Waterfalls 101: When Should I Visit Waterfalls?

Middle Falls of the Genessee River in Western New York

This article is part of the Waterfalls 101 series, where we attempt to get schooled about our favorite subject - waterfalls. By the time you've read through this material, perhaps you can impress your friends (or perhaps scare them away) with your newly gained waterfalling knowledge! Other articles that belong to this curriculum are:

Have you ever been frustrated about going through the trouble of getting to waterfall only to find out there's no water flowing? Or traveling for thousands of miles to a skyscaping waterfall only to have the views blocked by low-hanging clouds? Or maybe the waterfalls are pumping, but you failed to reach them because the trail or road was in bad shape thanks to the weather?

While waterfalls can provide a deeply fulfilling and satisfying joy for those who seek them, it can also frustrate waterfallers in a way that few other natural attractions can.

So when is a good time to see waterfalls?

Answering this question requires us to understand and predict when a waterfall's feeding watercourse is most likely to flow well while balancing that with the likelihood of agreeable weather.

We present the following topics to try to cover the various types of situations you're likely to encounter.

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These types of waterfalls are the most common (at least as far as we're concerned since we live in a supposedly temperate climate) and they're also the most predictable. They're predictable because they flow best in the Spring, which agrees with most of our assumptions about Spring being both a lush and moist time of year (remember the saying "April showers bring May flowers"?). Generally, this is especially true for temperate lattitudes where the characteristics of four seasons (winter, spring, summer, and autumn) are usually more distinct and pronounced.

So what is the mechanism behind why Spring is the best time for these waterfalls (at temperate lattitudes)?

Well given the fact that winter storms surrounded by the occasional autumn and spring storms bring most of the year's precipitation, the drainages (especially those that feed waterfalls) tend to have plenty of opportunities to build up their freshwater supply. Since Spring is typically a time when flowers bloom and other vegetation are revitalized, the terrain supporting these watercourses are also better able to retain their moisture.

The enigmatic Tueeulala Falls in Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy area In the higher elevations, the precipitation manifests itself in the form of snow or ice. Thus, water is locked up in its solid form until the weather warms up, which typically occurs in the transitional period of Spring (thereby making the peak runoff period usually in this season or in early Summer at the latest). It's at that time that the liquid water is finally free to flow and drain into the lower parts of the drainage, which eventually feed into watercourses that might feed waterfalls.

If the watershed area is small or there has been insufficient precipitation, then the time to see waterfalls of this type could move up towards Winter instead of Spring as expected. Conversely, abundant snowfall could move the peak runoff period into early or mid Summer.

Examples of these types of waterfalls include: The Yosemite Waterfalls, Waterfalls in California's mountainous areas, The Pacific Northwest Waterfalls, The New York Waterfalls, The Norwegian Waterfalls, and the The Icelandic Waterfalls among others.

Cleve Garth Falls in New Zealand with constricted flow thanks to the cold As for the remainder of the year, Summer is the time when the waterflow diminishes as precipitation is less abundant or non-existent. Thus, waterfalls lose their vigor the deeper into the season you get. Autumn is typically the time of year when many waterfalls have exhausted their freshwater supply and go dry unless you get early winter storms momentarily bringing them momentarily back to life. And while Winter is the time of storms and a lot of precipitation, the experience of visiting waterfalls might be more dangerous or less fun given the inclement weather and hazards that come with it. For the snowfed waterfalls, sometimes winter cold can keep the water in its solid form thereby constricting a waterfall's flow.

Now there are exceptions to the rule when it comes to temperate lattitudes. For example, Japan's rainy period is typically a narrow window between the months of June and July through much of Honshu. That's on top of the precipitation (as well as snow in the mountains) they do get in the Winter months. Some parts of Japan also get an infusion of moisture when typhoons manage to reach some parts of the country deep into Summer.

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Millaa Millaa Falls in Tropical Queensland Waterfalls that fall under this category are typically located in the tropical and subtropical lattitudes or in desert/semi-arid regions. They typically fall outside the Arctic and Temperate Lattitudes.

Unlike the Temperate Waterfalls, water is typically only available as a liquid (not snow or ice) and therefore they tend be less predictable and do not last as long as their temperate counterparts. Of course it is possible to have an infusion of snow and ice at the tropical lattitudes at the higher altitudes (thereby being an exception to the notion that most tropical lattitude precipitation are only in liquid form).

Moreover, unlike the Temperate Waterfalls where you can usually count on wet Winters and dry Summers, you'll have to pay closer attention to the seasonal weather eccentricities of these tropical and monsoonal waterfalls.

There's a wide variety of such eccentricities so let's look at some examples to better appreciate how waterfalls here are replenished.

Maui's Wailua Falls, which is heavily dependent on wet season rains First up are the waterfalls in Hawaii. If you ever looked at a satellite photo of any main island, you'll notice it's almost always green and lush in the northeastern, eastern, and central parts of the islands. On the other hand, the western and southwestern regions tend to be dry.

The reason for this is that the northeasterly trade winds tend to blow from across the Pacific Ocean from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska all the way to the Hawaiian Islands picking up moisture along the way. The moisture eventually hits the islands' windward side where the moisture runs into the imposing mountains towards the interior of the islands. Then, the moisture rises up with the mountains and condenses as the air gets cooler resulting in rain. But that moisture rarely makes it across the mountains into the leeward side of the island.

With the trade winds persisting the most from around December through March or April, that makes these months the best time to go waterfalling. This, by the way, is also referred to as the "wet" season though some scattered (less persistent) rainfall does occur throughout the rest of the year (typically the "dry" season).

Wainibau Falls on Fiji's Taveuni Island Conversely, directly south of Hawaii, you have the South Pacific Islands where their trade winds seem to have the opposite effect.

Here, the precipitation comes down as monsoonal thundershowers or tropical thunderstorms. These thunderstorms form because the heat and humidity creates the convective energies necessary to develop these systems. This results in the "wet season" which is typically between December through March or April. However, trade winds actually keep these thunderstorms from organizing, resulting in the "dry" season, which typically persists for the rest of the year.

Fortescue Falls in the arid northern Western Australia region known as the Pilbara While on the topic of monsoonal thundershowers, we've seen this pattern of tropical-heat-generated thundershowers occur in places like Australia's north like the Northern Territory, Western Australia's north, and Queensland. This also occurs in the deserts of the American Southwest, where the late Summer monsoons provide the vast majority of their rainfall (and leads to uncomfortably muggy weather when it spreads to Southern California).

This monsoonal behavior even occurs in places like India as well as Southeast Asia (including Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, etc.), and parts of Central Africa.

Then, there are waterfalls in equatorial or near-equatorial regions where the rain pattern is a bit harder to predict and understand (on top of the monsoonal moisture you might expect). You'll pretty much have to rely on the years of experience of locals to tell you the typical behavior even though the reasons why won't necessarily be well understood.

Sipi Falls in Uganda For example, Angel Falls and Iguazu Falls are subject to the nuances in the weather for their respective rainforests (though monsoonal heat-driven storms are a good initial best guess assumption to make here, but it's not strictly the case, which is why local advice is necessary).

Similarly, in Uganda, they have two wet seasons in a year. Again, I don't understand why this is so, and when we posed the question why to locals, they didn't seem to know either; they just took it for what it was and didn't bother asking why.

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Up to this point, we've assumed that the more waterflow you have, the better off your waterfalling experience will be. However, this isn't always the case, and there's a variety of reasons why. We'll point out a few examples to give you an idea why.

Sometimes too much water isn't necessarily a good thing The first example I can think of is Africa's own Victoria Falls. When we were there (late May), the flow happened to be very high, and unfortunately, most of the viewpoints were both obscured and uncomfortably wet by heavy mist. Indeed, it was difficult to appreciate the falls from the ground under these conditions, which is why we forked over the money to take to the air. When the flow is less vigorous (around late June or July), the falls is more easily appreciated from the ground and you could also do more things there. But if the flow becomes weak (perhaps August or September), you'll just get unimpressive strands of individual segmented waterfalls while most of the underlying bedrock is exposed.

Upper Waikani Falls in its Three Bears state Upper Waikani Falls in its Fat Bear state

Another famous example is the "Three Bears Falls" (more formally known as Upper Waikani Falls) on the Hawaiian Island of Maui. Here, you can see that if you have a light to moderately flowing stream, you get a waterfall with more character as well the three bears. However, if you have a flooded stream, you get one big fat bear, which somehow doesn't seem as impressive as its lighter-flowing counterpart. So you might have to wait a day or two (of relatively dry weather) after a downpour in order to witness the Three Bears.

Sometimes it's not so much the physical appearance of the falls, but the ability to even get to see and experience the falls. For example, you can have bad weather that would prevent you from experiencing a particular waterfall (e.g. trail and/or road floods, unstable cliffs, clouds obscuring the view, slippery or muddy road/trail conditions, etc.). Any number of waterfalls' access can be affected by this.

Sunny conditions at Iguazu Falls
Overcast conditions at Iguazu Falls

On the other hand, you could have benign weather but overcast skies making your photo opportunity less than impressive. We've noticed this is especially the case for a waterfall like Iguazu Falls. Of course, one of the strong points of visiting waterfalls is the fact that it's usually beneficial to have cloudy or even rainy weather from both a photography standpoint as well as hiking in cool, comfortable weather. It's just that there are some cases where you want the sunny weather and blue skies to bring out rainbows or better contrast between the sky and the white of the water.

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So you can see that there's no golden rule for when to visit waterfalls, but you can definitely pay attention to regional weather patterns to better predict when you ought to make your move. Indeed, every place is different, but that's the beauty of waterfalling as it gives you a reason to experience earth's diversity both in nature and in culture.

Angel Falls about to be clouded over again Plus, the inherent unpredictability of your waterfalling experience will probably make you appreciate more those times when the timing's right and it couldn't get much better!

Unfortunately, with all the typical patterns we've discussed to help you plan for your excursion, there is a major development that threatens this order.

Global Warming and Climate Change is threatening to change the rainfall distribution patterns worldwide, which in turn is adversely impacting the waterfalling experience (i.e. less predictable weather, more droughts, more flash floods, and more outright destruction of and by nature). We're kind of witnessing this firsthand as waterfalling window in the Southern California area as well as the deserts of the American Southwest has degenerated into a few weeks (and this is being optimistic) out of the year of "reliable" sightings for many of the falls instead of what used to be maybe a minimum of two months or so.

Havasu Falls So with all this stress about timing your visit, are waterfalls really worth it?

Well, we may be biased when we say yes, but if you've been following this website and blog and think we're living a dream (which we don't consider it as such; just we're making the most of our time), then I'd say that's a pretty strong argument for making the effort to see waterfalls and doing your research to enhance the experience.

But once again to reiterate something said earlier on this page, the typical weather patterns (governing the optimal time to go waterfalling) that we've highlighted in this article are merely guidelines based on historical weather patterns. To truly understand the weather and our climate (and hence be able to reliably predict when we should go waterfalling or when not to bother), you'll need lots of supercomputers and plenty of scientists plugging in climate models based on their own understandings and hard data. Yes, the earth's climate is that complex!

So go ahead and use the guidelines we've put in here to help plan your trip or outing. But please don't treat it like gospel. And no matter what nature has in store for your waterfalling experience, we're willing to bet that it'll be far better than not getting out there!

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What Other Visitors Have Said

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Agreed, High Water Not Always Best 
There is a small waterfall near our home that is on a delightful walk most of the year. http://homepage.mac.com/randrews4/.Pictures/Waterfalls/050530CorbettsGlen-15W.j …

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