Although waterfalls come in all shapes and sizes, there are few standardized descriptions that are used to describe waterfalls. In fact, there are only six fairly vague words regularly used to describe a waterfall and its parts, two of them borrowed from hiker's vocabulary :
- waterfall - a section of stream or river which falls or slides vertically in some way.
- cascade - a smaller version of a waterfall; often used to describe a part of a waterfall. In the plural form, it can be used to describe a waterfall which is composed of many small drops.
- cataract - a very powerful or high waterfall usually occuring on a river.
- chute - a narrow powerful section of a waterfall usually in-between two large boulders or cliff walls.
- talus - a steep section of rough rock cliff which slopes at about 60 degrees or greater.
- scree - a section of sloping rough rock cliff which slopes at about 30 degrees of less.
However, after you visit twenty waterfalls or so, it is clear that there are definite types of waterfalls which have similar characteristics. To that end, I have devised a list of the different types of waterfalls and their characteristics as I see them. Although not scientific, they are interesting to note and useful for describing a waterfall.
Almost every waterfall will fall into one of two categories.
- river waterfall - a river waterfall is called such because it is usually found on a river. It is wider than it is tall and usually handles a high volume of water. This type of waterfall hardly ever goes dry in drier months and after heavy rainfall can resemble a large rapid. An example of this type of waterfall is Umpachene Falls in Massachusetts.
- stream waterfall - a stream waterfall is usually found on a mountain stream. It is higher than it is wide and the flow is either small or medium. In dry months, some stream waterfalls go dry. An example of this type of waterfall is Kent Falls in Connecticut.
Occasionally, waterfalls will be about as high as they are tall. Often these are some of the most interesting and photogenic waterfalls. An example of this type of waterfall is Blackwater Falls in West Virginia.
Another way to describe a waterfall is by its features. Several types of waterfalls which show up often :
- cascading falls - a waterfall formed by several cascades. An example of this type of falls is Wahconah Falls #1 in Massachusetts.
- ledge falls - a waterfall formed when a stream flows off the edge of a cliff and free-falls to the bottom of the falls. Often in very low water, a ledge waterfall will shrink to the point where it cascades or trickles down the cliff face. The ledge can curve downstream (convex) or upstream (concave) or not at all (straight). An example of this type of falls is Pendleton Falls #4 in West Virginia.
- overhanging ledge falls - often the most impressive and photogenic of all waterfalls. This type of waterfall is formed when the ledge over which the stream flows protrudes out from the rest of the cliff wall, creating an overhang. An example of this type of falls is B. Reynolds Falls in Pennsylvania.
- slide falls - a waterfall formed by a steeply sloping rock cliff face down which a stream flows. It is usually the least attractive of all waterfalls. An example of this type of falls is Whiteoak Canyon Falls #2 in Virginia.
- parallel falls - two waterfalls falling side-by-side
- multi-cascading falls - a cascading falls which cascades down in many tiny parallel cascades. These waterfalls sometimes appear in certain lower water conditions from different types of waterfalls. An example of this type of falls is Elakala Falls #3 in West Virginia.
- fan - a formation created when a narrow cascade spreads out in a fan-like formation at the bottom of a waterfall.
- staircase falls - a waterfall which falls in a single stream over many small little edges, creating the image of a staircase. An example of this type of falls is the waterfall on Pendleton Run feeder stream in West Virginia.
- combination falls - a waterfall which includes features of more than one type of waterfall. For example, a waterfall could cascade at the top and then plunge off of a ledge halfway down. The majority of waterfalls fall into this category since they are composed of more than one single feature. An example of this type of falls is Glendale Falls.