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7 Breathtaking California Waterfalls
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7 Breathtaking California Waterfalls

From coastal cascades tumbling onto beaches to dramatic falls rushing down rugged mountains, these waterfalls are worth seeking out.

California.com

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5 min read

January 31, 2021

If you like chasing waterfalls, then you’ll love the astounding array of these natural wonders found in the Golden State. California is prolific not only for its sheer number of beautiful waterfalls, but also for its variety of contenders worthy of a place on this list. From coastal cascades tumbling onto pristine beaches to dramatic falls rushing down rugged mountains, these breathtaking waterfalls are worth seeking out when visiting California’s incredible state parks and treasured national parks. 

Can’t-Miss California State Park Waterfalls


1. Burney Falls

Want to chase California state park waterfalls? Start with the enchanting Burney Falls, which was nicknamed the “eighth wonder of the world."

Location: Shasta County
Height: 129 feet
Number of drops: 1

The centerpiece of McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, the majestic Burney Falls is a definite must-see—it is a great example of a waterfall and stream fed by large springs that are often associated with areas covered by recent lava flows. Multiple springs come together in a mist-filled basin, creating the illusion of a 250-foot-wide water wall. This is quite a sight to behold, making Burney Falls a beloved attraction; it is commonly visited between April and October. 

There are numerous outdoor recreational activities you can enjoy near Burney Falls, the most popular of which is hiking, and it’s easy to see why—this is one of the most stunning Northern California waterfalls you can hike to. Five miles of hiking trails take you along winding routes and through evergreen forests. The famed Pacific Crest Trail also passes through the park and is worth exploring at least once. If you’re looking for an easygoing hike that’ll take no more than 30 minutes and still offer you great views of the spectacular state park waterfall, follow the one-mile Burney Falls Loop Trail.

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2. McWay Falls

Stop by Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to view the famed McWay Falls cascading from the cliffs onto the pristine beach below.

Location: Monterey County
Height: 80 feet
Number of drops: 1

Situated in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, just off of Highway 1, McWay Falls is an incredible state park waterfall that belongs on your Big Sur weekend itinerary. Named for pioneer homesteader Christopher McWay, the striking waterfall drops down from wooded cliffs onto the untouched cove below, flowing right into the Pacific Ocean—this makes McWay Falls a tidefall.

Want to get as close as possible to this unique waterfall? Trek the McWay Falls Overlook Trail. This 1.2-mile-long pathway gives you access to unbeatable views of the waterfall. Make sure to capture it all with your camera.

Iconic Yosemite National Park Waterfalls 


3. Horsetail Fall

Visit Yosemite in the month of February for your best chance at spotting the natural phenomenon known as "firefall."

Location: Mariposa County
Height: 1,575 feet
Number of drops: 2

Yosemite National Park is a treasure trove of natural wonders, and Horsetail Fall is perhaps the most magical of them all. This seasonal waterfall flows as two side-by-side streams during the spring and winter months. But if you want to see it at its prime, plan a visit during February. For a few weeks every year (usually in early February), when the conditions are just right, Horsetail Fall looks like it’s on fire—as the setting sun casts its light on the waterfall, it sets the water aglow in a bright red-orange hue. This natural phenomenon is often referred to as “firefall” and is among the best California national park experiences

To see Horsetail Fall, park at the Yosemite Falls parking lot (just west of Yosemite Valley Lodge), and walk 1.5 miles (each way) to the viewing area near the El Capitan Picnic Area. If you don’t feel like a quick hike, you can also park at the El Capitan Picnic Area and spot the cascade right from the road. 

4. Yosemite Falls

Add the iconic Yosemite Falls to your national park bucket list. Dropping a total of 2,425 feet, this is one of the world's tallest waterfalls.

Location: Mariposa County
Height: 2,425 feet
Number of drops: 3

The tallest waterfall in Yosemite National Park and one of the tallest in all of North America, Yosemite Falls is a sight to see. This enchanting waterfall is actually made up of three separate falls: Upper Yosemite Fall, the middle cascades, and Lower Yosemite Fall

Due to its impressive size, Yosemite Falls is visible from numerous places around the park. You can admire the falls from below or above. A one-mile loop trail leads to Lower Yosemite Fall and offers great views. But if you’re looking for a more unique vantage point (and don’t mind a bit of a challenge), trek the 7.2-mile Yosemite Falls Trail, which takes you to the top of the falls. Slather on the sunscreen, take a big bottle of water, and bring a friend for motivation—the views from the top will make all of your struggles seem worthwhile.


5. Vernal Fall

Don't skip over Vernal Fall. Though it may be smaller than other waterfalls within the national park, it is just as majestic.

Location: Mariposa County
Height: 317 feet
Number of drops: 1

Standing at a height of only 317 feet, Vernal Fall is a small but powerful California waterfall. Unlike some of its taller counterparts such as Yosemite Falls, Vernal Fall cannot be viewed very easily from afar—your best chance to do that is at Glacier Point, but it is only accessible from late May through November. To truly see Vernal Fall, you must put on your hiking shoes and get on a trail. Luckily, you have a wide range of options

The easiest path to Vernal Fall is along a well-marked trail that begins near the Happy Isles Nature Center. This is an amazing day hike for nature lovers who want to wander through the mist of this rushing national park waterfall. Another great pathway that passes by Vernal Fall is the Panorama Trail, which meanders downhill from Glacier Point.


6. Bridalveil Fall

Admire the spectacular Bridalveil Fall upon arriving in Yosemite. The towering cascade is quite a sight to behold.

Location: Mariposa County
Height: 620 feet
Number of drops: 1

Bridalveil Fall is often the first waterfall you see as you enter the Yosemite Valley. The trail leading to Bridalveil Fall (closed for a rehabilitation project until May 2021) is typically open throughout the yearwhen the water is at its peak during the spring months, it’s thundering down, so expect to get a little wet. During the rest of the year, look for its characteristic light and swaying flow. 

Leading from the parking area to the base of this waterfall, the paved trail is short but steep. Also note that the rocks above Bridalveil Fall at the viewing platform can be very slippery, so proceed with caution.


7. Chilnualna Falls

Discover the lesser-known (but no less beautiful) waterfall in Yosemite National Park: Chilnualna Falls.

Location: Mariposa County
Height: 695 feet
Number of drops: 5

The southern section of Yosemite National Park is truly underrated, and Chilnualna Falls is arguably the top example as to why. This national park waterfall features not one, not two, but five drops—it is a sight you have to experience for yourself.

You can enjoy prime views of this majestic waterfall by following the 7.8-mile out-and-back Chilnualna Falls Trail, which starts at the bottom and leads up to the top of the waterfall. This well-kept secret will make you regret not venturing out to the Yosemite Valley sooner.

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