6 Beautiful Water Hikes and How to Hike Them

Camping & Hiking expert Hannah K. shares top hikes through rivers and under waterfalls, and top gear and tips for maximizing your experience.

Photo by Jonatan Pie
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What do I mean by water hikes? Hiking through rivers, under waterfalls, across streams—anything that has to do with water! I don’t recommend doing these trails in the winter, but they are great in warmer temperatures when you want to be outside and not too hot. Here is an article about how to hike safely in the summer, which talks about where to go and what gear to bring. So without further ado, here is a list of great hikes that you will want to bring a bathing suit for!

Wahkeena-Multnomah Loop, Oregon

This trail will lead you to gorgeous waterfalls—six main falls and plenty of smaller ones to stare in awe at. It is a moderate, loop trail that will take you through five miles of lush forests, running streams, and of course, the falls themselves. Start at Multnomah Falls Trailhead to beat the crowds. You’ll start with a climb, 11 switchbacks, where you will see the first main waterfall. You will pass many smaller waterfalls and then the trail will start to head down.

Upper DeSoto Falls, Georgia

There is a lot of history at these falls. A sign near the trailhead explains to any hiker that the name “DeSoto” is based on a plate of armor found there. In 1541, men loyal to Hernando de Soto were in these mountains. Head out on this easy 2.2-mile hike that will cross the Frogtown Creek into a forest and back to the waterfall. The trail was expanded not too long ago and now contains three waterfalls, all flowing into the creek. You will cross bridges and streams until the end where you will get some beautiful views.

The Narrows: Zion National Park, Utah

The Narrows Hike, the narrowest section of the national park, is a heavily-trafficked trail. Walk through the Virgin River, which you can do for a few minutes or turn it into a day hike. Many start at the Temple of Sinawava, walk upstream, and turn back around down. You do not need a permit if you head only to Big Spring. Another option is a 16-mile downstream hike over a day or two and then exit at the Temple of Sinawava. Hike this during the summer or spring and be careful to check for flash-flood warnings.

Two hikers in the Narrows in Zion National Park
Photo by Frances Gunn

Coyote Gulch, Arizona

This desert area has many hikes for river treks. The Crack In the Mountain Trail near Lake Havasu is popular and fun. You can either follow the streambed the entire way or turn away and head through the Crack—a slot canyon. Another great trail is the Hurricane Wash, where you will follow the water through the cliffs.

Cummins Fall State Park, Tennessee

Cummins Falls is the eighth largest fall in Tennessee based on value. This park was founded in 2012 and there are two ways to see the waterfall. There is a trail above where you can look over from a vantage point. Or, there is a trail below that does call for some stream-wading and crossings.

Devil’s Bathtub and Waterfall, Virginia

This is a heavily-trafficked (very popular and crowded) trail that has caused some environmental problems—remember to LeaveNoTrace. This is a difficult, 7.2-mile trail called the Devil’s Fork Loop Trail that is perfect for people looking to get their feet wet. You will scramble over boulders, cross 13 streams, and end at the famous bathtub—a natural swimming hole with a ridiculously smooth surface. Go when the water levels are low and stay safe.

A man in a yellow sweatshirt holding a stick for balance and walking across a river on a log
Photo by Ben Blenner Hassett

Tips for Water Hikes

If you head out on any trails that require stream crossings or wading, check out these tips and products to ensure you stay safe.

First, wait for water levels to lower. Trying to cross a raging river after a heavy rainfall is dangerous, if not reckless. Letting the water level lower is much safer. You will have more control over your body and won’t struggle as much against the water. It is far easier to cross in shallow than deep water, especially if you have to carry all your gear.

Second, check out where you think is the safest spot to cross. Just because a spot is marked, does not necessarily mean it is the best option. Rivers and streams change so often due to erosion and cairns may not be in the best spot anymore.

Face upstream and use those trekking poles to help pull yourself across. The MSR Dynalock Trail Backcountry Poles are great budget-friendly poles and the Black Diamond Distance FLZ Z-Poles are great because you can fold them away when not in use.

Always look downstream when crossing to see what could happen if you do fall or get swept away. It is always great to know your surroundings, possible situations, and escape routes if necessary. If the water is clear, look down and make sure you won’t trip over anything or step on anything that might be there like logs or rocks.

The time of day can also be important. If there was a lot of snow, the sun would melt the snow and water levels would rise. Try crossing in the morning if possible.

If you are crossing on rocks, look for sturdy rocks that won’t shake or move when you put your weight on them. Test each rock out before moving completely to avoid any falls or injury. Also note that the rocks can be really slippery. Get shoes with good grip on the bottom to avoid any unnecessary slippage. The Merrell Moab 2 are the hiking boots of my choice and I couldn’t say enough about them. If I’m crossing in a stream instead of rocks on top of the stream, I will throw on my handy-dandy Chaco sandals. They have great arch support and don’t slide around on my foot. I’ve seen people hike insane peaks in Chaco’s in the summer in a few different places; they’re all-around great shoes.

Hiking through, and next to, water sources is beautiful and fun, but can be dangerous. Make sure to bring proper gear and remember to check local weather for flash floods, heavy rains, or large snow falls. Did I miss any tips or places you have hiked to? Send me some pictures through my profile and tell me how you crossed the stream and let’s chat all things outdoors.

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Written By
Although I've been hiking for most of my life, I didn't start backpacking and camping until college when I joined the University Outdoors Club at my school. My first backpacking trip was ambitious, the Batona Trail in the Pinelands in New Jersey done in two days. To do that, we had to walk a maratho...

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