The Best Waterfalls in Our National Parks

Waterfall pouring over a cliff formation
Photo: Navin Rajagopalan/flickr

Waterfalls are the perfect destination for a summertime hike — the areas around them tend to be cooler during hot days, and they are meditative as well. Standing near thousands of gallons of water running over a precipice and crashing below reminds us of the power, and the beauty, of the natural world. Kids always love a good waterfall (adults aren’t immune to its powers either), and waterfalls tend to be some of the most popular destinations in our national parks. Here are some of our favorites, including Havasu Falls, which is pictured here and later in this gallery.

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Laurel Falls

Photo: Weidman Photography/Shutterstock

Laurel Falls in the Tennessee portion of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most popular falls in the park, which boasts at least a dozen. The park has perfect waterfall conditions, which are twofold — elevation gradient (rain travels over a mile in elevation from the tops of mountains to the foothills — all within the park boundaries) and ample rainfall. Laurel Falls is an iconic example of the falls in the Smokies and is one of the park's most popular attractions.

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Horsetail Falls

Photo: Phitha Tanpairoj/Shutterstock

Horsetail Falls in Yosemite National Park isn’t the biggest waterfall in the California park, but it is one of the most unusual falls in the world. Flowing over the eastern edge of El Capitan, the famous climbing challenge, Horsetail Falls can give the crazy impression that it appears to be on fire. This “firefall” happens only during the latter half of February, during sunset, on particularly clear days, but if you are there to catch it, it’s a spectacular sight.

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Marymere Falls

Photo: Sam Strickler/Shutterstock

Marymere Falls in Washington's Olympic National Park is easy to find and easy to get to, so even if you’re not a hiking buff, you can enjoy this natural wonder. Located just a mile’s walk from Highway 101 on a relatively flat dirt path, this 90-foot waterfall is a favorite spot in the park. Stairs mean viewing from above is easy to do — no climbing necessary.

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Wilderness and Columbine Falls

Photo: Rob Glover/flickr

Wilderness and Columbine Falls in Grand Teton National Park is so large that it's visible from many lookouts in the surrounding area of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. With 250 feet of waterfall, it is as dramatic as it is hard to access, requiring a boat trip, a hike, and a climb to get there. But because it can be seen easily from a distance, that’s where most people admire these snowmelt-fed falls.

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Havasu Falls

Photo: Manderson164/Wikimedia Commons

Havasu Falls in Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park is uniquely beautiful, as cool, clear water roars over red canyon rocks to collect in a pool below. This is a sacred waterfall cared for by the Havasupai people, who live on a reservation that includes the falls. You can hike in to see it, or the Havasupai offer horse or mule rides, which will make the journey as interesting as the destination.

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Bird Woman Falls

Photo: Roy Luck/flickr

Bird Woman Falls, part of Glacier National Park in Montana, sits just west of the continental divide, meaning that the water falling here will eventually make its way to the Pacific Ocean. At almost 500 feet high, this massive waterfall isn’t easy to access up close. But it is easily visible from a vantage point about two miles away on the Going-to-the-Sun road, which bisects the park, so bring your binoculars. The name refers to Sacajawea, the Native American guide who led Lewis and Clark through the wilderness, and whose name might be translated to "bird woman."

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Waimoku Falls

Photo: Sekar B/Shutterstock

Waimoku Falls in Haleakala Park in Maui is the focus of a popular four-mile round-trip hike past other smaller falls and through a bamboo forest. Visitors cross streams several times, but the path is well-maintained with walkways over the muddiest parts. The 400-foot-tall fall is surrounded by sheer cliffs, so this is a recommended hike and waterfall view for fit folks visiting the Hawaiian island.