Everyone likes a list. Forbes Magazine annually lists the 50 richest people in the world. Every Christmas, children make wish lists to send to Santa Claus. A range of charts list top songs and albums every week. And at the end of every year, newspapers, magazines and Web sites compile various lists of reader’s favorites, from cars to chocolates and fine wine.
One subject primed for listing is waterfalls. Although a waterfall seems simple in nature -- it's usually a river that plunges over a rocky ledge into a pool of water, then continues flowing as a river -- the visual effect of a large waterfall in a beautiful setting can be breathtaking.
But despite their beauty and common billing as local landmarks, compiling an accurate list of the highest waterfalls in the world is not an easy task. Waterfall enthusiasts and geologists debate points such as flow volume, whether the falls are composed of one drop or several and of course the methods for accurately determining the height of the falls [source: World Waterfall Database].
Many of the world's tallest waterfalls aren't very well known, and that's not because they aren't captivating -- it's mostly because they're in very remote, rugged locations. And because they're so far off the beaten path, a few of these giants were only recently discovered. So although this list is up-to-date, there may be other waterfalls out there even taller than these 10. Read on to learn about the current kings in the waterfall world, but don't be surprised if a new discovery or two changes the list in the future [source: Merco Press].
Browne Falls, New Zealand
Waterfall hunters might be forgiven for missing the smallest of the 10 waterfalls on our list. For one thing, Browne Falls sits near the southern tip of New Zealand, emptying into Doubtful Sound along the coast of Fjordland National Park. The sound (which is a large type of ocean inlet) sits miles from the nearest road and far from the island nation's major cities.
The waterfall's path doesn't help its visibility, either. Starting at a height of 2,030 feet (619 meters), the falls course through a series of gradual, frothing drops before plunging into a deep, brushy ravine. The lower half of the falls winds through the dense vegetation, which hides its path from most casual onlookers.
This has made Browne Falls a target of speculation: Some argue that Sutherland Falls, also located in Fjordland National Park, is actually New Zealand's highest waterfall. That cascade plunges vertically over three straight steps in a misty, highly visible display. But with a total height of 1,902 feet (580 meters), Sutherland falls slightly short of Browne [source: World of Waterfalls].
James Bruce Falls, Canada
People interested in seeing the world's ninth tallest waterfall will have to stay focused; visitors to James Bruce Falls near British Columbia's Princess Louisa Inlet could easily be distracted by the other, more visible waterfalls in the area.
James Bruce Falls is a comparative trickle when viewed alongside more mammoth waterfalls. Its glacial water source produces a fraction of the flow of a large river, so it's more a winding ribbon of whitewater than a thundering sheet of falling water. James Bruce Falls twists and turns through 2,755 feet (840 meters) of rocky, folded hills before emptying into the inlet. It is difficult to see in its entirety from its mouth, which must be reached by boat; a hike into the hills on local trails can produce a better view.
Nearby, however, a number of other waterfalls can be found. Some of these, like the short but frothing Chatterbox Falls, produce their grandest display near the inlet shore. Vacationers and casual tourists may be tempted to stay near these easier-to-access falls, rather than making their way to what some regard as North America's highest waterfall [source: World Waterfall Database].
Pu'uka'oku, United States
Pu'uka'oku is another record-setting waterfall -- this one found along the rugged coast of Moloka'i in the Hawaiian Islands. This thin ribbon of water is located on a cliff on the island's northeastern coastline, where it drops 2,755 feet (840 meters).
Like other waterfalls along this dramatic shoreline, Pu'uka'oku has carved a deep fissure into the porous volcanic basalt of the cliff face. This makes it harder to see than younger cascades, which haven't carved away as much of their beds. Tourists may be able to make out the falls from boats or helicopters led by experienced guides who know exactly where to look.
The coast of Moloka'i is a fearsome environment that sometimes produces a phenomenal sight. Powerful winds blowing up the cliff face loft the falls into the air, causing them to fan out into misty spray. The water literally takes flight on the howling wind, giving hardy viewers a glimpse of a truly rare natural phenomenon [source: Pavils].
To catch the action at the next waterfall on our list, you'll have to watch the seasons. Balaifossen is a winding, 2,510-foot (765-meter) waterfall located near the Osafjord in Ulvik, Norway. During warmer months, the narrow cascade slows to an imperceptible trickle; visit this waterfall in July, and you may spend your trip staring at a dry rock channel.
Balaifossen's temporal nature comes from its source. The waterfall feeds on melting snow from higher up in the region's mountains. Consequently, its appearance, flow rate and overall drama can vary greatly from season to season and year to year. A warmer-than-normal year could see the falls shrink from their normal course width of about 20 feet (6.1 meters) to a mere dribble. And while the waterfall currently stands as one of the tallest in Europe, its very existence could be uncertain if climate change reduces the region's average snow pack below the level needed to feed the falls [sources: World Waterfall Database, Law].
At slightly less than 2,840 feet (865 meters) in total height, Vinnufossen is regarded as Europe's highest --and one of its most dramatic -- waterfalls. This glacially fed waterfall is the centerpiece of a series of falls that line a cliff near Sunndalen, Norway. All of the falls pitch out from a high bluff of rock, each carving a notch in its sheer face. But it's Vinnufossen's further path that earns it recognition, and no small amount of awe, from onlookers.
Vinnufossen begins with a plunge that leaps out from the cliff face and fans into a misty tail of rushing water. This horsetail stretches some 590 feet (179 meters) in flight, making it one of the longest measured drops of its type in the world.
After its initial plunge, the waterfall veils: It splits into a series of intertwining falls that lace the face of the steep cliff. These various subfalls divide around jagged rocks and tenacious foliage before reconnecting toward the bottom third of the cliff. As it nears the valley floor, the massive waterfall nears 500 feet (152.4 meters) in total width [source: World Waterfall Database].
Yumbilla Falls, Peru
South America's recently discovered Yumbilla Falls is located in the remote Amazon region of northern Peru's Cuispes district. Although it currently stands at number five on our list, the waterfall's height is disputed by several officials: Peru's National Geographical Institute (ING) claims a height of 2,937 feet (895.4 meters), but other sources say it's slightly shorter at 2,854 feet (870 meters) [source: WorldWaterfallDatabase].
Yumbilla Falls is a tiered waterfall with four large drops. It's classified as a horsetail flow: The falls maintain some contact with the underlying bedrock. Like a number of other falls on our list, this low-volume cascade is often affected by seasonal weather conditions. The width increases in the rainy season and narrows during drier months.
Gocta Falls (an impressive pair of cascades that drop a total of 2,531 feet or 771 meters) and other prominent falls are located within a seven-mile radius of Yumbilla, and Peru's Ministry of Tourism promotes area excursions to tourists and waterfall enthusiasts. Surrounded by a lush rainforest in remote mountains, it is accessible to adventurous nature lovers who hike in on an unmarked trail with a local guide [source: WorldWaterfallDatabase].
Olo'upena Falls, United States
The fourth-highest waterfall in the world, Olo'upena Falls, is the second waterfall on our list found on the remote Hawaiian island of Moloka'i. The Olo'upena Falls, like Pu'uka'oku Falls (No. 8 on our list), are located on the isolated northeastern shore of the island.
At 2,953 feet (900 meters), Olo'upena Falls is a tiered, ribbon-thin stream plunging over the side of one of the world's tallest seaside cliffs, Haloku Cliffs -- the same cliffs that Pu'uka'oku Falls originate from. Surrounded by huge mountains on either side, this magnificent waterfall is so remote that there are no access trails to reach it; like Pu'uka'oku Falls, it is only accessible by air or sea. The best time to view Olo'upena Falls is during the rainy season (November through March), and numerous guided boat and aerial excursions offer breathtaking views of the falls plummeting over the vertical cliff face directly into the sea [source: Pavils].
Three Sisters Falls (Cataratas las Tres Hermanas), Peru
The third highest waterfall in the world is Three Sisters Falls, found in the remote Ayacucho region of Peru. The falls, also known as Cataratas las Tres Hermanas (literally meaning "Waterfalls of the Three Sisters,") rises an astonishing 3,000 feet (914 meters) and is named for the three distinctive tiers, or steps, that interrupt the flow. The top two tiers fall into a large, natural catch basin of water. The third tier, which is nearly impossible to see, emerges from the basin and falls into the Cutivireni River below.
The Three Sisters Falls are surrounded by lush, tropical rainforest where trees routinely grow to 100 feet tall. The rugged area is located in the protected Parque Nacional Otishi national forest, and neighbors striking natural features in the surrounding area including the Pavirontsi Natural Bridge, the largest natural bridge in the world.
The Three Sisters Falls are only visible from the air. Although there are rough trails leading to them, the area's dense vegetation makes it impossible to view the entire length of the falls from ground level [source: Merco Press].
Tugela Falls, South Africa
With a total height of 3,110 feet (948 meters), the five-tiered Tugela Falls in South Africa's Kwazulu Natal region is the second-highest waterfall in the world. Its tallest single drop in the five tiers is 1,350 feet (411 meters).
Tugela Falls begins at the top of an amphitheater-like mountain known as Mont Aux Sources. Except for times when rainfall is higher than normal, the flow of water over the falls is thin: The cascade averages 50 feet (15 meters) wide and has a typical volume of 50 cubic feet (1.41 cubic meters) per second.
Tugela Falls is much easier to access than many of the other waterfalls on our list. It's a well-known tourist stop, and there are marked trails originating from a nearby parking lot. There are two trails to the falls that offer impressive views: One is a challenging 4-mile (6.4-kilometer) hike to the top of the mountain -- the elevation and thinner air make this a contest for the physically fit. The other path is a more level 4.3-mile walk through the Royal Natal National Park of South Africa to view the bottom of the falls [source: World Waterfall Database].
Angel Falls, Venezuela
Angel Falls, located in the Bolivar province of Venezuela, not only claims the distinction of being the highest waterfall in the world at an astonishing 3,212 feet tall (979 meters), but it also has the single highest plunge in the world. After a short drop of about 100 feet, Angel Falls drops 2,648 feet off of a flat-topped plateau known as Auyan-Tepui ("Devil's Mountain").
Angel Falls was "discovered" accidentally by an American aviator, Jimmie Angel, in 1933. Looking for the world's tallest waterfall was the last thing on Angel's mind at the time -- the bush pilot had been searching Venezuela for famed gold ore mines and happened to fly over the location. The falls were a well-known landmark, however, for the Pemón, the people native to the region [source: Popular Science]
While waterfall enthusiasts may head to Angel Falls to view the drop alone, the area surrounding the falls is also noted for its particular beauty. A myriad of plants and flowers can be found near the plateau, including the orange and yellow lantana, the purple Princess Flower, the pink Mimosa and many types of orchids and bromeliads. Adding to the beauty, Angel Falls can play dramatic tricks with the local microclimate. Because of the plunge's tremendous height, gusts of wind create massive mists and spray around the plateaus, and rains mixing in with the cascading water can create extra limbs off of the falls.
HowStuffWorks hikes El Caminito del Rey, a very dangerous hiking path in Spain that was closed to the public for 15 years after several deaths.
More Great Links
- Encyclopedia Britannica Online. "River: World Distribution of Waterfalls." 2012. (Jan. 2, 2012) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/504801/river
- Link, Matthew. "World's Most Spectacular Waterfalls." Travel and Leisure. May 2009. (Dec. 30, 2011) http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/the-worlds-most-spectacular-waterfalls
- Merco Press South Atlantic News Agency. "The World's Third Highest Waterfall Discovered in Peru." Dec. 4, 2007 (Dec. 28, 2011) http://en.mercopress.com/2007/12/04/the-world-s-third-highest-waterfall-discovered-in-peru
- Pavils, Gatis. "Olo'Upena Falls." (Dec. 28, 2011) http://www.wondermondo.com/Countries/NA/US/Hawaii/Oloupena.htm
- Pavils, Gatis. "Pu'uka'oku Falls." June 6, 2010. (Dec. 29, 2011) http://www.wondermondo.com/Countries/NA/US/Hawaii/Puukaoku.htm
- Popular Science. "Plane Pilot Sights Highest Waterfall in World." April 1938. P. 37. (Dec. 29, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=wigDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA37&dq=popular+science+1930&hl=en&ei=vvbJTp6GD4KWtwe11eX4Cw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CDkQ6AEwAjgy#v=onepage&q&f=true
- World of Waterfalls. "Browne Falls." (Dec. 29, 2011) http://www.world-of-waterfalls.com/new-zealand-browne-falls.html
- World Waterfall Database. "James Bruce Falls." 2012. (Jan. 1, 2012) http://www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com/waterfall/James-Bruce-Falls-1191/
- World Waterfall Database. "Balaifossen." 2012. (Dec. 29, 2011) http://www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com/waterfall/Balaifossen-633/
- Law, Sherry. "The tallest waterfalls in the world." July 29, 2008. (Dec. 29, 2011) http://www.helium.com/items/1130697-worlds-tallest-waterfalls
- World Waterfall Database. "Vinnufossen." 2012. (Dec. 29, 2011) http://www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com/waterfall/Vinnufossen-766/
- World Waterfall Database. "World's Tallest Waterfalls." (Dec. 27, 2011) http://www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com/tallest-waterfalls/total-height/