitors than other waterfalls receive anywhere in the world. It has been the site of countless stunts, and more than two dozen films have featured the falls.

The flow has been reduced by half by power plants, and it is built up on both sides by businesses wanting to cash in on the tourist trade, but Niagara Falls is still a spectacular sight to behold — thanks in no small part to more than 100 years of pushback against commercialism.

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Most Powerful Waterfall in North America: Horseshoe Falls

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A section of Niagara Falls earns the title of most powerful waterfall on the continent. Niagara Falls is made up of three separate falls: Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls. Horseshoe Falls is almost entirely on the Canadian side of the border and is easily the most powerful of the three; it's also the most powerful on the continent.

Around 90% of the river tumbles over Horseshoe Falls, an amount of about 600,000 gallons (2.3 million liters) per second during the day. (The rate changes at different times of day because the river is used for hydroelectric power generation.)

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Largest Underground Waterfall: Gaping Gill

Photo: Tania81/Wikipedia

There are quite a few amazing underground waterfalls in the world. The largest that is open to tourists is La Grotte aux Fées in Switzerland. Shown in the image here, it is a gorgeous 253-foot (77 m) tall waterfall that tumbles down into a cave that was once used as a sheep pen during Roman times but is now known as the cave of fairies.

However, there is an even taller underground waterfall in Gaping Gill. This is the second largest natural cave shaft in the United Kingdom, and the 360-foot (110 m) high waterfall within the cave is the tallest unbroken waterfall in the U.K. This underground waterfall is taller than La Grotte aux Fées, but you can't just waltz into the cave to visit. There are special tours held twice a year.

(And there may be taller underground waterfalls out there yet to be discovered!)

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Largest Underwater Waterfall: Denmark Strait Cataract

Photo: MITgcm/YouTube screenshot

This plays around with the definition of a waterfall, but keep your mind open because this is is pretty amazing.The Denmark Strait, in the Atlantic Ocean between Greenland and Iceland, is an underwater waterfall that tumbles almost 11,500 feet (3,505 m) and carries 175 million cubic feet (5 million cubic meters) of water per second.

The reason it exists is due to temperature differences in the water on either side of the strait. Cold water is denser than warm water. And the eastern side of the strait is a lot colder than the western side. So when the waters meet, the cold water sinks below the warmer water, creating a strong downward flow of water — one that can be (and is) considered a waterfall.

There are other areas of the ocean where the same thing happens, but the Denmark Straight is hands down the largest of them.

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Largest Descent Over a Waterfall: Palouse Falls

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The waterfall itself isn't the record-setter in this case, but rather a human who went over it in a kayak — but it's spectacularly beautiful, so we had to include it.

Palouse Falls in Washington state is a 198-foot (60 m) waterfall that tumbles into a beautiful pool of water. It is this falls that Tyler Bradt, a professional kayaker, chose to set a world record for the largest descent over a waterfall. The falls are made of a roughly 20-foot (6 m) upper falls and the 180-foot (55 m) lower falls. Bradt and his kayak set the record on the lower falls in 2007.