5 West Coast Waterfalls Everyone Needs To See
There’s something about a waterfall that captures our imagination. It combines many features of our great planet that fascinate and enthrall. The dizzying heights of the cliff or bluff, the push of the water, the pull of gravity as it descends, and the thought that’s crossed everyone’s mind as some point – going over the edge. Fortunately for most of us, we can enjoy them at a safe distance, appreciating them for what they are, a gift of nature.
We had the pleasure of experiencing some of America’s most amazing waterfalls on our 2 month cross-country road trip this past spring (2015). So for our fellow waterfall chasers out there, we’ve compiled a short list of our favorite West Coast falls, including some of the interesting tidbits we learned about each along the way. This is by no means an all-encompassing list, but we hope it inspires you to visit at least one in the future. You won’t be disappointed, as they are usually surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery America has to offer.
– 5 West Coast Waterfalls Everyone Needs to See –
1.) VERNAL FALL
Vernal Fall is a 317 foot waterfall that can be found along the Mist Trail in Yosemite National Park. The trail is aptly named due to the large amount of ‘mist’ that will accompany you along the 2nd half of the hike.
Accessing the Fall: Take the shuttle in Yosemite Valley to the “Happy Isle” stop (#16) and take the trail from there. 2.4 miles round trip to the top of the fall. 1.6 miles to the [Vernal Fall] Footbridge where you can get a pretty good view of the fall for those who don’t want to make the long, steep trek to the top. I say “pretty good” because over the years, vegetation has grown to slightly obstruct the view.
Difficulty: Moderate (National park website classifies it as “strenuous”)
Traffic: Heavy. This is one of Yosemite’s most popular hikes. Most of the heavy traffic is found during the beginning part of the trail. Once you start the ascent, there’s much less people attempting this difficult part of the hike.
Best Time to View: Springtime (melting snow produces a large fall).
Trip Time: Allow 3-4 hours to trek to the top of the fall. Bring a snack and relax at the top, known as Emerald Pools.
Things to Note: To make it to the top of the fall, you’ll need to traverse .5 miles up steep granite steps (approximately 600). The natural stairs are slippery due to the waterfall spray. There is not always something to hold onto while climbing the stairs, so use extra caution. This part of the trail is the most impressive in my opinion. You’re able to experience amazing views as you feel completely engulfed by the tremendous power of nature. All of your senses will be heightened as you take in this truly amazing landscape.
Trail Etiquette: No bikes, pets or strollers allowed. I wish this was obvious, but in my experience, sadly it’s not: DON’T LITTER! And yes, cigarette butts are litter. Please don’t carve your name or initials into the trees or rocks. Respect nature and leave no trace.
2.) MULTNOMAH FALLS
Located a mere 35 minute drive east of the great Pacific Northwest city of Portland, OR, on the Historic Columbia River Highway is the wondrous Multnomah Falls. Dropping a total of 620 feet between the upper and lower falls, Oregon’s tallest waterfall is truly an amazing site to witness. It plunges down the side of the Columbia River Gorge to its ultimate destination in the massive and beautiful Columbia River.
Accessing the Falls: This is one of the easiest waterfalls to see in the U.S., given that it’s off a major highway with ample parking. After a short ¼ walk from the main lodge and information stand, you’ll find yourself standing on Benson Bridge, immersed in one of the most iconic views on the west coast.
A perfect spot for pictures, but keep in mind, it may be crowded depending on the time of day, and day of week. For those interested in a more up-close and personal view of the falls (as well as less crowded), you can hike the 1.1 mile paved trail to the top of the falls. Although it’s a winding uphill journey, it’s not a trail that will push your limits. It’s well marked and the view at the top is undeniably stunning.
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate depending on how far up or past the falls you want to venture. With both wheelchair-accessible viewing platforms and steep hiking trails that lead all the way to the top, this is a natural wonder for all ages and abilities to enjoy.
Traffic: Heavy by the iconic Benson Bridge and Multnomah Lodge. Light along the trail up to the top of the falls. Once we ventured into the lush forest beyond Multnomah, we only saw 2 other people over the course of a few hours.
Best Time to View: Year round
Trip Time: Allow 2-3 hours or more for your trip (including the commute from Portland), and even more if you’d like to hike the extensive trail system behind the falls, which we highly recommend.
Things to Note: Bring a jacket or sweater, and be prepared to get a little bit damp from the mist. If you’re hiking beyond the main viewing area, a water bottle, snacks, and hiking poles would make your trip that much more enjoyable. Lastly, there is a beautiful restaurant on site just below the falls called Multnomah Falls Lodge. It’s a cozy, rustic lodge with stiff drinks and comfort food, perfect after a damp afternoon spent waterfall chasing.
Trail Etiquette: Pets are allowed but must be on leash. While hiking the 1¼ switchback path up to the top of the fall, be courteous to your fellow hikers. The trail is narrow and irregular at times, especially towards the edge, which can be nerve-wracking for downward-bound hikers who are forced to the edge. Remember to share the trail and help others.
**Honorable Mention: Weisendanger Falls
This waterfall is about a mile hike back into the wilderness past Multnomah Falls. It’s a rocky and slightly slick pathway into the woods, but it’s more than worth the effort.
There are several more waterfalls in the area that are worth a visit as well. Prepare to be impressed.
3.) MCWAY FALLS
One of the magnificent parts about the area of Big Sur, California, is not only the iconic drive up the Pacific Coast Highway, but also the many spectacular waterfalls. The first we’ll spotlight is McWay Falls.
A small but steady stream drops 80 feet onto the beach in central California. Large pines and jagged rocks as your backdrop, with the Pacific crashing on the shore, it’s truly a sight to see. A dream photo opportunity for the novice or professional photographer, be sure to bring your camera.
Accessing the Falls: It’s an easy, paved stroll down from the famous Pacific Coast Highway to the main viewing area, but beware, parking is limited and treacherous. During our visit, we had to park on the side of a road about ¼ mile away from the falls viewing area around a blind corner. It’s a commonly featured piece of one of California’s favorite public spaces, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Trip Time: 30 minutes – 1 hour
Traffic: Heavy. Parking is limited so you might have to get creative.
Best time to view: Year round, with spring and fall being the prime viewing in terms of weather and scenery.
Things to Note: The beach is a protected area, and the public is not allowed to descend the jagged cliffs to access the sand. Viewing from a distance only. If you plan to stay in the park, be sure to check the rules for reservations based on the time of year. In the summer months, it fills quickly
4.) LIMEKILN FALLS
Another stunner in the Big Sur locale is the secretive Limekiln Falls. If you search for other notable waterfalls on the West Coast, Limekiln is rarely included. The reason Limekiln is a bit under the radar is because it’s truly ‘off the beaten path’. It takes a 1 mile hike round trip into the forest to see. But this is also why we decided to include this fall on our list. The hike, in and of itself, is worth the trip to see Limekiln. You’ll be traversing over fallen trees, fern covered creek beds, and constantly surrounded by towering Coastal Redwoods, the tallest tree on earth. It makes the falls and moss-covered rock wall at the end of the hike the proverbial icing on the cake. It’s a whimsical journey that gives you the sense of being in another place and time. Another surprise is that you can walk directly up to the falling water without getting completely drenched, as it’s a slow, steady stream falling 100 feet to the forest floor.
Accessing the Falls: Enter Limekiln State Park from the Pacific Coast Highway near Lucia, CA. Once you find your camping or parking spot, you can take the wooded path back into the trees to view the falls.
Difficulty: A mostly flat, short hike, the majority of the difficulty will be climbing over the multiple creek beds.
Traffic: The Park itself can be extremely crowded, especially during spring and summer months, but once you walk a few hundred feet into the forest, you’ll feel like you’re on your own.
Best Time to View: Spring and summer when foliage and flowers are in abundance.
Trip Time: If you plan to meander the other paths along the hike, then I would allocate at least 2 hours for the trip. If walking just to the falls and back, 60 minutes should be enough, but we highly recommend spending a few hours to explore the many sights and sounds. Once you finish your trek to the falls, take the short path down to the beach to sit underneath Highway 1 between two huge coastal cliffs. It’s an excellent spot to rest and enjoy the crashing waves of the Pacific on the rocky beach.
Things to Note: One of the more unique hikes on our list, be ready to take pictures. The light that accesses the forest floor through the trees creates extremely cool photo opportunities. Also, there are numerous types of wildlife in the area. Be on the lookout for mountain lion and different types of snakes. Although seeing them is unlikely, they have been known to pose a threat to humans.
Trail Etiquette: This is a pristine and delicate environment. As always, leave no trace as you enjoy what nature has to offer.
5.) BRIDALVEIL FALL
The drive into Yosemite is overwhelmingly beautiful! You’re hit with everything nature has to offer; breathtaking views, powerful rivers, huge redwoods and countless waterfalls. One of the 1st things visitors often see as they enter Yosemite Valley is the 617 foot Bridalveil Fall. This fascinating and swaying waterfall is a great experience for all ages and abilities. It’s accurately named, as the fall resembles a flowing wedding veil.
Accessing the Fall: While Bridal Veil can be seen as you drive into Yosemite Valley, we highly recommend taking the short and easy trail to the bottom of the Fall to get the full experience. In spring, plan to get wet as you trek closer. There are ample parking options in lots or parking on either side of the road.
Distance: 1 mile round trip
Time: 30 minutes – 1 hour
Best Time to View: Spring (when the snowmelt creates a larger fall).
Trail Etiquette: Leashed pets allowed. Do not feed wildlife.
Things to Note: If visiting in the spring, plan to get wet. The trail is paved but not considered wheelchair accessible due to grade.