California’s best waterfalls are legendary for their beauty. If you love chasing waterfalls, you will definitely want to add some of these beautiful California cascades to your itinerary for the Golden State, especially if you visit in the spring or early summer, when the falls are at their most majestic!
From dramatic cascades in the mountains to picture-postcard coastal falls that tumble onto pristine beaches, you will find waterfalls in California everywhere you go. In fact, there’s a waterfall even at the edge of the driest place in the country: Darwin Falls in Death Valley National Park.
So no matter which part of the Golden State you plan to visit, you will find one or more waterfalls to admire!
Best Waterfalls in California
Some California waterfalls are easily viewed from the side of the road, or require just a short walk to a viewing area, but others require moderate to strenuous hiking, or even multi-day backpacking.
In our round-up of the best waterfalls in California, we’ve included a mix of falls that are easy to access versus falls that are challenging to reach. We’ve included brief details on how to get to each waterfall, so you can decide whether it is suited to your hiking capability.
As a cautionary note, some of these waterfall trails are in wilderness areas. Before venturing onto any trail, visit the official website of the entity managing the wilderness, for current information on trails, access roads, special closures, and safety guidelines, and to assess whether a trail is suitable for you.
Ready to discover the most beautiful waterfalls in California? Let’s dive in!
Burney Falls, McArthur Burney State Park
Possibly the most beautiful waterfall in California, the 129-foot Burney Falls features a curtain of cascades framed by lush greenery. Located in McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, the waterfall is best viewed between April and October. Visit early or late in the day to avoid crowds!
The best part about Burney Falls is that water flow persists through the summer, when other California falls dry up. The easy to moderate Burney Falls Loop Trail brings you to an overlook above the falls before taking you to the foot of the falls for the grand up-close view.
The green moss and lichen around the water make for beautiful photos, and in the fall, leaf colors are a bonus. Burney Falls is one of our favorite California waterfalls, because it is both beautiful and easy to access!
Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park
Yosemite Falls drops an incredible 2,425 feet to the bottom! It is one of the tallest waterfalls in the world and Yosemite National Park’s most iconic waterfall. Yosemite Falls is generally at peak flow in May, but you will find some flow between November and June or July.
You can view Yosemite Falls from many places in Yosemite Valley. An easy and flat one-mile loop trail leads to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls, and part of this trail is accessible as well. The spray-in-your-face viewpoint allows you to see both Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls.
For visitors up for a challenge, a steep trail leads to the top of Yosemite Falls. The 7.2-mile round-trip hike comes with an elevation gain of 2,700 feet. The payoff? An up-close look at Upper Yosemite Falls, plus superb views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and Sentinel Rock.
McWay Falls, Big Sur
McWay Falls likely features on the wish list of every nature lover that is planning to visit California. One of the most popular attractions in Big Sur, the delicate ribbon spills over a granite cliff onto the beautiful beach (or ocean, depending on tides). It is the ultimate picture postcard!
You can view McWay Falls from California Highway 1, by pulling over and parking (safely!) on the side of the road. For an unobstructed view, hike the short McWay Falls Overlook Trail in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
The walk to the “Big Sur waterfall” is just 0.5 mile round trip, and one of the easiest hikes in Big Sur you can do.
At the time of writing, the McWay Falls Overlook Trail is closed at about the half-way point due to erosion, but you can still view the waterfall. There is no access to the waterfall or the beach below, but the views from afar are magical.
McCloud Falls, McCloud
The McCloud River creates three beautiful waterfalls as it makes its way through a basalt canyon. All three waterfalls are worth viewing, and fabulous photo spots. There are picnicking areas at Lower McCloud Falls.
Swimming is popular at Lower Falls and Middle Falls, but jumping in is not advised due to submerged boulders. A stone staircase at Lower Falls takes you to the edge of the water.
Start at Lower Falls and hike the River Trail to the other falls. The first 0.7 mile of the trail up to Middle Falls is quite flat, but then climbs via switchbacks to an overlook over Middle Falls, from where another flat stretch takes you to an overlook for Upper Falls. There is no official access to the base of Upper Falls.
If you’d rather not hike, you can drive to the overlooks for Middle and Upper Falls after you are done exploring at Lower Falls.
Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite National Park
Bridalveil Fall is the waterfall you see from Tunnel View, one of Yosemite National Park’s most famous viewpoints. The 620-foot fall is super powerful in the spring, with a gentler cascade at other times. This waterfall flows year-round.
A short, easy (but uphill) trail leads to the bottom of Bridalveil Fall, where you can feel spray on your face. In the spring, you are likely to get wet, so a waterproof jacket is a great idea. This paved walk is just 0.5 mile round trip, for a beautiful payoff!
Rainbow Falls, Mammoth Lakes
Named for the lovely rainbows that appear across the falls on bright sunny days, Rainbow Falls is a free fall curtain that tumbles 101 feet to the waters below. Rainbow Falls is created by the middle fork of the San Joaquin River and is a part of the Devils Postpile National Monument.
From the trailhead in Reds Meadow, an easy to low moderate 4-mile trail takes you to Rainbow Falls (Upper Falls) at 1.3 miles out, and to the lesser visited Lower Falls after another 0.7 mile. The Lower Falls are also beautiful, although the drop is just 15 feet.
During the summer, you have to take the mandatory shuttle from Mammoth Lakes to Red Meadows, but at other times of the year, you can drive up to the Red Meadows parking lot. Hiking to Rainbow Falls in Mammoth Lakes is one of the best things to do in Mammoth Lakes, and maybe even in the entire Eastern Sierra!
Escondido Falls, Malibu
One of the prettiest Southern California waterfalls when flowing well, Escondido Falls is about the journey as well as the destination, because the hike to reach it is shaded and beautiful. The Lower Falls are easy to reach with a 2-mile round trip hike. This is one of the best waterfall hikes near Los Angeles you can do!
The Winding Way Trail to Escondido Falls is accessed off the Pacific Coast Highway. The trail goes along a little creek in Escondido Canyon, and you will see lots of wildflowers if you hike it in spring. The riparian landscape is beautiful.
Lower Escondido Falls is a 50-foot drop into a lovely pool. The strength of the flow depends on how much rain the area has received. Beyond the base of the Lower Falls, the trail is not officially sanctioned, although experienced hikers go up the base (or even the top!) of the Upper Escondido Falls. The Upper Falls drop about 150 feet.
Alamere Falls, Sonoma Coast
Alamere Falls is located in the Phillip Burton Wilderness Area, part of Point Reyes National Seashore. The tidefall drops over a 40-foot cliff onto the sand at Wildcat Beach, making for a spectacular sight, especially when the flow is full.
The bad news is that the round trip hike to Alamere Falls is 13 miles long, from Palomarin, the closest trailhead. From the trailhead, hike to Wildcat Campground, and from there, walk one mile south on Wildcat Beach during low tide to view the waterfall.
Alamere Falls and McWay Falls are the only two tidefalls on the California Coast, and Alamere Falls is a big draw despite the long hike to get there. Amenities at the falls are minimal to none, requiring preparedness on the part of visitors.
Kings Creek Falls, Lassen Volcanic National Park
Kings Creek Falls is one of the top sights in Lassen Volcanic National Park, one of the less visited of California’s national parks. The large 30-foot waterfall roars over the cliff, framed by moss and ferns and other greenery that make for a spectacular sight from the overlook.
The three-mile loop to Kings Creek Falls is rated moderate, mainly because the return is via a steep stone staircase. You can also choose to return the way you descended 700 feet to the overlook.
The trail passes through a meadow on the way in, and you may see wildflowers in bloom if you visit in season. Wear proper hiking boots with good grip, because the trail can be muddy and the stairs slippery, and you may encounter snow into the summer.
Darwin Falls, Panamint Springs
Darwin Falls is a picturesque waterfall that can be found on the western edge of Death Valley National Park, one of the driest places on the planet. Better still, the waterfall flows year round!
Located in a lush oasis that can be accessed via a 2-mile round trip hike, Darwin Falls features lush vegetation, birds, insects, and frogs. It is an amazing sight in the desert! The hike is relatively easy, with less than 300 feet of elevation change, but involves some creek crossings.
The trailhead is reached via a somewhat rough, unmarked dirt road about one mile west of Panamint Springs Resort. The road is considered generally passable for sedans, but take it slow.
Nevada Fall, Yosemite National Park
One of Yosemite’s large waterfalls, Nevada Fall is formed by the Merced River, and tumbles 594 feet down a granite cliff. You can see Nevada Fall from Glacier Point if you do not wish to hike.
To get up-close views of the drama of Nevada Fall, you have a choice of two trails: the Mist Trail, or the John Muir Trail. While the hikes are challenging, you can see both Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall on the hike, along with some of the park’s breathtaking scenery.
You can also go up Mist Trail and return via John Muir Trail for a less steep descent. Mist Trail is about 5.4 miles round trip, and steep, with an elevation gain of 2,000 feet via a series of 600 steps set at spray-in-your-face distance from the falls, followed by a series of steep switchbacks.
Vernal Fall, Yosemite National Park
Vernal Fall is a large waterfall located in Yosemite National Park. Mist Trail, also called the Giant Staircase, is one of Yosemite’s most popular challenging trails, and this trail takes you to both Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall.
On the Mist Trail, you trek up right alongside the falls, enjoying breathtaking views, and a good drenching from the spray in spring and early summer. While hiking the entire Mist Trail is challenging, most visitors can hike the beginning 0.8 mile to a footbridge for a beautiful view of Vernal Fall.
From the footbridge, hike up as far as you wish and then turn back, or continue to the top of the fall for views of Emerald Pool and Silver Apron and then on to Nevada Fall!
Whiskeytown Falls, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area
Whiskeytown Falls is a three-level waterfall that tumbles 220 feet down to the bottom. Located in the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area near Redding, Whiskeytown Falls was only discovered in 2004.
The James K. Carr Trail, one of the most popular trails in the park, leads to the falls. The trail is rated strenuous, at about 3.4 miles round trip, with an elevation gain of about 700 feet.
The trail is shaded, making its way through coniferous forests, and has some steep sections. From the base of the waterfall, you can climb stairs to access an upper viewing platform.
Horsetail Fall, Yosemite National Park
Horsetail Fall, which flows over the face of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, comes into its own for a few weeks in February each year, when it glows a fiery orange at sunset when conditions are right, with a clear sky.
Photographers flock to the spot during the show, to capture the unique sight of the natural Firefall. Because of the crowds, parking restrictions are imposed at the site by the park during the couple of weeks in mid to late February. From the parking lot to the viewing area near El Capitan Picnic Area, it’s about a 3-mile walk round trip.
Horsetail Fall only flows during the winter, and even then, you may miss it, because it is not very obvious other than when it glows like an orange ribbon of fire.
Feather Falls, Oroville
Feather Falls is a spectacular year-round waterfall located in the Plumas National Forest. The cascade plunges 410 feet, making for a dramatic sight. Feather Falls is widely considered to be one of the best large waterfalls in California outside of Yosemite National Park.
The hike to the falls also includes fabulous views of Bald Rock Dome and Bald Rock Canyon. The upper trail to the falls, which is easier than the lower trail, comes in at about 9 miles round trip, and is rated moderate. Allow plenty of time and carry food and water.
Feather Falls is best viewed between spring and fall. In the spring, you will see manzanita in bloom, and lots of wildflowers, making it a beautiful time to visit.
Note: As of the time of writing, the trail has been damaged by wildfire, and may not be open.
Frey Creek Falls, Oroville
Along the way to see Feather Falls in the Plumas National Forest, you can see another beautiful waterfall! The 30-foot Frey Creek Falls come up on the upper trail to Feather Falls, about 1.7 miles from the trailhead.
A footbridge over Frey Creek allows you to see, and photograph, Frey Creek Falls from the trail. In the winter, generally between November and march, millions of migrating ladybugs can be found at Fern Creek.
Potem Creek Falls, Round Mountain
Potem Creek tumbles 70 feet into a beautiful swimming hole. Located in the Shasta Lake National Recreation Area of Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Potem Falls is an off-the-beaten-track gem worth seeking out if you are in the area.
Although the flow of Potem Falls is strongest in the winter and spring, you’ll love visiting in the summer or early fall, to cool off in the pool. You’ll get sun if you visit around mid day.
The hike to Potem Falls is both short (0.6 mile round trip) and easy. From the trailhead, the trail goes down to the base of the falls gradually via a few switchbacks.
Grizzly Falls, Sequoia National Forest
Located in the Sequoia National Forest, Grizzly Falls can be partially viewed from Generals Highway, the scenic road that connects Sequoia National Park and King Canyon National Park.
A super short and easy trail takes you from the Grizzly Falls Picnic Area to the base of the falls. The walk is just 0.1 mile round trip! Grizzly Falls plunges 80 feet over a granite cliff and you can get close enough to feel the mist on your face.
During the spring and early summer, Grizzly Falls has a torrential flow from snow melt. At other times of the year, it is more sedate, but still beautiful. The road is not open in the winter.
Brandy Creek Falls, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area
Another of the several beautiful waterfalls near Redding, Brandy Creek Falls is located in the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. Brandy Creek Falls has five tiers, with the Upper Brandy Creek Falls tumbling down in a split fashion.
The trail to Brandy Creek Falls is rated as moderate, at 3 miles round trip and an elevation gain of over 2,000 feet. The forested trail makes its way along an old logging road and arrives at a viewing point for Lower Brandy Creek.
You can walk further, over two plank bridges built over the creek, to a viewing point for Upper Brandy Creek Falls. Adventurous hikers can even make their way to the upper falls, using footholds carved into the rock face.
Salmon Creek Falls, Big Sur
Located in the Los Padres National Forest in Big Sur, Salmon Creek Falls is a 120-foot waterfall that can be viewed via a super short hike off California Highway 1, about 0.3 mile each way. The falls are split at the top, but join midway to create one cascade that tumbles down the rockface.
Some scrambling and walking over a fallen log are required to get to the base of the falls, but you can view the falls from the end of the trail. The falls are powerful after winter rains, at which time you may not be able to get to the base.
Poison oak is rampant along the narrow trail so wear full pants and a long-sleeved top, and watch your step.
Located in the Shasta Cascade area near Dunsmuir, Mossbrae Falls is one of the most picturesque waterfalls in California. Landscape photographers love this waterfall, and with good reason! The 175-foot-wide weeping wall of water falls about 52 feet to the bottom.
As of the time of writing, there is no legal public hiking trail to the falls, and walking beside the railway tracks to get to the fall is against the law. Reportedly the Hedge Creek Falls Trail is being extended to provide safe access to Mossbrae Falls, so put this one on your list for the future.
Illilouette Fall, Yosemite National Park
Yet another of Yosemite National Park’s beautiful waterfalls, Illilouette Fall can be viewed from the Panorama Trail. The waterfall is fullest in the spring and early summer, and at these times, you will find lots of wildflowers along the trail.
The Panorama Trail begins at Glacier Point, and the hike to the viewpoint for the falls and back is 4 miles. This hike is strenuous: you start by descending about 1,200 feet and have to climb back all that way to get back.
Along with Illilouette Fall, you can see Half Dome, and Vernal and Nevada Falls on this hike. If you hike all the way down to the bottom, it is about 5 miles round trip. The trail ends at some pretty creeks, where you can relax and have a picnic meal.
Tokopah Falls, Sequoia National Park
Tokopah Falls is a cascade in Sequoia National Park that tumbles 1,200 feet to the bottom. Formed by the Kaweah River, the waterfall is fullest in spring and early summer, and is substantially reduced in the summer: in dry years, you may not even see it by late summer. But when in flow, it is gorgeous.
The trail to Tokopah Falls is both easy and scenic, and therefore very popular. The granite canyon, carved by glaciers, is scenic even without the waterfall. The trail is about 4 miles out and back, with an elevation gain of about 530 feet. The climb is gradual, though, so it’s not difficult.
Crystal Creek Falls, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area
Crystal Creek Falls is located in the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area near Redding. The only man-made waterfall in the park, Crystal Creek Falls was created by a diversion of the Trinity River into Whiskeytown Lake.
Crystal Creek Falls is full and fast flowing in the winter and spring, but becomes more sedate in the summer. There is a small swimming hole at the base of the falls.
The hike to the falls is flat, easy, and short at 0.5 mile round trip. It is paved, and therefore accessible. The trail offers beautiful views of the mountains. It is very popular so arrive early to beat the crowds on good weather days.
Hedge Creek Falls, Dunsmuir
Located in the Shasta Cascade area, Hedge Creek Falls is an attractive waterfall that can be accessed via a short and very scenic hike. There is a small cave behind the waterfall that hikers can access. The out and back trail is just 0.6 mile in length.
In the fall, you have the added bonus of beautiful foliage color, and you can continue on to the Sacramento River if you wish. There is a viewing platform at the river, from where you can get a great view of Mt. Shasta.
The trailhead is located close to Interstate 5, making Hedge Creek Falls a popular stop. Arrive early to beat the crowds!
Map of the Best Waterfalls in California
Planning to explore more of California’s natural beauty? Check out some of our other articles for inspiration!
- The Most Beautiful Lakes in California
- The Most Scenic Drives in California
- The Best State Parks in California
- An Overview of California’s National Parks
- The Best Things to Do in California
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