Trickles or torrents, sheer plunges or rocky chutes, mountain cataracts or desert gushers, waterfalls draw us into their multi-sensory spectacle. We delight in the sight and sound of their tumbling waters, inhale their freshness, even feel their tingling spray on our faces. They can soothe us and, some say, improve our mood by bathing us in negative ions. For naturalist John Muir, their song helped him "get as near the heart of the world" as he could.
What makes a waterfall noteworthy? Height, width, and volume all count, says expert Bryan Swan of the World Waterfall Database and Northwest Waterfall Survey. Based on his criteria and other factors—such as ease of visiting and the thoroughly unscientific observation that they're darn pretty—here are ten must-see falls in the West.
Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California
Even in a Sierra Nevada valley famed for sending water over cliffs—from brawny Vernal to lithe Bridalveil—Yosemite Falls astounds. Hurtling 2,425 feet earthward in a series of free falls and tumbles, California's highest waterfall is at maximum flow in May or June. Visitors crowd the easy, mile-long Lower Yosemite Fall Trail to its base to revel in the drama of drenching mist and chest-rumbling sound. But the falls can also bewitch quietly, especially on clear nights when the moon is full and the water level is high. "That's when lunar rainbows—moonbows—materialize in the spray," says Sacramento photographer Beth Young. "Long-exposure photos capture them best, but even with the naked eye you'll see them faintly."