There is perhaps no better reward than reaching a remote and wild waterfall. Here are eight of the planet’s most breathtaking falls.
The urge to seek out and marvel in awe at wild, flowing waterfalls is as deep-seated as it is ancient. Everyone from medieval poets to modern-day nomads like KEEN ambassador Chelsea Yamase has been fascinated by them. So when KEEN asked Yamase, who is also a model, writer, and photographer, to head over to Japan to explore waterfalls on the rugged and largely undeveloped Iriomote Island, in Okinawa Prefecture, she jumped at the chance.
Iriomote is accessible only by ferry, and Yamase teamed up with local guide Aki Yamashita, with a plan to paddle through the mangroves and then hike the jungle to Pinaisara Falls, a three-tiered waterfall on the upper Hinai River, one of the region’s tallest falls, at 180 feet. “It was truly an amazing experience,” says Yamase, “and KEEN’s Terradora Ethos sandal was the perfect shoe for hiking in the jungle and scrambling around on wet rocks—they’re super comfortable, almost like wearing a second-skin sock, but with the traction of a hiking shoe. No need to stop and change shoes or hike in soaking-wet sneakers.” Japan, of course, isn't the only place with stunning, hard-to-reach waterfalls. Here are a few of our other favorites.
Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls, Yosemite National Park, California
To reach two of Yosemite National Park’s most majestic waterfalls, you’ll leave the Valley on a well-traveled walkway toward Vernal Falls. A viewpoint on a bridge over the Merced River, about a mile in, attracts major crowds, but hike farther and you’ll escape the masses. Climb the Mist Trail to the top of 317-foot-tall Vernal Falls—you’ll be so close to the waterfall, you’ll get sprayed by mist on the steep staircase going up. Continue on to the top of 594-foot Nevada Falls for views of Half Dome and Liberty Cap, then return via the John Muir Trail for a 6.7-mile round-trip hike with 2,000 feet of elevation gain.
Once considered Iceland’s tallest waterfall, 650-foot-tall Glymur has been demoted to the country’s second highest. (Scientists discovered 750-foot Morsárfoss under a melting glacier a decade ago.) Still, Glymur, located in the Hvalfjörður fjord, in West Iceland, is one of the world’s most stunning falls—a striking cataract straight out of Lord of the Rings. To get there, you’ll drive an hour northeast from Reykjavík, wind down a dirt road, then hike in for just less than two miles, walking through a lava cave, across a river, and up steep boulders to reach the falls, set among a picturesque mossy canyon. Trek Iceland offers guided one-day hiking tours of the falls (from $125).
The Cascades, Monkman Provincial Park, British Columbia
There’s not just one waterfall but ten along the so-called Cascades, a series of impressive waterfalls on Monkman Creek in British Columbia’s Monkman Provincial Park, outside the town of Tumbler Ridge. You’ll reach the falls on foot via the 14-mile Monkman Lake Trail. The waterfalls start about ten miles in, and you’ll find side trails to bring hikers closer to many of the falls. There are several designated backcountry campsites along the way, and you’ll definitely want to make this a multi-day backpacking trip.
Waimoku Falls, Haleakala National Park, Maui
In the Kipahulu district of Maui’s Haleakala National Park, you can hike the Pipiwai Trail through a dense bamboo forest to the trail’s endpoint at Waimoku Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls on Maui, dropping some 400 feet down a vertical lava rock wall. Along the way, you’ll be treated to views of 200-foot Makahiku Falls, cascading pools in a meandering stream, and well-maintained boardwalks through towering bamboo. You’ll find the trailhead about 12 miles past the town of Hana, on the famed Road to Hana. The trail is about four miles round-trip and you’ll gain about 650 feet in elevation.
Cachoeira da Fumaça, Chapada Diamantina National Park, Brazil
Brazil is full of stunning waterfalls (see: Iguaçu Falls, which is so wide, it straddles the border into Argentina), but to find falls off the beaten path, you’ve got to hike for it. One standout: Cachoeira da Fumaça, a whopping 1,115-foot stunner that means “smoke falls” in Portuguese, because the water nearly evaporates by the time it reaches the ground. Deep in Chapada Diamantina National Park, it’s a four-mile hike to the top of the falls, where you’ll get views of the surrounding mountains and an eerie overlook into one of the tallest waterfalls in Brazil, or a three-day trek from the town of Lençóis to reach the bottom of the falls. Zentur offers a three-day guided hike to the base of the falls.
Sutherland Falls, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand
You can book a scenic helicopter ride for a bird’s-eye view of New Zealand’s Sutherland Falls, but to really stand there and behold its 1,900 feet of awe-inducing power, you’ve got to spend a few days hiking in on the 33-mile Milford Track. The three-tiered falls, fed by the high-alpine Lake Quill and located within the South Island’s Fiordland National Park, is among the five tallest waterfalls in the world. A side trail—usually reached on day three of the Milford Track—veers off the main trail to get closer to the falls. To walk the Milford Track, you’ll need to book overnight huts in advance—no camping allowed. Ultimate Hikes offers guided five-day treks along the Milford Track (from $1,460).
Havasu Falls, Havasupai Indian Reservation, Arizona
There is nothing easy about getting to Havasu Falls, located just outside Grand Canyon National Park on land administered by the Havasupai Tribe. It’s a rugged ten-mile one-way trail downhill to get there and another ten-mile, 2,400-vertical-foot uphill haul to get out. But trust us, it’s worth it: five cascading waterfalls, including the area’s 100-foot namesake, plus translucent turquoise pools, fern canyons, and red-rock nooks. It's also one of Yamase's favorite places. "With rope swings, swimming holes, ladders bolted to cliff sides, and tunnels to waterfalls, it feels like an oasis designed from the most wildly imagined childhood dreams," she says. No day hiking is allowed, and to camp along Havasu Creek, you need to make a reservation well in advance. Arizona Outback Adventures leads guided backpacking trips to Havasupai (from $780).
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