Waterfall Field Guide: 12 Hikes to 4 Types of Falls
For many hikers, part of the fun in hiking is observing the elements that make up an ecosystem. Plant identification and birding are two classic activities, but did you know waterfalls fall under a classification system, too?
Details like the way the water flows, the shape and the size of the stream and how it branches and crashes are characteristics that help waterfall aficionados classify the cascades they encounter. If you're the sort of hiker who loves stopping to peer through binoculars or poke through a plant identification book, this guide will give you some new vocabulary to describe the awe of watching a waterfall.
The following classifications are a beginners guide, but waterfalls can be more finely categorized using secondary descriptors for width, height and overall effect (e.g., "curtain," "punchbowl" and "veil".) Interpretation and debate about how to classify a waterfall adds to the fun. Is that a segmented horsetail? Or a veiled cascade?
Note: Waterfalls are slippery places that have big drops and powerful currents. Observe waterfalls from a safe distance and never go off trail or beyond viewing platforms to get a closer look. Not only is it dangerous, it also damages delicate streamside vegetation.
A plunge waterfall is defined by the water losing complete contact with the rock surface as it falls. These waterfalls are some of the most striking due to pressurized water launching off the edge of a cliff and descending through the air to plunge into a pool below. A well-known example of this type of waterfall is Snoqualmie Falls.
Location: Central Washington — Potholes Region
Length: 4 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 200 feet
Just east of Vantage, butting up to the edge of the Columbia River, this hike takes visitors to a plunge type waterfall that springs out over the cliffs. In such a hot and dry environment, these falls stand out. The falls are seasonal, so go in the spring and check trip reports to see if the water is running.
> Plan your visit to Frenchman Coulee using WTA’s Hiking Guide
Falls Creek Falls
Location: North Cascades — Highway 20
Length: 2.6 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 750 feet
This one’s so nice they named it twice, and for good reason. The trail for Falls Creek Falls passes by several waterfalls, the first of which is reached after a quarter mile along a paved trail. This is a great stop if you’re in the Winthrop area doing some hiking.
> Plan your visit to Falls Creek Falls using WTA’s Hiking Guide
Iron Creek Falls
Location: South Cascades — Mount St. Helens Area
Length: 0.1 mile, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 100 feet
Located in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Iron Creek Falls is a classic example of the bowl and pitcher (or punchbowl) type of plunge waterfall, where the water shoots out over a rock precipice to land in a tranquil pool below.
> Plan your visit to Iron Creek Falls using WTA’s Hiking Guide
Horsetail waterfalls descend along a near-vertical face, but they differ from a plunge waterfall in that the water stays in contact with the rock face as it falls. Horsetail waterfalls can range from long narrow streams to wide curtains — and any width in between. You might recognize the horsetail shape in the well-known Bridal Veil Falls.
Location: Central Cascades — Entiat Mountains
Length: 1.7 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 600 feet
This trail is a waterfall lover’s paradise. A deluxe route made up of stone steps, handrails and multiple bridges weaves visitors up and around several falls along Silver Creek before topping out at a grand-finale view. Four viewing platforms along the way make great spots for identifying different parts of these falls.
> Plan your visit to Silver Falls using WTA’s Hiking Guide
Buck Creek Falls
Location: South Cascades — Mount Adams area
Length: 3 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 770 feet
A loop hike with a waterfall is a winning combination. Located near White Salmon, this trail takes visitors to a view of a gorgeous horsetail falls spilling into a calm pool below. It makes for the perfect reward after walking nearly the entire loop.
> Plan your visit to Buck Creek Falls using WTA’s Hiking Guide
Panther Creek Falls
Location: Southwest Washington— Columbia Gorge WA
Length: 0.16 mile, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 100 feet
Panther Creek Falls streams down a moss-covered rock face in multiple strands of water. The lace-like display of water set against all those hues of green is a beautiful sight. The short trail leads to a viewing platform where visitors can take in the falls.
> Plan your visit to Panther Creek Falls using WTA’s Hiking Guide
You'll recognize the cascade form of a waterfall when you see water descending down a gradually-pitched series of steps in a rock face. This type of waterfall is not as vertical as the previous two kinds and tends to be more turbulent since the water bounces along a rough and irregular rock face. A well-known example of this type of waterfall is Spokane Falls in downtown Spokane.
Brewery Park at Tumwater Falls
Location: Olympic Peninsula — Olympia area
Length: 0.5 mile, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 30 feet
This park has not one but three cascading waterfalls (does that make it a tiered waterfall? See below). The falls are spectacular, but there's more to this park than the water. It's also the site of the historic Olympia Brewery and has a native plant garden, a playground and a fish ladder.
> Plan your visit to Brewery Park at Tumwater Falls using WTA’s Hiking Guide
deception Falls National Recreation Area
Location: Central Cascades — Stevens Pass West
Length: 0.5 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 50 feet
This interpretive trail goes by a few different viewing areas of these powerful falls. The thundering cascade drops in a couple tiers to end at a granite wall where the rushing water makes an abrupt turn.
> Plan your visit to Deception Falls National Recreation area using WTA’s Hiking Guide
Location: Southwest Washington — Vancouver area
Length: 1.1 mile, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 20 feet
A short trail at this park north of Vancouver takes visitors past this rocky cascade on the East Fork Lewis River. For another waterfall experience nearby consider also checking out Moulton Falls.
> Plan your visit to Lucia Falls using WTA’s Hiking Guide
A tiered waterfall can be made up of the previous types, but is defined as a series of falls in close proximity to one another. You might have a horsetail followed by a cascade, but the whole sequence can be considered a tiered waterfall. Multiple self-contained falls follow one after the other with flat water in-between each falls. Tiered waterfalls are often described as having an upper and lower falls. A well-known example of this type of waterfall is Wallace Falls.
Deer Creek Falls
Location: Mount Rainier area — Stevens Canyon
Length: 1 mile, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 280 feet
On the east side of Mount Rainier, follow the Owyhigh Lakes Trail as it descends down into a forested valley where you’ll find the creek and the first falls. Continue hiking for new vantage points of this tiered waterfall.
> Plan your visit to Deer Creek Falls using WTA’s Hiking Guide
Flapjack Lakes via North Fork Skokomish River
Location: Olympic Peninsula — Hood Canal
Length: 15.4 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 3,050 feet
Flapjack Lakes is a great backpacking destination, but for waterfall lovers the journey will be the memorable part. Start out on the North Fork Skokomish River, eventually crossing Madeline Creek where you can marvel at the waterfalls before carrying on to your destination.
> Plan your visit to Flapjack Lakes using WTA’s Hiking Guide
Location: North Cascades — North Cascades Highway
Length: 3.5 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 500 feet
This two-tiered waterfall awaits hikers heading down the Cedar Creek Trail east of the Cascade crest on Highway 20. The waterflow fluctuates depending on the time of year and wildflowers that can be seen popping up along the trail in spring.
> Plan your visit to Cedar Falls using WTA’s Hiking Guide