6 Stunning Hiking Trails Near Water and How to Hike ThemPublished on 06/30/2023 · 10 min readCamping & Hiking expert Hannah K. shares top hikes through rivers and under waterfalls, and top gear and tips for maximizing your experience.
Photo by Soft Light
What do I mean by water hikes? Hiking or backpacking through rivers, under waterfalls, across streams, over a pond on footbridges, passing over the rim of a dam, to a gorge—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. Is the New York summer heat harshing the vibe? Head to Kaaterskill falls to cool off. This article discusses how to trek safely in the summer, where to go, and what gear to bring.
Bonus Tip: bring a water filter or filtration system along so you have access to plenty of water for the entire trail, and remember to keep that water bottle full! Symptoms of dehydration can cause cramps, extreme thirst, headache, fatigue, and nausea. If you are unsure if you are hydrated, a good rule of thumb is to check the color of your urine. Often, hikes with alpine lakes, river crossings, and other terrain with water sources may be at higher elevations (such as a 14er in Colorado) where we need even more water to stay healthy. Include some form of electrolytes such as sports drinks like Gatorade or add a pinch of high-quality sea salt to your water. Fill up that hydration reservoir, strap on your pack, and get on hiking.
Bonus Tip 2.0: There are multiple different hiking shoes and socks on the market. Neoprene socks, hiking sandals with (or without) toe protection, and of course hiking boots that offer more ankle stability and ankle support—it can be overwhelming to find the right choice for you. Do you want something with extra traction for wet surfaces? Do you prefer a lightweight or heavier hiking shoe? Do you need insulation or wool socks for cooler days? Perhaps you need padding for your heels or a thicker rubber sole for protection from rocky terrain? Water hiking shoes can be different from your everyday hiking shoes/boots if you choose. Reach out with any questions so a Camping & Hiking Expert can find the best gear for you, helping you feel confident with your purchase.
So without further ado, here is a list of great hiking trails (and gems of each state!) that you will want to bring a bathing suit for and hopefully create some inspiration for your next trip.
Fun Fact: (Although the three tallest waterfalls are not in the United States, the fourth tallest fall is Olo'upena Falls in Hawaii that just over 2,950 feet tall).
1. Wahkeena-Multnomah Loop, Oregon
This is a 5-mile hike with over 1600 feet of elevation gain that will lead you to gorgeous waterfalls (can anyone say paradise?)—six main falls and plenty of smaller ones to stare in awe at. It is a moderate, 5-mile loop trail that will take you through miles of lush pine forests and flora, running streams, and of course, the falls themselves that cascade down the mountainside. 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. Keep an eye out for wildlife such as deer and different species of birds.
2. Upper DeSoto Falls, Georgia
There is a lot of history at these falls. A sign near the trailhead and parking lot explains to all hikers 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 short 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 of the trail where you will get some beautiful views.
3. The Narrows: Zion National Park, Utah
The Narrows Hike, the narrowest section of the national park, is a heavily-trafficked trail and popular water hiking destination. 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. The amount of water on this trail varies throughout the seasons so call the ranger station ahead or do your research before you go.
Expert Tip: Going on weekdays may help eliminate some of the crowds and will allow you to enjoy the tumbling waters or the 50-foot waterfall to yourself!
4. Coyote Gulch, Arizona
This desert area has many hikes for river treks and is under a four-hour drive from Phoenix. 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. A canyon trail is a great way to find some shade and natural water sources in the desert. Another great trail is the Hurricane Wash, where you will follow the water through the rocky cliffs. Bring some extra snacks and enjoy a day by the lake and the interesting rock formations around the area.
5. Cummins Fall State Park, Tennessee
Cummins Falls is the eighth largest fall in Tennessee based on water volume, and it is 75ft high. This park was created in 2012 and there are two routes to see the waterfall: the overlook trail or the gorge trail. The overlook trail is a short, 0.4 mile trail that takes you to a bluff that provides spectacular views of the gorge and the waterfall. This is the most popular trail to access views of the waterfall. As it is fairly short and ranked "moderate" by the park, it is less challenging than the gorge route.
There is also the option of hiking to the base of the waterfall on a trail that runs through the gorge. At 1.0-1.5 miles long, this route is longer than the overlook trail, and it is also a challenging, steep hike, with uneven, rocky terrain, stream crossings, and possibly stream-wading. If you plan to view Cummins Falls via the gorge trail, keep the weather in mind as flash floods can cause it to become very dangerous.
6. Devil’s Bathtub and Waterfall, Virginia
This is a heavily-trafficked (very popular and crowded since it's arguably one of the most stunning waterfall hikes in the state) trail that has caused some environmental problems—remember to Leave No Trace and pack out your trash. This is a difficult, sweat-inducing, 7.2-mile round-trip hike 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 small pool)—a natural swimming hole with a ridiculously smooth surface. Go when the water levels are low and stay safe.
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.
- Wait for water levels to lower. Trying to cross a raging river after 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.
- 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.
- When crossing rivers and streams, 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. Hydration packs, hydration bladders and water purification tablets or filters (the LifeStraw and Sawyer Squeeze are very popular filters) are all highly recommended gear items to look into for your hiking adventures.
- 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. For example, if there has been a lot of snow, the sun would melt the snow, and water levels would rise. Try crossing in the morning, if possible, to avoid snowmelt or afternoon thunderstorms.
- 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 my hiking boots of choice and I couldn’t say enough positive things about them. And if I’m crossing through a stream instead of over 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.
- On particularly warm days, get an early start to so you can swim under the beautiful waterfalls and cool down before hiking back to the campground or trailhead. Visitors of each trail should be aware of slippery surfaces on the terrain as well as the temperatures of the day.
- Remember to keep your water intake levels high, refill those Nalgene bottles and water bladders, and do not leave the Camelback at home! Although many ultralight and thru-hikers like to use plastic water bottle options, I generally avoid these because of BPA and other plastic chemicals bleeding into my clean water.
- Hiking through, and next to, natural 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. Whether you prefer an easy walk or a full-day trek, give yourself ample time and be prepared for all possibilities. Enjoy the natural beauty, mountain lakes, fauna and greenery, and other world-class spectacular views I have no doubt you will see.
- For hikes that are in National and State Parks, check online or call a ranger station before you go to find out if you need a permit or reservation.
- From a desert oasis to a waterfall east of the Mississippi River to the Appalachian trail to war ruins in Pennsylvania next to the river, remember to have gratitude for the water flow when so many do not have access to a clean water source. Water is a finite resource that we need to care for!
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. If you're looking for gear to take on your next hike, water shoes for any of these hikes, or other footwear/gear questions, make sure to reach out to a Camping & Hiking Expert here on Curated for free, personalized advice and recommendations.