I was at the end of yet another fried-out-of-my-mind pandemic week when it came to me: Except for a trip to the grocery store, I hadn’t been outside the entire time.
I was cranky. I was claustrophobic. I needed some fresh air.
There was no time like the present to keep the pre-COVID promise I made to myself: Start visiting waterfalls. The hike. The clean air. The sound of crashing rapids. I was sure a day in nature would make my blue mood brighter. This trip would be an excellent way to spend a day indulging in some much-needed self-care.
Turns out, there’s some science behind my impulse. Mental health experts say the one-two combo of a vigorous hike (or even a leisurely walk) and getting lost in the wonder of waterfalls can be therapeutic.
“Being near water triggers our survival instinct,” said James Sallis, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of California San Diego’s Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science. “Our ancestors couldn’t bring water to them, they had to be there. So being near water tells us on a deeper level that we are safe.”
And there is the simple truth that exercise is good for the mind and body, too. Movement helps us create endorphins and that is good for us, and Sallis and researchers at Kaiser recently completed a study that showed that those who do some physical activity are less likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19.
Hopping on a meandering trail that ends in a majestic waterfall is the perfect day trip this spring and summer as experts urge us to continue socializing and exercising outside.
“Over the course of 2020, there was a 50 percent increase in trail use nationwide,” said Brandi Horton, the vice president of communication at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a Washington-based advocacy group that supports trails in urban environments. “These green oases, especially those with waterfall components, they give us the mental health boost we need to recover and build resilience.”
Here are some of the most regal falls within a two-hour drive of Philly, as well as a few smaller falls in local parks when you need to exhale but don’t have time for the drive. And if hiking is difficult for you, we have accessibility notes on each one, so you can find an easy (or wheelchair-accessible) trail.
The private Bushkill Falls trails connects to eight waterfalls in the Pocono Mountains. After paying the $18 entrance fee (these are the only falls on the list where admission is charged), it took about a 10-minute walk to catch my first glimpse of the 100-foot Main Falls. But that quick look inspired me to embark on a two-hour hike along streams and over rocky terrain. Along the way, I enjoyed the regal although smaller Bridal Veil and Pennell Falls. Just being so close to the rushing water slowed the pitter-patter of my heartbeat.
Accessibility: Descending into the falls is a lovely experience, but once you go down, the only way out is to climb the steep steps. And they are no joke.
📍 Bushkill Falls Road, Bushkill, Pa., 📞 570-588-6682, 🌐 visitbushkillfalls.com, 📷 @bushkillfalls, 🕑 Opens at 9 a.m. and closes between 4 and 6 p.m. depending on the time of year. Closed December-March.
These two waterfalls are nestled in Lehigh Gorge State Park in Weatherly, Pa. Once you arrive at the Rockport Access, along the popular Delaware and Lehigh Valley Rail Trail, the hike to both waterfalls are within a mile. And the views are spectacular: Both soar about 100 feet in height, giving off rugged yet luxe outdoor shower vibes.
Accessibility: These waterfalls are both wheelchair-accessible, especially when there is no snow on the trails, according to Jim Cheney, author of Waterfalls of Pennsylvania.
📍 Lehigh Gorge State Park D & L Trail, Weatherly, Pa. 📞 570-443-0400, 🌐 dcnr.pa.gov/StateParks/FindAPark/LehighGorgeStatePark 🕑 Open daily from sunrise to sunset.
The tallest waterfall in the state, Raymondskill reaches 178 feet, part of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area of Pike County. Visit Raymondskill in the spring when the water levels are high. “The higher the water levels, the more impressive this three-tiered falls look,” Cheney said. Late spring/early summer is the best time of the year to visit all waterfalls.
Accessibility: The trail is not too long but it is steep and rocky in places, so you want to make sure you have on the right shoes.
📍 917 Raymondskill Rd., Milford, Pa. 📞 570-426-2452, 🌐 nps.gov/dewa/planyourvisit/raymondskill-creek-trail.htm, 🕑 Open daily from sunrise to sunset.
Dingmans Falls is also a part of the Delaware Water Gap. It’s the second-tallest waterfall in the state — gushing over 130 feet — and is just a 20-minute drive from Raymondskill Falls. Although there’s a large pool of natural water at the waterfall, Cheney says, there is no swimming in the falls. But the falls meander through quite the scenic hemlock ravine. And along this blessedly short trail is the smaller, but equally as cool, Silverthread Falls. Can we say twofer?
Accessibility: Less than a mile of paved trail takes you to the base of the falls, making it easy to get to. (Yet another wheelchair-accessible falls)
With 7.2 miles of trails and 21 named waterfalls in this state park, Ricketts Glen is on the must-see list. While a 7.2-mile hike is indeed ambitious, most of the falls are visible from a shorter 3.2-mile inner loop. (Thank God.) The good news, Cheney said, is the waterfalls are so close to each other you will be stopping along the trail every few minutes to see another. “As soon as you start to get tired, there is another falls to see,” Cheney said. The three-hour drive from Philadelphia and plentiful falls may make this worthy of an overnight trip to Benton, Pa., so you can also visit the Braces Stables and Lopez Winery and Vineyard.
Accessibility: This hike is not an easy one. The elevation is steep.
📍 695 Pa. Route 487, Benton, Pa., 📞 570-477-5675, 🌐 dcnr.pa.gov/StateParks/FindAPark/RickettsGlenStatePark, 🕑 Open daily from sunrise to sunset.
Located in the center of Ohiopyle State Park is Ohiopyle Falls, a low yet wide waterfall on the Youghiogheny River. The Ohiopyle Falls are one of half a dozen falls in the park. If you only have a short time to explore, don’t leave the park without checking out the other cascading attraction Cucumber Falls. Less than a mile away, it’s a gem at the end of an easy walking trail. Along the trail you’ll likely run into bird-watchers taking in a variety of species that include osprey, kingfishers, and the occasional bald eagle. Experts agree, it’s the state’s most photogenic falls.
Accessibility: Ohiopyle Falls is a short trek from the parking area and it’s wheelchair-accessible. Cucumber Falls is also easy to get to, but beware: The rocks are slippery.
At a modest 15 feet tall, High Falls, located in Ringing Rocks County Park, has the good fortune of being the tallest waterfall in Bucks County. And it’s also surrounded by Bridgeton Boulder Field, seven acres of boulders that ring like a bell when you strike them with a hammer (hence the cool name). High Falls is located down the trail, about five minutes from the rocks. The flow of this fall is fast, furious, and memorable.
Accessibility: High Falls is an easy five-minute walk past Bridgeton Boulder Field, and is accessible by a path.
📍 Ringing Rocks Road, Upper Black Eddy, Pa. 📞 215-757-0571, 🌐 buckscounty.org/government/ParksandRecreation/Parks/RingingRocks 🕑 Open daily from sunrise to sunset.
Don’t have time for a two-to-three-hour drive? Check out these waterfalls right here in Philadelphia:
Magargee Dam 📍 Wissahickon Valley Park. The Magargee Dam is the liquid gold at the end of an easy 3.2-mile hike on the Forbidden Drive Loop in Wissahickon Valley Park.
Fairmount Dam 📍 Martin Luther King Drive There are few sights more relaxing than watching the powerful waters of the Schuylkill flow down the ridge of this man-made dam.
Flatrock Dam 📍 Manayunk Tow Path. Stop and watch the water flow at the end of this 2-mile trek. And when you are finished, explore one of city’s most vibrant neighborhoods.
Millbourne Dam 📍 Haddington Woods. This quiet space in Cobbs Creek Park is ideal for a meditation after walking/running the 3.7-mile Cobbs Creek Trail.
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