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Water covers 70% of the planet, and waterfalls are found on every continent — even Antarctica, where the famed Blood Falls run red with iron oxide-rich saltwater. Formed by erosion, waterfalls come in many forms — cascades, punchbowls, horsetails — and many ebb and flow (or disappear altogether) depending on the season and precipitation levels. The highest and most powerful waterfall on Earth can’t be visited. Formed by temperature variations in water, the Denmark Strait Cataract is located deep in the North Atlantic Ocean. But here are 15 wild and wonderful waterfalls you can visit — just don’t get too close to the edge!
Iguazú Falls, Argentina and Brazil
The name Iguazú is derived from a Guaraní word meaning “great water,” and the people who named the river and its falls weren’t kidding. The site of that iconic plunge in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Iguazú Falls is the world’s largest waterfall system, made up of more than 275 separate waterfalls and islands that cascade between the border of Argentina and Brazil. In the midst of the glorious complex, the dramatic Devil’s Throat is 300 feet wide and 260 feet tall. While most of the river’s falls lie on the Argentinian side, there are plenty of panoramic viewing spots in Brazil as well. Both countries have catwalks and observation decks, and boat tours are a popular way to see the falls.
Khone Phapheng Falls, Laos
One of Asia’s longest rivers, the Mekong originates in Tibet and tumbles down through the Himalayas and southern China, before flowing into Southeast Asia along the borders of Laos, Burma, and Thailand into Cambodia. It finally empties into the South China Sea in Vietnam. In Southern Laos, the mighty Mekong forms a series of cataracts that have kept the river from being completely navigable into China, frustrating colonizers (and the Chinese) for centuries. Together, the Khone and Phapheng Falls combine to form a muddy torrent of rapids and falls that drop 70 feet and are 6.7 miles wide — making it the world’s widest waterfall. There is a visitor’s center with a temple, museum, and observation deck, and many tourists choose to take a tuk-tuk from the village of Nakasong.
Victoria Falls, Zambia and Zimbabwe
In the Sotho language, these falls are called Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders.” But when Scottish explorer David Livingstone laid eyes upon them in 1855, while exploring the Zambezi River, he named them in honor of Britain’s Queen Victoria. With a combined width of more than a mile and height of 350 feet, Victoria Falls features the largest uninterrupted water curtain in the world, as the entire river pours unobstructed over a broad and level valley of basalt. In the rainy season, the rainbow-sparkled spray from the falls can be seen up to 30 miles away, and the roar of the water can be heard from a distance of 20 miles. From the Zambian side, intrepid tourists can join a boat tour to Livingstone Island and take a dip in the aptly named Devil’s Pool, where a narrow lip of stone creates a deceptively calm 10-foot-deep swimming hole that sits adjacent to the raging waters.
Bridalveil Fall, California
Although not the tallest waterfall in Yosemite National Park (that honor goes to its big sister, Yosemite Falls, with a 2,425-foot drop), Bridalveil is the most famous in the park, popularized by the photos taken by Ansel Adams and its prominent location near the park entrance. Fed by Ostrander Lake, the waterfall plunges 620 feet to its base. Bridalvail is most spectacular in the spring and in windy conditions, when the waters can appear to be falling sideways. The bottom of the falls are accessible via an easy half-mile paved trail, and it’s also visible from Highway 41. An especially nice vista is Tunnel View, where you can also see the famous vertical rock formation El Capitan.
Skógafoss Falls, Iceland
It is estimated that there are as many as 10,000 waterfalls (or “foss”) in Iceland, yet in a country with so many majestic falls, Skógafoss manages to stand out. One of the most photographed waterfalls in the country, it measures 82 feet wide and with a drop of almost 200 feet. Visitors can stretch their legs and climb 370 steps to access an observation platform right over the cascade, which offers great views of the southern coast. The land at the base of the falls is flat, so if you don’t mind a splash, you can walk right up to the plummeting water. The massive spray ensures at least one rainbow (often two) any time the sun is out.
Niagara Falls, Canada and the U.S.
Even though it isn’t the largest waterfall on Earth, Niagara Falls is easily one of the most recognizable. Straddling the border between New York state and the Canadian province of Ontario, the magnificent falls were once the honeymoon destination in the early 19th century, and today millions of visitors each year still flock to both the Canadian and American sides of the falls to marvel at the thundering cascades. Collectively known as “Niagara,” this postcard-perfect site is actually three separate waterfalls: American, Bridal Veil, and Canadian (Horseshoe) Falls. Approximately 20% of all the freshwater in the world is found in the Great Lakes, and all of it flows to the Niagara River, eventually cascading over the falls. Both sides of the divide offer boat rides, observation decks, and many opportunities to experience these natural wonders.
Angel Falls, Venezuela
Angel Falls — the world’s tallest waterfall — was named for U.S. aviator Jimmie Angel, who was the first person to fly over it and share his discovery with the outside world in 1933. But the Indigenous Pemon people called it Kerepakupai Merú (“waterfall of the deepest place”), which seems more appropriate. Rocketing from the edge of Auyán-Tepuí mountain in Venezuela’s Canaima National Park, the falls have a total height of 3,212 feet and a single dramatic plunge of 2,648 feet. The surrounding area is rich in waterfalls, as well as wildlife including jaguars, primates, and giant anteaters. Located in a dense and remote jungle, visiting the falls requires flights on small planes into Canaima camp, where the local Pemons guide tourists by boat to the base of the falls.
Kaieteur Falls, Guyana
The largest single-drop waterfall (by volume of flow), Kaieteur Falls is surrounded by dense Amazon rainforest in Guyana, on South America’s North Atlantic coast. The Potaro River plunges 741 feet to the base at 23,400 cubic feet per second, making Kaieteur Falls one of the most powerful waterfalls on the planet. While one legend claims the falls are named for a chief who sacrificed himself to the gods, the favorite story says an unpleasant man was pushed into a boat at the edge by his relatives, giving the plunge the name Kaieteur (literally, “old man fall”). Visiting is easy: Kaieteur International Airport is a 15-minute walk from the top of the falls.
James Bruce Falls, Canada
Yosemite Falls often gets the credit, but the tallest waterfall in North America is actually in the Canadian province of British Columbia. (Perhaps the confusion arises because in the heat of summer, the waterfall’s two namesake streams — James and Bruce — often dry up completely.) James Bruce Falls starts from a small snowfield in Princess Louisa Marine Provincial Park and plummets 2,760 feet down in a tiered horsetail — more than 15 times higher than Niagara. The water empties into Loquilts Creek, then Chatterbox Falls and finally into the beautiful Princess Louisa Inlet.
Ruby Falls, Tennessee
Hidden deep within Lookout Mountain in the spectacular Cumberland Plateau, Ruby Falls is America’s largest and deepest publicly accessible waterfall. More than 1,100 feet below the mountain’s surface, the 145-foot falls are part of a watershed that includes streams, snowmelt, rainfall, and irrigation runoff, so water flow varies dramatically throughout the year. Tours operate daily via a glass elevator that descends 260 foot into the cavern, with colored lights illuminating the falls. Make a day of it and combine a visit to Ruby Falls with a ride on Lookout Mountain’s formidable incline railway and a tour of “world-famous” Rock City Gardens.
Tres Hermanas, Peru
In Peru’s Junin region east of Lima, the “Three Sisters” plunge 3,000 feet to create the world’s third-tallest waterfall. Fed by the Cutivireni River, the waterfall was named for its three distinct tiers, and is located in Otishi National Park, a protected region in the Vilcabamba range. The lush montane forest supports orchids, ferns, an amazing range of birds, and endangered species such as the Andean spectacled bear. Located in a remote region, the falls are often admired from the air by visitors who wish to skip the seven-hour drive.
Ban Gioc Falls, Vietnam
The fourth-biggest border waterfall in the world, the falls of Ban Gioc (also known as Detian) divide China and Vietnam and are fed by the Quay Son River. An eight-hour drive from Hanoi, these otherworldly terraces of falling water are far enough off the beaten path to remain relatively uncrowded, except on weekends and public holidays. Stay in nearby Cao Bang and don’t skip hiring a bamboo raft to get you up close and personal to the falls. The terraces drop nearly 100 feet and spread almost 700 feet wide.
Plitvice Lake Falls, Croatia
Croatia’s largest national park (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is home to a spectacular series of “hanging lakes'' — a fairyland of 16 terraced lakes connected by travertine barriers which form waterfalls. The drop from the first lake to the last is 436 feet. The lakes and falls are accessed by walkways and electric boats, and at the lower lakes, visitors will see the 255-foot Veliki Slap, the largest fall. Moss, algae, and minerals contribute to the lakes’ distinctive colors, which range in shades of gray, green, and blue.
Ouzoud Falls, Morocco
Located high in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, the Ouzoud Falls are an easy (but long) day trip from Marrakech. (If you’d rather not rush, stay three minutes away at the Riad Cascades d'Ouzoud.) A definite must when visiting Morocco, Ouzoud is a multi-step waterfall, located near the village of Tanaghmeilt. The falls plunge 330 feet into the gorge of the El-Abid River. In the summer, swimmers frolic at the pools beneath the falls. Winter finds the waters too cold for swimming, but visitors can still book a boat ride — and feed the cheeky Barbary monkeys that live in the area — throughout the entire year.
Boyoma Falls, Congo
Between the river ports of Ubundu and Kisangani, Boyoma Falls (formerly known as Stanley Falls and called chûtes Wagenia by the French) form one of Africa’s largest waterfalls by volume of annual flow rate. While the drops aren’t particularly dramatic — the highest is 16 feet and the total drop is 200 feet — the width is. The largest single cataract measures nearly half a mile wide. This series of waterfalls stretch a whopping 62 miles along the Lualaba River, which flows into the Congo River. Although Boyoma Falls may not appear on many postcards, the amount of sheer water volume is truly impressive.