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America’s 5 Best Waterfall Hikes

By Randy Yagi

With the long awaited arrival of spring, many people are starting to take advantage of warmer weather and clearer skies by hiking the great outdoors or taking an amazing road trip. The slowly rising temperatures also means it’s time to enjoy radiantly colored flowers blooming across the nation’s expansive landscape and peak water flows at many of the tallest and most famous waterfalls on the planet.

While it’s also best to plan a day trip or spring vacation well in advance, it’s never really too late to hit the trails and witness the unrelenting power and breathtaking beauty of America’s most spectacular waterfalls. Here is a brief introduction to five of the best waterfall hikes in the country.

Havasupai Trail

Accessible by foot, horseback or mule service, the Havasupai Trail is classified as a moderately difficult hike located within the Havasupai Indian Reservation in northwestern Arizona. Also under the jurisdiction of Grand Canyon National Park, the trail features a handful of awe-inspiring waterfalls, including two of the most famous and most photographed in the country, Mooney Falls and Havasu Falls, once described by the Travel Channel as one of America’s Best Secret Swimming Holes. With overnight reservations or day hiking permits required, the Havasupai Trail extends 10 miles from the trailhead at Hualapai Hilltop, where parking is available, then through a series of switchbacks before finally reaching Supai Village, known as the most remote town in the continental U.S.

The payoff of course, is to marvel at the red rocks of Havasupai Canyon and the clear blue-green (Havasupai) waters of five breathtaking waterfalls, which in addition to Havasu Falls and Mooney Falls, includes Beaver Falls, Fifty Foot Falls and Little Navajo Falls. While the hike generally requires at least one overnight stay and plenty of drinking water, the recommendation to complete the entire 20-mile out and back trek is three days. The trailhead at Hualapai Hilltop is approximately 190 miles from Grand Canyon Village and 66 miles from Peach Springs. Both Hualapai Hilltop and Supai are also accessible by helicopter, with tickets available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Related: Hiking America’s Most Treacherous Mountains

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Mist Trail

Known as the signature hike of Yosemite National Park, the Mist Trail allows hikers to view two of the park’s most famous waterfalls, Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall. Beginning at the Happy Isles trailhead in the Yosemite Valley, the very popular Mist Trail extends 7 miles round trip and travels along the Merced River then to the top of the 318-foot tall Vernal Fall at the 3-mile round trip mark, with an elevation gain of 1,000 feet and then proceeding to the top of the 594-foot tall Nevada Fall at the turnaround point, with an elevation gain of 1,900 feet. The length of a round trip hike is expected to take two to five hours, depending on the length and the hike itself is described as moderate although the trek up to the top of Nevada Fall can be very strenuous.

An easier alternative to the Mist Trail is the half-mile Bridalveil Fall Trail to the base of its namesake falls in an estimated 20 minutes of hiking time. The best time to enjoy peak runoffs of Yosemite’s breathtaking waterfalls is typically in May or June although most flow year round. Because there is no parking available, the best way to reach the Happy Isles trailhead is via the free Yosemite Valley Shuttle or walk from Curry Village. For visitors who want to challenge themselves further, they might want to hike the historic 7.2-mile Yosemite Falls Trail to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls, the highest section of the tallest waterfall in the country.

Niagara Gorge Rim Trail

A notable portion of the Niagara Gorge Trail System, this scenic 6.2-mile trail extends along the Niagara River Gorge, from the Robert Moses Power Plant to Goat Island, a segment of America’s oldest state park, Niagara Falls State Park. The longest of the trails in the system, the Niagara Gorge Rim Trail offers a number of breathtaking spots to view the Niagara River Gorge, such as Devil’s Hole and Whirlpool Rapids, as well as exhilarating vistas of the three waterfalls that comprise Niagara Falls – the American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and Horseshoe Falls on Goat Island, which in itself features a 2.9-mile looped trail.

Among the other prominent attractions within New York’s most visited state park are the Maid of the Mist tours boats and the Cave of the Winds, which requires the use of a rain poncho and sandals to negotiate the slippery wooden walkway to within an earshot of thunderous Bridal Veil Falls on the incomparable Hurricane Deck. There are four parking lots within Niagara Falls State Park, including near the Visitor Center and near the entrance of the Cave of the Winds on Goat Island.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Multnomah Falls Trail

With breathtaking views of Oregon’s highest waterfall, the Multnomah Falls Trail is the most popular of a series of trails within the sprawling Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Starting from the trailhead near Multnomah Falls Lodge, situated along the spectacular Columbia River, the 2.4-mile trail via the landmark Simon Benson Bridge to the Upper Falls Viewpoint is rated as moderate, with steep switchbacks and an elevation gain of 870 feet, yet rewards hikers with mesmerizing views of the 620-foot tall Multnomah Falls and the encapsulating natural beauty of a temperate rainforest within the Pacific Northwest.

A connecting trail proceeds further to Wahkeena Falls before returning to the lodge in a challenging 5.54-mile loop and an elevation gain of 1,600 feet. Located 30 miles east of Portland via the Historic Columbia River Scenic Byway, the Multnomah Falls Lodge Restaurant offers plenty of parking as well as a larger parking lot adjacent to Benson State Recreation Area off Highway 30, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway.

Pipiwai Trail

Only covering four miles round trip but considered moderately difficult, the Pipiwai Trail is one of the most popular attractions in southeastern Maui. Located within Haleakalā National Park and near the end of the fabled Road to Hana Highway, the well-maintained pathway travels along its namesake Pipiwai Stream and past the famous Pools of Oh’e, amid a thriving bamboo forest. Hikers will continue past an enormous banyan tree and the Falls at Makahiku overlook, before arriving at the 400 foot tall Waimoku Falls.

Considered one of the best hikes of Hawaii, the Pipiwai Trail has an 800-foot elevation gain in either direction and is expected take 2.5-5 hours to complete. Plenty of parking is available near the trailhead at Kipahulu Visitor Center in the southeastern section of the national park also well known for its stunning sunrise views. Guided ranger hikes of Pipiwai Trail are available on Sundays on a reservation basis. Although the hiking trails of Haleakalā National Park remain open, access to the popular Pools of Ohe’o swimming area may be closed due to safety concerns with rockslides. Still, the captivating hike to the falls and the scenic drive along the legendary Road to Hana makes it all worthwhile.

Related: 5 Best Excursions On Hawaii’s Big Island

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