Feel the force
Be there. The sight of water falling in great volume or from a mighty height (or indeed both) is a beautiful sight, as thousands of photographs, videos and paintings the world over attest. But you must be in that picture, so to speak, to get a full appreciation of the magnificence of a waterfall. You need to feel the power, hear the roar, peer through the mist, get the spray in your face. This is an all-encompassing sensory experience.
Adding to the drama, many of the planet's greatest waterfalls are not easy to reach, and getting to them is an adventure in itself. Conversely, those of the world's biggest cascades that are most accessible have become major tourist sites. Yet for all the inevitable commercialisation around them, they remain truly astounding. No amount of souvenir stalls or even hamburger joints can, it seems, diminish the majesty of these natural water shows.
But quite what constitutes a great waterfall is open to debate. Size matters, clearly. Yet do you rate a waterfall according to height, width or volume of flow? For some there is an aesthetic purity in a waterfall having a long, single drop but for others the sight of water descending in tiers is more beautiful. Cataract, cascade, force, fall: the English terms for water tumbling down a sheer drop denote subtle distinctions, but all share a common theme of implicit natural splendour. This traveller's guide provides a selection of the world's most spectacular waterfalls – along with some superlative water sights in Britain.
Best of British...
There's an eccentric dimension to three of the biggest UK waterfalls. The tallest, at 200m, is more than three times higher than the Niagara Falls and lies in a remote part of Scotland's north-west Highlands which is reached only on foot – and it's a tough walk, too. Eas a Chual Aluinn in the Assynt region of Sutherland is about a five-hour hike from Loch na Gainmhich: there's a car park at the head of the trail just off the A894 between Kylesku and Lochinver. Note, though, that in periods of scant rain this tiered fall becomes little more than a dribble. Those blenching at the long leg-stretch have a less strenuous option: during the summer you can see the falls, albeit at some distance, from the waters of Loch Glencoul. Two-hour boat trips to see seals, otters and other wildlife as well as the scenery are operated by Statesman Cruises (01971 502345; adults £15) from the slipway outside Kylesku Hotel in the little town.
Even wackier are the ways in which you visit England's two highest waterfalls, both in the Yorkshire Dales. You have to go underground to see the tallest, and you have to catch your moment for doing so. Gaping Gill is an enormous cave in the limestone moors near the village of Clapham. Here the Fell Beck crashes down 105m into an amazing, cathedral-sized chamber. Just twice a year the general public is able to access this site, courtesy of two potholing clubs. During the Whitsun bank holiday in May and the August bank holiday the Bradford Pothole Club (bpc-cave.org.uk) and the Craven Pothole Club (cravenpotholeclub.org) respectively set up a winch and, weather permitting, offer return rides on a first-come first-served basis at £10 per person. Access to the winch site requires a little effort: it takes around 90 minutes to walk there from Clapham via the marked trail to the Ingleborough Show Cave.
You go to the pub to see England's next-highest waterfall. Hardraw Force is one of the longest single-drop waterfalls in the UK, tumbling 30m down a magnificent limestone gorge. It lies in the grounds of the creaking old Green Dragon (01969 667392; greendragonhardraw.com) at Hardraw in Upper Wensleydale. Since the pub maintains footpaths to and around the falls it charges a small entrance fee (adults £2; children £1; open reasonable daylight hours) payable at the Parlour Bar.
Wales, however, boasts Britain's tallest single-drop waterfall. Pistyll Rhaeadr falls 80m down a particularly beautiful stretch of the Berwyn Mountains four miles from the village of Llanrhaeadr ym Mochnant. The bottom of the cascade is just a short walk from the car park. From there it takes about 20 minutes to hike uphill to the top. Imbued with much Arthurian myth, and with a restaurant and B&B on site (01691 780392; doubles from £85 based on two sharing), this is an idyllic place for a relaxing break.
Norway has easily the highest waterfalls in Europe: four out of the top 12 on the planet, indeed, based on the remarkable database at world-waterfalls.com . However, the sightseer could be disappointed since the Nordic nation is especially adept at producing hydroelectricity from them.
Mardalsfossen, which at 655m is the world's fourth-highest waterfall, is diverted for much of the year and disappears from view. But annually, between 20 June and 20 August, you can see it in full flow when it is released for the tourist season. For views of this waterfall-regained, take the mountain road from Brude to Lake Mardalstjonna.
In winter, Norway becomes a haven of frozen waterfalls: great bodies of water in a state of suspended animation. Between December and April more than 190 falls regularly freeze in the area around the town of Rjukan in the south and an ice festival, with ascents up the frozen water, is held here on the last weekend of February every year (00 47 35 08 05 50; visitrjukan.com ).
Quite apart from its troublesome volcanoes, the geothermal wonderland that is Iceland offers a fabulous array of waterfalls. Dettifoss, for example, in the Jokulsargljufur National Park in the north-east of the island, is Europe's most powerful fall, with an average flow of 193 cubic metres per second – rising to 600 cubic metres per second during floods. However, it is set down a remote dirt track, which means it is not the easiest site to visit. By contrast, Gullfoss ("Golden Waterfall") in the south draws coachloads of tourists even in winter. Here the wide Hvitá (or "White") River curves at an abrupt angle and dramatically thunders 32m down a crevice. It is an extraordinary sight. Yet some of the attraction here is the ease of access: Gullfoss is 88km north east of Reykjavik and is a set stop on the "Golden Circle" tour from Iceland's capital, which also takes in the island's Geysir and Thingvellir National Park where the continents of Europe and America collide. Icelandair (084 4811 1190; icelandair.co.uk ) is currently offering a three-day city break to Reykjavik from £349 per person (based on two sharing) which includes flights from Heathrow, Gatwick or Manchester, two nights' B&B accommodation and a tour.
Or for literary as well as picturesque appeal head to the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. The majesty of these 100m falls so impressed Arthur Conan Doyle that he staged the death of Sherlock Holmes here: the detective fell to his end at this site after a fight with his arch enemy Moriarty. Reichenbach Falls are close to the town of Meiringen, from where Inntravel's self-guided cycling holiday "Interlaken Valleys and Villages" starts (01653 617003; inntravel.co.uk ). The falls can be visited as a warm-up on the first day of this seven-night trip which costs from £840 per person (based on two sharing). The price includes hotel accommodation, breakfasts and dinners, bike hire, luggage transfers and maps. Transport to Switzerland is extra.
The world's most visited?
Putting on a magnificent show on the border of the US and Canada, the Niagara Falls receives around 25 million visitors a year. Yet in terms of size, the water features here are relative minnows. With the longest drop measuring 57m, Niagara Falls is only about the 50th highest waterfall in the world. What makes it spectacular is the combination of volume, height and width. During the summer, 154 million litres of water cascade here every minute, with four of North America's Great Lakes – Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie – funnelled through this space en route to Lake Ontario. There are actually three separate falls: on the US side, the American Falls and the narrow Bridal Veil Falls are divided by little Luna Island. These pale in comparison to the stunning Canadian Horseshoe Falls that form a great curving wall of water some 670m across. Contrary to national stereotypes, it is the Canadian side that is the most commercialised – wax works, amusement malls, casinos, you name it they have it. But that's because the views are best here: simply walk along River Road and you get stunning panoramas of all three falls. In Canada the Niagara Falls is an easy day-trip destination from Toronto, about a 75-minute drive away, while in the US the falls are a 45-minute drive from Buffalo airport.
Elsewhere in the Americas?
In North America the highest waterfall is in Yosemite National Park. Yosemite Falls crash 739m in three tiers down a great cliff of rockface – and in particular draws crowds in late spring when the water is most plentiful and powerful. The lower falls are a short, easy walk from Yosemite Lodge, while the upper falls are at the end of the challenging Yosemite Falls Trail, the round trip being a six- to eight-hour walk from the Lodge.
Canada, meanwhile, boasts several "reversing" falls, a phenomenon in which fresh water tumbling into the sea appears to be forced back in the spray and turbulence of incoming tides. The most accessible – and best known – are the pragmatically named Reserving Falls (actually more rapids than waterfalls) just outside St John in the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick.
In South America, the amazing Iguaçu Falls is a composite group of more than 275 separate bodies of tumbling, cascading and gushing water on the border of Argentina and Brazil – with the Paraguay frontier lying just downstream where theV C Paraná and Iguazú rivers meet. Both sides of the falls are easily accessible from Argentina's Puerto Iguazú or Brazil's Foz do Iguaçu. Parkland on each bank provides a wonderfully lush setting, filled with butterflies. But while the Brazilian side presents a great panorama, you can get closer to the falls from Argentina and also enjoy longer hikes through the park.
Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.co.uk ) offers a 10-day independent trip taking in Buenos Aires, both sides of the Iguazú Falls and Rio de Janeiro from £1,220 per person (based on two sharing). The price includes domestic flights, transfers, accommodation with breakfast, and all excursions. International flights can be arranged separately.
Do they need to be vast and powerful?
No: indeed, Asian waterfalls are often notable for their tranquil setting and the easy interaction of water, rock and vegetation. Japan's Shiraito Falls, for example, are sublime. The name means "white thread" and there are thousands of small cascades grouped in an arch and gushing gently down through abundant foliage. These staggeringly beautiful falls are on the lower slopes of Mount Fuji about a 25-minute bus journey from Karuizawa station, which itself is 147km, 63 minutes and 5,750 Yen (£44) by bullet train from Tokyo.
Making a splash in Africa
A great curtain of water falls between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Measuring some 1.7km across, Victoria Falls is said to be the world's widest and is known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya, or the Smoke that Thunders. Both sides are fairly easily accessible – via Livingstone in Zambia and Victoria Falls town in Zimbabwe, each with a well-served airport.
Which side of the falls is best? Tourism in Zimbabwe all but stopped recently yet with the country now slowly showing signs of recovery, visitors are starting to trickle back.
Expert Africa (020-8232 9777; expertafrica.com ) which arranges trips to both sides, says that Zimbabwe offers the longest section of land from which to see the water, yet Zambia presents the best choice of accommodation. The company usually arranges three-day trips to the falls to be added to its safari holidays: an excursion to the Zimbabwe side, following a safari in Botswana, for example, is priced from £305 per person (based on two sharing) which covers air transport from Botswana to Victoria Falls town and accommodation with breakfast at the elegant, colonial-style Ilala Lodge very close to the falls.
While in Africa, visit the world's second-highest waterfall: the 948m-drop Tugela Falls in the Drakensberg Mountains of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Bridge & Wickers (020-7483 6555; bridgeandwickers.co.uk ) offers a trip to this area in its new, luxury programme of African holidays. Its two-week KwaZulu-Natal self-drive itinerary starts with a visit to the Drakensberg Mountain region, with three nights spent at the beautifully positioned Montusi Mountain Lodge, an easy drive from the Royal Natal National Park. The Tugela Falls can be seen from the road into the park; better still there are two spectacular hiking trails – one to the foot and one to the head of the water. The 14-day holiday costs from £2,645 per person (based on two sharing) which includes accommodation, most meals, and car hire but not international flights.
And the very highest?
The longest waterfall in the world is also one of the most difficult to reach. Angel Falls in Venezuela plunges 978m down the mighty cliff side of a flat-topped mountain deep within the Canaima National Park in the south east of the country. Access is from Canaima town about 70km away, with two viewing options: you take a "flight-seeing" tour or you set out by boat, usually a motorised dugout, and then walk, spending a night or two in the open in a hammock. Among UK companies offering trips to Canaima is Sunvil Latin America (020-8758 4774; sunvil.co.uk ) whose independent 10-night "Essential Venezuela" holiday costs from £2,888 per person (based on two sharing). The price covers flights from Heathrow to Caracas via Frankfurt, internal flights and transport and B&B accommodation including two nights at Canaima town, which offers its own abundant waterfalls and is very much a destination in its own right. Onward excursions from there to Angel Falls are arranged locally and cost around £230 per person.
Equally inaccessible and majestic is the Sutherland Falls in New Zealand's South Island. This dramatic, tiered waterfall is in the remote and beautiful Fiordland National Park and can be visited only on foot. It lies off the Milford Track, a spectacular walking trail that takes four days to complete, with accommodation provided in Department of Conservation huts along the way. Adding to the challenge, from the track you see the 580m waterfall at a hazy distance and you need to take a tough, 90-minute detour to get a close-up view. Information and booking from the Department of Conservation – 00 64 3249 8514; doc.gov.nz .
Get into hot water in Guatemala
Before Lake Izabal empties into the Caribbean Sea, it gets into a heated debate with a small cascade just off its north shore. Within the boundaries of Finca el Paraíso – a coffee farm that rises into the Sierra de Santa Cruz – is a geothermally heated waterfall.
From the main road that traces the lake's shore, a small trail leads into the forest, winding into denser foliage until it reaches an emerald-green pool, surrounded by rocks and trees and fed by the cascade. The pool is refreshingly bracing after the hike into the forest, but as you swim against the force of the water towards the falls, the temperature starts to rise. Once beneath the waterfall, it's like taking a hot shower – and if you can force yourself into the recess behind it where the rock has been eroded, you have your own natural steam room.
*Audley Travel (01993 838 695; audleytravel.com ) offers a 12-day trip to Guatemala, taking in the Caribbean coast and the hot falls, from £2,750 per person.
Don't try this at home...
In October 1901 Annie Edson Taylor, right, hurtled over the Niagara Falls in a barrel. The kayak, it seems, is now the vehicle of choice for such derring do. In July last year America's Tyler Bradt claimed the world record for a descent in a kayak when he plunged 60 metres down the Palouse Falls in Washington State. The journey took four seconds. Just weeks earlier the previous record had been set by Brazil's Pedro Olivia when he kayaked 38 metres down the Salto Belo Falls of the Rio Sacre, a tributary of the Amazon.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies