12 Types of Waterfalls to See in Your Lifetime

The wide world of waterfalls

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A waterfall is just some water falling over a ledge, right? There's actually a lot more to it than that. From punchbowls to slides, from tiers to cataracts, a surprising diversity exists in ways water can tumble from point A to point B. There are anywhere from 12 to 18 different types of waterfalls, depending on how specific you get in describing them.

Not only can a single waterfall fit into multiple categories at once, but the category under which it fits can change over time through seasons, erosion, weather events and other factors. Havasu Falls (pictured) is a perfect example. It changes from falling in one continuous sheet of water to a segmented waterfall and back, depending on flooding and erosion.

This list of falls is not exhaustive as these labels can be a bit subjective. There are different variations and subtleties to how water flows over a drop, which can earn it different names. For instance, a horsetail waterfall can be subcategorized as a fan waterfall, or a ribbon waterfall, or... well, we'll get to all that later.

Suffice it to say that there are lots of amazing waterfalls out there, and we've selected 12 types, plus two unusual bonus types, that you definitely want to see during your lifetime.

Plunge waterfall

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Among the more classic waterfalls is the plunge. A plunge waterfall occurs when fast-moving water hurtles off the edge of a cliff, falling vertically in an uninterrupted sheet.

The water leaves contact with the bedrock completely, either because of the speed at which the water is moving or because the force of the falling water has eroded the softer rock of the cliff over time.

Plunge waterfalls may have enough space between the water and the rock that you can walk behind them.

A great example of a plunge waterfall is Skogafoss (pictured), located in Iceland. It is one of the largest waterfalls in the country, with a width of 82 feet and a vertical drop of 200 feet.

Punchbowl waterfall

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A subtype of plunge waterfall is the punchbowl. This is a constricted flow of water falling from a ledge, then spreading out into a pool below.

These waterfalls are particularly alluring since the wide pools provide a place to swim. The water a short distance away from the waterfall is often tranquil, though getting too close to the fall itself can be dangerous.

One beautiful example of a punchbowl waterfall is the aptly named Punch Bowl Falls on Eagle Creek in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, pictured here.

The beauty of the falls and pool draws many visitors, but it can be deadly. Some of the adventurous visitors who have jumped from the cliff into the water below have drowned.

Another much loved punchbowl waterfall is Wailua Falls on Kauai, Hawaii.

Horsetail waterfall

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A horsetail waterfall is similar to a plunge waterfall, but in this case the water maintains contact with the bedrock most of the time.

The water starts from a small stream and widens a little during its steep descent, creating a fair amount of mist during the fall — an appearance similar to that of a horse's tail.

According to World of Waterfalls, "In terms of waterfall formation and evolution, these types of waterfalls are either younger than the plunge types or the hard rock layer is steeply sloped."

If the bedrock under a horsetail fall is soft, then over time the water will erode the rock and the waterfall may become a plunge fall.

Perhaps the most famous of horsetail waterfalls is the (again, aptly named) Horsetail Falls in Yosemite National Park, pictured here. During a two-week period of time in winter, if the conditions are just right, the waterfall lights up like fire for a few minutes at sunset.

Photographer Galen Rowell's famous image of the "firefall" made the event famous, and it now draws thousands of hopeful onlookers every year. Sometimes years pass before the conditions — including angle of the sun, cloud cover and enough water flow — are exactly right to create the spectacle of light.

Multi-step waterfall

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Multi-step waterfalls are particularly beautiful since viewers enjoy not one but several waterfalls at once.

This type of waterfall — also called a tiered or staircase waterfall — is defined by a series of waterfalls that are all roughly the same size, each with its own plunge pool at the base.

Think of it a bit like a Slinky falling down a staircase, tumbling completely onto a step before tumbling on to the next step. Only the Slinky is water instead of a flexible spring.

Mitchell Falls (pictured) in Kimberly, Australia, is a beautiful example of a multi-step waterfall. It is a four-tiered fall located in Mitchell River National Park accessible only by helicopter or a rather arduous hike during the dry season.

Other famous multi-step falls include Ebor Falls in Australia, Gavarnie Falls in France and Yosemite Falls in California, which includes Upper Yosemite Falls, the Middle Cascades and Lower Yosemite Falls.

Cascade waterfall

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The cascade waterfall is akin to multi-step waterfalls, but it is a type unto itself. This waterfall tumbles over a series of rock steps, but it doesn't have plunge pools at each level like a multi-step waterfall.

Cascade waterfalls, with the continuous tumbling of water over rocks, is a type that so many landscape designers build into gardens or backyard pools for that "natural" look. Both the appearance and sound of cascade falls is soothing to viewers.

This type is one of the more common along seasonal creeks in hilly or mountainous areas. A cascade could also be an early phase in the formation of a waterfall — depending on the characteristics of the underlying rock, as water continues to flow the cascade could turn into a tiered or plunge waterfall.

Roaring Fork Falls in the Pisgah National Forest of North Carolina is a perfect example of a cascade waterfall. The falls, pictured here, descends a height of about 50 feet along approximately 100-foot cascades.

Fan waterfall

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Like most of the waterfall types, a fan waterfall gets its name for obvious reasons.

The stream of water starts out thin at the top of the fall but spreads out horizontally as it tumbles down the rock face, all the time maintaining contact with the bedrock.

These gorgeous waterfalls simply become more and more grand as they reach the river or stream below. But they also tend to be a little less common than some of the other types, which makes visiting one an extra special treat.

Union Falls in Yellowstone National Park, pictured here, is a fan waterfall every traveler should put on their list. Tumbling down from a height of approximately 265 feet, it is the second highest waterfall in Yellowstone.

Cataract waterfall

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Among the most awe-inspiring of waterfall types is the cataract waterfall.

A cataract waterfall occurs when a large amount of fast-moving water falls over a cliff. This type is categorized simply on sheer size and power.

Standing next to one can make you feel exceptionally small and fragile, and reminds viewers of the extraordinary strength of nature.

Famous among the world's cataract waterfalls are the Iguazo Falls on the border of Brazil and Argentina, pictured here. The waterfall is known for having one of the highest flow rates of any in the world. It even tops the famous Victoria Falls along the borders of Zambia and Zimbabwe.

In 2014, Iguazu Falls recorded an all-time high in its flow rate, carrying 46,300 cubic meters per second — 33 times the usual water flow rate — after torrential rains.

Block waterfall

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A block waterfall is a type of "ledge" waterfall. In a block waterfall, water falls from a wide river or stream, and the fall is typically wider than it is tall. This is different from a "curtain" waterfall, in which the waterfall is taller than it is wide.

Block waterfalls also fall over a relatively vertical surface, so they appear as a solid sheet of water.

As we mentioned, waterfalls can fit into multiple categories. Niagara Falls is one such example. The famous falls counts as a cataract waterfall, thanks to it extraordinary size and power, but it also counts as a block waterfall, as the Horseshoe Falls section demonstrates in the photograph here.

Slide waterfall

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Slide waterfalls can be considered a subtype of horsetail fall since the water maintains contact with the bedrock. What sets them apart, however, is that contact is constant because of the shallow slope of the rock in slide waterfalls.

The Oceana Falls in Tallulah Gorge in Georgia (pictured) is one such example. Experienced kayakers sometimes take a trip over the falls during times of high flow rate in the river.

Slide waterfalls create natural waterslides, such as with Sliding Rock in Pisgah National Forest of North Carolina, or portions of Slide Rock Park in Arizona. This can be inviting for visitors if the water flow isn't too hazardous.

Sometimes though, slide waterfalls can be just as dangerous as any other type, especially if the slide ends in a plunge, so enjoy with caution.

Segmented waterfall

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Sometimes, one waterfall becomes two or more. When that happens, it is called a segmented waterfall.

Segmented waterfalls occur when water finds more than one course along its downhill journey, forming distinct flows of water.

A prime example is Magod Falls in Karnataka, India. A large piece of hard rock cuts the flow of the water in half, sending two streams of water in different directions. The falls meet back up again at the base, joining into one river again.

If you notice, Magod Falls also counts as a multi-step waterfall, since the first drop lands in a plunge pool before continuing on into two separate falls.

Another example is pointed out by National Geographic: "Huge outcroppings of hard rock separate the streams of Nigretta Falls, a segmented waterfall in Victoria, Australia, before they meet in a large plunge pool."

Moulin waterfall

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A particularly special type of waterfall is a moulin. This is a waterfall found within a glacier.

A moulin is a circular vertical shaft where water enters from the surface and flows down toward the base of the glacier.

If you were to cut a moulin in half, you would see something much like the image here — an entrance at the top, a tube-like shaft, and an exit where the falling water flows away, often to an exit where it flows into the sea.

According to Wikipedia, "Water from moulins may help lubricate the base of the glacier, affecting glacial motion. Given an appropriate relationship between an ice sheet and the terrain, the head of water in a moulin can provide the power and medium with which a tunnel valley may be formed."

At the rate at which glaciers are melting, you'll have to hurry if you want to see a moulin!

Bonus No. 1: Tidefall

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As we've noticed, some types of waterfalls fit into multiple categories. A tidefall, or coastal waterfall, can fit into plunge, cascade or any other type. So it isn't necessarily a standalone type of waterfall. But it does add on an extra level of uniqueness based on where the water finally ends up: the ocean.

A relatively rare thing, there are only approximately 25 tidefalls found across the globe. There are only six in all of North America! McWay Falls, shown here, is one of two found in California, the other being Alamere Falls.

Being somewhat rare and completely gorgeous, we recommend a tidefall placed at the top of your must-see travel list.

Bonus No. 2: Frozen waterfall

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When a ledge, plunge or similar type of waterfall freezes over completely in winter, it becomes a new kind of special treat for viewers.

The sight of completely frozen falling water seems like something out of a movie, which is one reason why photographers are big fans of frozen waterfalls. So are adventurers, since frozen waterfalls can be a seasonal challenge for experienced climbers. Professional climber Will Gadd made the very first ascent of a frozen section of Niagara Falls in 2015.

The Montmorency Falls in Quebec City are even taller than Niagara, and completely freeze over in winter, making them a particularly appealing option for climbers. One climber who completed the adventure wrote on Gizmodo, "Waterfall ice climbing doesn't require the gymnastic prowess or insane feats of finger-strength of the rock version: it's just a very particular and unnatural motion, repeated to perfection."

But don't underestimate the skill it takes to get to the top without breaking a bone or freezing your fingers! Maybe it's best for most of us to just admire them from a short distance away.

Frozen waterfalls are not that hard to come by if you're in a place that gets good and cold in winter. So next time the temperature drops, head out to enjoy the sight!