Our Top 10 Best California Waterfalls List was long overdue as we had been refraining from coming up with this list until we felt we had enough of a sampling for an exposé like this to be legitimate.
Well, now that this page is finally here after all these years, we can truly showcase the best waterfalls that we’ve encountered in the Golden State.
True to our standard of coming up with these lists, we only include waterfalls that we’ve personally experienced.
We’re also not making any stipulations or special rules. Thus, the waterfalls of Yosemite National Park can dominate this list if it happens to end up that way.
That said, we recognize that picking just 10 waterfalls out of hundreds in our library of experiences was a very tall order.
So many deserving waterfalls had to be left off the list. Yet it’s this exclusivity that we feel makes this list truly legitimate and straight from the heart.
So without further ado, we’re proud to present our list of the Golden State’s best waterfalls in reverse order…
This waterfall was really at least three major waterfalls on the McCloud River – each with its own distinct character.
The Middle Falls, which you see in the picture, was the most photogenic with its expansive width and forceful flow.
The Lower Falls was short and stocky, but it was also the most popular one. It had plenty of spots for families to cool off and beat the Summer heat. Meanwhile, the more daring types did cliff dives into the falls’ deep plunge pool.
Then, there was the quiet Upper Falls which featured cascades further upstream as well as its main inaccessible plunging drop.
In addition to the aforementioned waterfalls, we also managed to get views of Mt Shasta as well as birdseye views of the McCloud River and surrounding area.
There was some tight competition just to even make this list. But it’s the diversity of activities along with its aesthetics that allowed this waterfall to just nudge onto this list.
This classically-shaped block waterfall was one of those waterfalls that we tended to visit repeatedly over the years. And with each visit, we’ve seen this place in different lighting, different flows, and with different atmosphere.
This rare year-round performer, where the San Joaquin River plunged vertically some 101ft, stood the test of time. It had never disappointed us on our visits.
Adding to its already scenic allure was its accessibiilty. This was especially the case on those hot Summer days when whole families look for beautiful spots like this to cool off and have fun. We definitely witnessed this in action in our visits.
Other nearby waterfalls further added to the experience. There was the quieter Lower Falls to escape the crowds. Then, there was the lesser known Minaret Falls which shared the same trailhead as the enigmatic Devil’s Postpile formation. Plus, there was the easily-accessible Sotcher Lake, which was said to have its own little waterfall.
As if that wasn’t enough, this area was also the launching point for longer overnight backpacking or mule rides to the High Sierra backcountry, including the scenic Thousand Island Lake.
Indeed, with so much to see and do in such a relatively small area, we just had to include Rainbow Falls on this list.
When it comes to location, it’s hard to beat this modestly-sized 80ft waterfall. As you can see in the picture, it sat in a picturesque cove in an almost perfect position to see where the ocean meets the sky.
The light blue waters churning into and out of McWay Cove embodied both the wildness and raw power of the ocean as well as hinting at its nearly pristine state.
Indeed, I have to believe that this could very well be the most beautifully-situated waterfall in the entire United States (and possibly the world).
Who cares if this waterfall isn’t big and powerful?
Making it easier to enjoy this scene, there was an easy trail as well as some remnants of an old house that was once here. Imagine living here and getting this view every day!
And if that wasn’t enough, there was the smaller Canyon Falls further upstream on McWay Creek presenting a more intimate experience in forested settings.
So taking all these things together, we felt good about positioning this falls here on our list of top waterfalls in the Golden State.
This was our lowest entrant on this list hailing from the incomparable Yosemite National Park. That’s saying something considering some of the other incredible waterfalls in the park that didn’t make it like Ribbon Falls, Cascade Falls, Wapama Falls, and more.
What Illilouette had going for it was its position near Glacier Point where commanding views of Tenaya Canyon, Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, and the Giant Stairway could all be taken in.
This vista was merely the starting point for the scenic hike along the Panorama Trail leading to the closest view of this waterfall.
In addition to its impressive 370ft plunge into a narrow gorge, we managed to combine this view of the falls with the backside of the iconic Half Dome.
And each time we’ve done this hike, we’ve usually been blessed with wildlife sightings like deer as well as a bear!
By the way, we were also able to view this falls from a distance along the Mist Trail and even as far as North Dome for a different perspective.
So putting it all together, this waterfall just eeked out a spot on this list amongst some very stiff competition!
This was arguably one of the tallest year-round waterfalls outside of Yosemite National Park. But unlike the behemoths in that sanctuary of Nature, we actually had to earn a visit to this falls with a bit of a half-day hike.
And as would be common with moderate to long hikes like this one, it allowed the environment to slowly sink into us with each step we took.
Before we knew it, we were blessed with sightings of an attractive cascade on Frey Creek, views of Dome Rock, views of the Feather River, and watching reddish salamander-like geckos or lizards scurrying across the trail.
Even sensing the danger as well as awe of getting right up to the precarious brink of the falls at Cooper Point further added to the experience.
Did we mention that this waterfall was over 400ft tall amongst sheer rocks and cliffs like those in Yosemite?
Indeed, this made us wonder if this falls should have been in Yosemite instead of way further north in Plumas National Forest. It seemed out-of-place outside of the rest of the falls found in the granite paradise.
Regardless, we had to give this falls its props, and thus it placed this high on our list of favorites in the Golden State.
This waterfall pairing from the incomparable Yosemite National Park was my excuse to include two mammoth waterfalls into a singular entry on this pretty exclusive list.
Making up the lower step of the so-called Giant Stairway was Vernal Fall, which was said to drop over 300ft in a classic rectangular drop. We were able to experience this lower rung by getting wet by its spray on the Mist Trail as well as its context from Clark Point.
Making up the upper step of the Giant Stairway was Nevada Falls, with its slinky-like chute lunging onto a sloping granite cliff with Liberty Cap watching over it all. Like with Vernal Fall, we were able to experience this falls up close as well as in context on both the Mist Trail and John Muir Trail (a pre-requisite for the even longer hike beyond to Half Dome’s summit).
And of course, we could take it all in from famous vistas like Glacier Point and Washburn Point (as shown in the photo).
It’s a shame that we had such limited real estate on our California Top 10 List because each of these two falls easily could have had its own entry!
We often flip flop between preferring this waterfall or McWay Falls on our other top 10 lists. But over the years, we’ve converged more on Alamere Falls because our memories of this place just stuck with us longer.
Maybe it was due to the fact that we had to earn our visit with an eight-mile round trip hike.
And when you consider what we were getting with that hike (e.g. lakes, coastal scenery, serene beach, and wildlife), we felt that the overall experience just couldn’t be beat.
Call us biased for putting this falls so high on this list, but we still fantasize about returning here. We can still visualize and feel the sea breeze, smell the salt in the air, hear the waves crashing ashore, and then be dazzled by the constant hiss of Alamere Falls all the while feeling the sand beneath our feet.
And on top of all that, we got to experience this place pretty much alone or with very few others.
It’s Nature as it should be – contemplative, restorative, and just downright beautiful!
This had to have been one of the more unique waterfalls that we’ve seen.
Not only did we witness Burney Creek spilling 129ft over the lip of its cliff like most plunging waterfalls do. But it seemed like most of its 100 million gallon flow came out from the middle two-thirds of its cliff emerging as springs from aquifers within the underlying basaltic bedrock.
Indeed, it was one of those rare waterfalls where parts of its drop fell onto itself. Plus, the aquamarine color of its wide plunge pool further added to its scenic allure that was second to none.
We knew this place had reputation and hype. So that meant lofty expectations, which is often a recipe for disappointment. However in our experience, this falls met those expectations with flying colors.
And it was easy to see why. After all, it was popular with foreign visitors, locals, and families trying to beat the Summer heat. Outside of Summer, this waterfall would still put on a show as it has pretty consistent flow even as the environment around it changes.
Add it all up and it was a no brainer to put this falls on our list of Top 10 California Waterfalls.
There’s something to be said about a 600ft waterfall framed by shapely granite formations. Among such formations were the Three Brothers Formation (shown in this photograph) as well as the imposing El Capitan (creating that iconic view known as the Gates of Yosemite).
Not only was this waterfall well-positioned and well-photographed, but it had the dimensions to back it up. It also possessed a rare year-round flow, which was something most of Yosemite’s other waterfalls can’t claim.
Seeing this waterfall was practically mandatory on just about every visit to Yosemite National Park.
So we’ve seen it in different moods, different seasons, and in different circumstances. From being wet under its peak flow in Spring at its base to the dazzling effects of its ice cones in the Winter, this waterfall never yielded a dull moment.
Even the waterfall’s self-generated weather prompted Native American inhabitants to call it Pohono (Puffing Wind).
Indeed, no matter how we experienced it, we always experienced something new.
Add it all up and we had no qualms about putting this falls this high up on our list of favorites in the Golden State.
When it comes to this waterfall, there’s no denying that it’s an icon of the incomparable Yosemite Valley (right up there with Half Dome and El Capitan).
It’s said to be one of the tallest waterfalls in the world at a reported 2,425ft in total height over its three main components – Lower Falls, Middle Cascades, and the Upper Falls.
We were even fortunate enough to experience it from several spots throughout Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point, and getting up close to it on a very tiring uphill hike leading to its brink.
Like with Bridalveil Fall, it was practically mandatory for us to catch sight of this falls on each of our numerous visits to Yosemite National Park.
So with our visits over these years, seeing this waterfall almost felt like seeing that familiar old friend who hadn’t changed much all that time.
Indeed, this was our favorite waterfall in Yosemite, and it also happened to top our list of favorites in our home state of California.