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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Waterfalls and Hanging Valleys

With my buddy Cal and our sons, home on spring break, I hiked to Feather Falls in the rugged Feather River canyon country southeast of Chico (northern California) this weekend. The nine-mile round trip wound through lower montane habitat with gorgeous Canyon live oaks spreading their twisting limbs over hillsides, and unusual patches of California nutmeg trees and reddish-barked madrones. The 640-foot waterfall, billed as the sixth tallest in the contiguous U.S., did not disappoint, especially viewed from the splendid overlook perched on a rock spur facing the falls head-on across the canyon, barely 100 yards away. If this is number six, I wondered, what are the five taller?

Turns out to be tougher to establish the tallest American waterfalls than I figured. You can google up lots of “best waterfalls” lists, which of course vary wildly, but surprisingly you really have to dig to find out the quantitatively tallest waterfalls. I finally found a list I might believe in within a 1990 US Geological Survey (USGS) publication (The National Gazetteer of the U.S.A., table 9). Even here, number three on the list turns out to be inaccurate according to more recent data at Silver Strand Falls in Yosemite is not 1170 feet tall, but only 574 feet, and was for years confused with the nearby Widow’s Tears Fall, which “only” falls 810 feet steeply, then descends another 700 feet over a series of lower-angled steps and slabs.

Doubtless one reason for the scarcity of lists of tallest waterfalls is the large amount of subjective judgment about how you measure them. How unimpeded does the fall of water have to be to qualify as one fall? For example, Yosemite Falls is listed as more than 2,000 feet tall on several lists, but in fact is comprised of Upper Yosemite Falls, which drops 1430 feet, then the water flows at a low, nearly horizontal angle over slabs and smaller falls for a third of a mile before reaching Lower Yosemite Falls, which then plummets the rest of the way down to the valley floor. One waterfall or two? Would it matter if it flowed horizontally only 20 feet before resuming its fall?

Staring down into the turbulence at the bottom of Feather Falls this weekend, I realized that even judging the “bottom” of a fairly unimpeded fall of water was subjective, given the jumble of massive boulders at the bottom of the falls. A final complication might arise from the duration of the falls through the year. Many of the Yosemite falls result from snow-melt, and completely disappear by mid-summer, regardless of how spectacular they are in the spring. Does a waterfall have to persist year-round to “count”? If not, how many months qualify it as “a fall”?

Given that it’s complicated, though, here is what one might reasonably call the six tallest waterfalls in the contiguous U.S., based mainly on the 1990 USGS compilation, as revised by more recent measurements. Number one is Ribbon Falls, which plunges 1612 feet just west of El Capitan from the north rim of California’s Yosemite Valley. To the east of of El Cap, 3.5 miles up Yosemite Valley, is 1430-foot Upper Yosemite Falls, the next tallest.

The third tallest is—yep, you guessed it, also in Yosemite Valley, but this one on the south rim—Widow’s Tears Fall, at 810 feet, the western-most fall in the valley, which with Silver Strand Fall (#9 on the list) drains from a small basin north of Yosemite’s Badger Pass. Widow’s Tears has probably the shortest seasonal duration of existence of all the top falls, hence the name (referring to the short time period that a widow is teary-eyed before moving on; I hasten to distance myself from this point of view). Unlike Ribbon Falls and Upper Yosemite Falls, this fall is difficult to see, particularly from the valley floor. From the viewing area at the Wawona Tunnel, you have to tear your eyes off Yosemite Valley before you and look about 45 degree to your right to see Widow’s Tears.

The fourth tallest American waterfall is Fairy Falls, in Washington’s Mt. Rainier National Park, at 700 feet, though it can only be viewed from quite a distance away. Number five, by the revised USGS list, is our own 640-foot Feather Falls in the Feather River canyon country of northern California. Despite its name, Feather Falls is not on the Feather River, but rather on the Fall River several miles before it joins the middle fork of the Feather River. Number six is 620-foot Bridalveil Falls on the south rim of the Yosemite Valley, not quite a mile east of Widow’s Tears, and nearly opposite Ribbon Falls on the north rim.

You’ll forgive me as a proud Californian for pointing out that five of these tallest six waterfalls in the contiguous United States are in California, with four of the five residing in Yosemite Valley. If you consider the tallest dozen falls, 8 of the 12 are in California, 7 of these 8 in Yosemite.

Why does Yosemite have so many great waterfalls? For the same reason that the Lauterbrunnen Valley (Lauterbrunnental) in Switzerland has so many famous waterfalls: glaciation. Valleys formed largely by glaciation have been ice-gouged into a “U-shaped” cross section, which gives you steep walls and “hanging valleys” atop the rims, where side-canyons have been truncated and thus hurl their streams dramatically over the steep walls. (The more common “V-shaped” valleys produced by river erosion clearly don’t favor dramatic waterfalls.)

So nature-lovers in Europe are drawn to 900-foot Staubbach Falls in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, the magnificent fall formed by exactly the same processes as Yosemite’s falls (though the rock being glacially gouged into the U-shape there is limestone, rather than the granite of Yosemite). Glaciation is also responsible for the stunning fyords found on the western coast of Norway and the eastern coast of Greenland, which are nothing but glaciated valleys “overdeepened” below sea level, the vertical walls plunging deep below sea level as well as rising steep above the waters.

So much for the science of waterfalls. Their poetry is equally enchanting, of course, as we realized staring at the lively cascading spray of waters plummeting down Feather Falls. Perhaps no one has come closer to capturing the enchantment of waterfalls than John Muir, passionate lover of water in motion. He describes the waters of Nevada Falls in Yosemite in words that might be applied to our Feather Falls or any others:

“The Nevada (Fall’s water) is white from its first appearance as it leaps out into the freedom of the air. At the head it presents a twisted appearance, by an overfolding of the current from striking on the side of its channel just before the first free outbounding leap is made. About two thirds of the way down, the hurrying throng of comet-shaped masses glance on an inclined part of the face of the precipice and are beaten into yet whiter foam, greatly expanded, and sent bounding outward, making an indescribably glorious show, especially when the afternoon sunshine is pouring into it. In this fall—one of the most wonderful in the world—the water does not seem to be under the dominion of ordinary laws, but rather as if it were a living creature, full of the strength of the mountains and their huge, wild joy.” (from My First Summer in the Sierra, August 4, 1869 entry). To which one can only say, “Amen!”

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