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 waterfall-chasers 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.
Indeed, timing a visit to a waterfall is critical.
And while it’s extremely difficult and time consuming to tell you how to time each and every waterfall we’re aware of (as each waterfall has unique situations that warrant them being treated on a case-by-case basis), we can make some generalizations that hold true (for the most part) for a large majority of them.
So in this article, we’ll delve right into the topic of timing a waterfall visit for the types of situations you’re most likely to encounter in your own waterfalling pursuits…
WATERFALL TIMING IN TEMPERATE ENVIRONMENTS
Temperate waterfalls are basically waterfalls that exist in regions of the globe that exhibit a temperate climate. Such temperate regions of earth would occur in the middle latitudes roughly between 23.5 and 66.5 degrees North or South.
While it’s possible to further subdivide this large climate zone into more focused climate regions (like Subtropical, Mediterranean, Oceanic, and Continental), for the purposes of what we’re talking about here, we’re focusing on the climate patterns that is most common.
That is, that the temperate region tends to have more pronounced seasons like Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn.
So given this definition, these types of waterfalls are probably the most common because it compasses the largest chunk of the globe. It’s easy for us to associate “normal” with temperate climates because we live in a supposedly temperate climate in Southern California.
We’ve observed that temperate waterfalls tend to be the most predictable. Once you’re familiar with the seasonal tendencies, you can pretty reliably predict which seasons would be best to experience waterfalls.
For example, in most of North America, we know that most waterfalls would 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”?).
However, the general rule above isn’t always true. For example, in China, we learned that Spring isn’t necessarily best. In fact, they’d get most of their rains in the Summer, which would make Autumn a better time to visit if the primary purpose was to see waterfalls. We definitely learned this the hard way!
In any case, when it comes to timing a visit for waterfalls, you have to know when the rains would normally come. Then, in the transition between rainy and dry, that’s where you’re likely to get the best of both worlds – drainages likely to have a lot of water along with improving (albeit variable) weather.
That’s why Spring and early Summer in North America would be when we’d expect peak flows or Autumn in China, given the examples above.
In addition to the seasonal variations, we can also go further and say of the temperate waterfalls that are most predictable, it would be those fed by snow in the higher elevations.
That’s because water is locked up in its solid form until the climate changes and causes temperatures to warm up as it transitions from Winter to Spring to Summer (at least in North America). It’s during this warm up 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.
Waterfalls that are more reliant on rain tend to be less predictable and less reliable because the water would immediately be on the move from the higher to lower elevations until the drainage would be depleted of enough water to see waterfalls.
How long a waterfall lasts would be dependent on how much precipitation had fallen and built-up the water table in the drainage, and it would depend on how big the drainage was in the first place to have the capacity of collecting the water before funneling it back out to the ocean.
To give you some examples of regions where waterfalls tend to follow the above climate patterns (which would make Spring and early Summer the best times to see waterfalls flowing at their peak), we can include the mountainous areas of California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Norway, and Iceland, among others.
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.
Sometimes, waterfalls get new life from tropical thunderstorms that would make their way north along the east coast, which opens up the possibility of seeing waterfalls with Fall colors! We definitely experienced this in waterfalls up and down the Appalachian Mountains as well as the Great Lakes.
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.
WATERFALL TIMING IN TROPICAL OR MONSOONAL ENVIRONMENTS
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). 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 latitude 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.
That said, waterfalls in the tropical and subtropical regions typically have pronounced wet and dry seasons.
The wet season would be characterized by frequent downpours or tropical storms, and this would be the time of year where the vast majority of precipitation for the year would occur.
The dry season would be characterized by infrequent or very short spells of passing rains, and this would be the time of year when most of the waterfalls quickly dry up or reduce to far less volume than its wet season state.
On top of the tropical climate variations, there’s also a wide variety of eccentricities that are specific to certain regions so let’s look at some examples to better appreciate how waterfalls here are replenished.
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).
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.
While on the topic of monsoonal thundershowers, we’ve seen this pattern of tropical-heat-generated thundershowers occur in places like the northern states of Australia like the Northern Territory, Western Australia, and Queensland. This also occurs in the deserts of the American Southwest like the states of Arizona and Utah among others, where the late Summer monsoons provide the vast majority of their rainfall (and leads to uncomfortably muggy weather when it spreads to Southern California).
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). For these cases, you’ll pretty much have to rely on the years of experience of locals to tell you the typical behavior even though the scientific reasons why won’t necessarily be well understood.
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, it’s said that 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.
WATERFALLS WHERE MORE ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER
Up to this point, we’ve assumed that the more waterflow you have, the better off your waterfalling experience will be. And so we’ve largely concentrated our discussion on timing a waterfall visit for the seasonal patterns and local eccentricities when it comes to precipitation.
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.
The first example I can think of is Africa’s 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 was why we forked over the money to take to the air.
When the flow would be less vigorous (probably around late June or July), the falls would be more easily appreciated from the ground and I’d imagine we could have also done more things there.
But there’s a limit to how long to wait, and that’s if the flow becomes weak (perhaps August or September), we would likely just get unimpressive strands of individual segmented waterfalls while most of the underlying bedrock would be exposed.
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 too much water can create hazardous conditions that would limit access to a particular waterfall. After all, if the idea is to see a waterfall flowing well, but you can’t reach it, then how would that enhance your experience?
I’ve experienced this situation on more than a few occasions.
In one instance, we couldn’t get close to Pe’epe’e Falls on the Big Island of Hawaii due to flooding. And given the size of the river, getting swept away in the torrent would have meant certain death.
Similarly, I had to turn back on a failed attempt to visit the Putoa Waterfall in Tahiti after torrential downpours swelled up a creek crossing that I felt too uncomfortable to try to get across. So I waited until the following day when the weather calmed down to try again and make my visit.
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.
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 the 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.
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 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.
That said, 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 at all!