Victoria Falls, Zambia/Zimbabwe
Wow Factor: Victoria Falls (also called Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “the Smoke that Thunders”) is where the otherwise nonchalant Zambezi River takes a sudden dive off a basalt plateau in a showy 350-foot drop that measures 5,700 feet across. The water lands in the 60-mile-long Batoka Gorge of southern Africa. Elephants, hippos, and crocodiles all enjoy the river but sometimes plummet right over the waterfall’s edge.
Keep in Mind: Mist clouds can rise more than 1,000 feet above the falls (especially from January to April after the summer rains), obscuring the views but creating a natural spectacle in themselves.
Base Camp: The Zambezi Sun, located on the edge of Victoria Falls’ eastern cataract, on the Zambian side, features earthy architecture inspired by an African walled village.
Angel Falls, Venezuela
Wow Factor: The undisputed tallest waterfall in the world drops so far—3,212 feet, almost a full kilometer—that it nearly dissolves into a fine mist by the time it hits bottom. Ironically, Angel Falls plunges off a plateau named Auyán-Tepuí (“Mountain of the God of Evil”) in the primordial Canaima National Park, Venezuela’s largest. Viewing the falls involves an adventure to the small Indian village of Canaima (a little more than 400 miles southeast of Caracas), from which a multihour river trip and a soggy hour-long hike takes you to the jaw-dropping vista points.
Keep in Mind: It’s worth chartering an $85 flyover tour through Jungle Rudy Campamento, especially from April to December, when clouds may obscure the top of the falls from lower vantage points.
Base Camp: In Canaima, Jungle Rudy Campamento offers a rustic lodge and bungalows decorated with local artifacts, as well as two cabins near Angel Falls.
Waihilau Falls, Hawaii
Wow Factor: The lush and uninhabited Waimanu Valley on the northeast shore of the Big Island of Hawaii is ribboned with towering strings of waterfalls. The granddaddy, Waihilau Falls, drops 2,600 feet in its rearmost slot. Top viewing entails a full day’s up-and-down hike from neighboring Waipi’o Valley, making camping a necessity.
Base Camp: A limited backdoor trail into Waimanu Valley starts near the cowboy town of Waimea, where you’ll find the historic Jacaranda Inn, built in 1897 as a ranch manager residence.
Wow Factor: What it lacks in plunge (a puny 167 feet), Niagara makes up for in width (more than 3,000 feet) and volume (the Horseshoe Falls averages more than 600,000 gallons per second). Made up of the American Falls and the Horseshoe Falls along the U.S./Canada border, it can be admired via walkway, boat tour, or simply from your hotel window. The Canadian side has casinos, cable cars, towers, viewing tunnels behind the falls, and overall superior views.
Keep in Mind: Winter is the low season for both water and tourists, but the site becomes a white wonderland of mist-frosted trees, giant pieces of ice, and slap-happy snow festivals as only the Canadians can muster.
Base Camp: Sheraton on the Falls on the Canadian side is a glass-tower hotel with great views of the falls.
Yosemite Falls, California
Wow Factor: These falls in Yosemite National Park do a roller-coaster ride down a 1,430-foot plunge, then over five distinct (and rarely seen) smaller drops totaling 675 feet, finishing off with a 320-foot “horsetail” fall. In total, it’s 2,425 feet worth of falls down a vertical sheet of gray granite. Die-hards can trek all day on the steep Upper Yosemite Falls trail to the tippy-top.
Keep in Mind: During the bumper-to-bumper summer tourist season, Yosemite Falls is usually a mere shadow of its fullest self. Aim instead for late spring, when you’ll see the most gushing—and fewer crowds.
Havasu Falls, Arizona
Wow Factor: Despite devastating floods in the Grand Canyon in 2008, these falls in the canyon’s western part remain intact. Owned by the Havasupai Tribe (“People of the blue-green waters”), the Havasu Falls sparkles with azure streams plunging more than 100 feet against red sandstone walls, ending in a pool with a constant water temperature of about 70 degrees—an opportunity for an invigorating mineral-rich bath.
Keep in Mind: Only a limited number of persons may visit Havasu Canyon at a time, and campsites and lodgings can book up months in advance.
Base Camp: In the tiny Native American hamlet of Supai, where all goods are brought in by horseback or helicopter, the Havasupai Lodge offers basic but comfortable rooms.
Wow Factor: Showcasing a classic Asian landscape of rocky outcrops towering over lush rice paddies, these falls produce a dreamy, silky mist over the tiers of this 300-foot-wide-plus cascade of the Guichun River. The Detian Falls (called Banyue Falls in Vietnam) are in the southwestern Chinese province of Guangxi, bordering Vietnam. June and July may be the most humid time of year to travel here, but it’s when the river is at its most dramatically rapid.
Keep in Mind: The border region around Detian Falls has long been disputed, and crossing between the countries here is a major hassle.
Base Camp: Nearly every visitor to Detian Falls flies through the Chinese city of Nanning, about 100 miles away, and there you’ll find the ultramodern Best Western Premier Red Forest Hotel, with indoor and outdoor pools, a nightclub, and a spa.
Wow Factor: In Norway’s fjord-filled southwestern region, Mardalsfossen has one of Europe’s tallest waterfalls (and the tallest single drop in Norway). The dramatically tiered falls plummet down 2,154 feet of sheer granite, with the first plunge measuring 1,174 feet.
Keep in Mind: In the 1970s, the Norwegian government tapped Mardalsfossen for hydroelectricity (as it did many of the country’s other waterfalls), and now the falls are “turned on” for tourists only from June 20 to August, from approximately 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The rest of the year, barely a trickle is visible.
Base Camp: A 15-story glass tower designed to resemble a ship, the luxuriously avant-garde Rica Seilet Hotel Molde juts out over a lake, a half day’s drive from Mardalsfossen.
Jog Falls, India
Wow Factor: At a height of 829 feet, these falls, found in the waterfall-rich southwestern state of Karnataka, are one of the tallest straight-drops in India. In 2007, heavy rains forced authorities to release more water from the upstream Linganmakki Dam, creating the most spectacular waterfall display at Jog Falls to date. Unfortunately, many villages and crops downstream of the falls were flooded in the process.
Keep in Mind: Jog puts on an awesome display from August to October, but at other times of the year, the two leftover strands can be disappointing. Regardless, the virgin rainforest scenery draws throngs of Indian tourists.
Base Camp: Lodgings in the Jog Falls area fall into the budget arena, with the white colonnaded, four-story Hotel Shivani, in the nearby Hindu temple town of Sirsi, being your best modern choice.