a photo of Muddy Creek in Swallow Falls State ParkWhat do you know about waterfalls? Have you ever actually seen one? When you think of waterfalls, do you picture Niagara Falls, water rushing over the edge of a cliff, churning and tumbling down over the rocks below? Did you know that waterfalls come in all different shapes and sizes and that we have some wonderful waterfalls right here in Maryland?

Waterfalls occur naturally in areas of higher elevations where there are lots of rocks and boulders in the soil. A river or stream running through this rocky terrain gradually wears down its channel over the years, uncovering certain layers of rock that are softer than others. When harder rock is upstream from softer rock, the channel wears down unevenly and waterfalls form. Sometimes the hard rock forms the edge of a vertical cliff over which the water plunges down from a great height. Other waterfalls may not be quite so dramatic and may be composed of small, gradual drops or rapids. A waterfall forms where there is a sudden descent of a stream from a higher to a lower level. If the volume of water is small, the fall may be called a cascade. If the volume of water is large, the fall is called a cataract. Niagara Falls, located on the U.S. border between New York State and Ontario, Canada, is such a cataract. Another noted cataract is Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River in Africa. These waterfalls are wide, fast-moving, and dangerous. However, the term cataract is most commonly used to describe a series of rapids or small falls caused by the flow of the stream over a gradually sloping rocky bed.

Narrow waterfalls or cascades are often of extreme height — such as the 1,430-foot Upper Yosemite Falls in California or the 1,600-foot King George VI Falls in the South American republic of Guyana. One of the world’s tallest, Angel Falls in Venezuela, drops a total of 3,212 feet — more than 2,648 feet in a single dramatic drop! Compare that to Niagara Falls, actually one of the shortest of the great falls at only about 167 feet.

We have several extraordinary waterfalls right here in Maryland. The state’s highest is Cunningham Falls in Frederick County. This 78-foot cascading waterfall can be seen tumbling through a rocky gorge at Cunningham Falls State Park in the Catoctin Mountains. There are four trails through the park that lead to the falls, including one that is wheelchair accessible.

Muddy Creek Falls is another superb waterfall. Located at Swallow Falls State Park in Garrett County, this spectacular waterfall crashes down a 63-foot drop along the Youghiogheny River. The trails through Swallow Falls State Park pass right along these beautiful falls and offer some of the most breathtaking scenery in western Maryland. During very cold winters, Muddy Creek Falls will occasionally freeze, creating a dazzling ice sculpture.

It’s fun to find and explore waterfalls, but be careful. While they are magnificent to look at, it’s not a good idea to try and climb one. The wet rocks can be very, very slippery. So just stand back and enjoy the view. For more information on waterfalls around Maryland, contact the State Forest and Park Service at (410) 260-8157, or check out our home page on the Internet at www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/.

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