Best American Landmarks to Visit with Kids: Notable Waterfalls—Niagara Falls, Yosemite Falls, and Yellowstone Falls
America’s natural landmarks represent the diversity and beauty of this country’s natural landscape and a visit to any of them will inspire a child’s learning. Whether visiting a historic landmark to see firsthand the documents upon which our nation was built, or gazing in awe at the beauty found in our national parks, visits to these places create an opportunity for memorable family bonding and can bring history to life for a powerful learning experience. This series includes tips and educational resources for visiting some of the most amazing landmarks our country has to offer with your kids. Some may be in your backyard, while others require a longer trip, but all are well worth a visit.
Waterfalls are among the most beautiful—and scientifically interesting—of all our natural landmarks. Whether the waterfall is a gentle drop of a small creek or the vertical plummet of a river, we marvel at the power of water as it races off the edge of the land and becomes, in many cases, airborne as it falls to the ground or pool below.
Many gorgeous waterfalls grace the landscape of the United States. Some are world-renowned, and planning a trip to a famous waterfall is a family outing of outstanding educational value. Let’s take a look at three of America’s majestic waterfalls—with some specific sites you can plan to visit. And remember that a trip to a waterfall is a journey into the geology of an area, so be sure to brush up on your earth science before embarking on your adventure.
The majestic power created by the enormous amount of water that pours over Niagara Falls makes this one of the most visited attractions in North America. You can approach Niagara Falls from either the Canadian side or from the United States side, and each route offers a breathtaking view of the Niagara River as is plunges over a geological feature called the Niagara Escarpment (a very steep slope or a long cliff).
Niagara Falls is actually three waterfalls in close proximity to each other: Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls. The amount of water that flows over these three falls is the greatest of any waterfall in the world. When water in the Niagara River is at its highest, almost six million cubic feet (168,000 m3) of water flow over these falls every minute.
If your first stop is on the American side, you will want to visit the Niagara Falls State Park website. This website will introduce you to the layout and map of New York State Park, with paths that lead right to the edge of the falls.
If you are approaching from the Canadian side, check out these activities for kids.
One of the most unusual experiences one can have at any waterfall is to feel the power of the water as it tumbles to the pool below. There is no better way to see this than to take a ride on a boat that brings you right into the heart of the spray: The Maid of the Mist is an experience the kids will never forget.
To brush up on your geology about these remarkable falls, read about the formation of the falls.
There are some great books for kids to read, especially when you consider some of the daredevils who have tried to tackle the falls.
Barreling Over Niagara Falls by Nancy Kelly Allen
Annie decides to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
The Boxcar Children Special #8 created by Gertrude Chandler Warner
The famous Boxcar Children run into a mystery in the watery mist of the falls.
Questions for Discussion
Some questions before and after your visit might help center this amazing experience in an educational context.
Before Your Visit:
- What is the name of the river that delivers the water to Niagara Falls?
- What is the largest city in the Niagara Falls area?
- After the water goes over the falls, into which large body of water does it flow?
After Your Visit:
- What does the term hydroelectric power mean?
- Describe the places near the falls that provide hydroelectric power.
- Describe the process by which a rainbow forms near the bottom of Niagara Falls.
Some people argue that California’s Yosemite National Park is the single most beautiful spot in the world—and, if not, it’s pretty close. The granite cliffs that make up El Capitan and Half Dome are among the most awe-inspiring sites in all of nature. Topping off this landscape are waterfalls, the most towering of which is Yosemite Falls. In the spring when the snow melts from the high valleys of the Sierra Nevada, water pours over Yosemite Falls creating a sight that children and adults alike will long remember.
Like Niagara Falls, Yosemite Falls is a gateway to understanding the geology of a region. The Sierra Nevada is a range of mountains that runs along the backbone of eastern California. Viewed from the west, these mountains rise gradually from the central valley of the state; and viewed from the east, they are anything but gradual—they rise sharply from the sagebrush-laden Great Basin. The forces that lifted the Sierra Nevada lifted granite hills far into the sky.
Yosemite Falls is the crown jewel of Sierra Nevada waterfalls. It is the tallest waterfall on the North American continent. From the top, water falls 2,425 feet (739 m). There are actually three sections to these falls: the Upper Falls alone would rank in the top twenty of highest falls. The Middle Cascades is the area where water rolls down a steep granite slope. When you visit, you can stand very close to the bottom of the Lower Falls which becomes Yosemite Creek.
Visit the main website of Yosemite National Park for all the details you’ll need prior to your visit.
Yosemite is a National Park that is only four hours from San Francisco and not much farther from the Los Angeles area. You’ll want to make reservations at almost any time of year that you plan to visit.
The Super Silly Yosemite Sticker and Activity Book: Puzzles, Games, Mazes and More! by Katherine Brumage
For the younger kids, this activity book will come in handy for the long drive to Yosemite Falls.
Yosemite’s Songster: One Coyote’s Story by Ginger Wadsworth
One coyote’s story of life in Yosemite will delight older children—with beautiful watercolor art of the national park.
Some questions before and after your visit might help center this high Sierra visit.
Before Your Visit:
- Where does the name Yosemite come from?
- What is meant by an igneous rock—the class of rock to which granite belongs?
- What is a “rain shadow” and what does it mean for the living things to the west and to the east of the Sierra Nevada?
After Your Visit:
- How did Half Dome form?
- What role does fire play in the Yosemite environment?
- Trace the flow of the water from Yosemite Falls to the Pacific Ocean
The Sierra Nevada is home to two other amazing national parks, Sequoia and Kings Canyon. This website will give you a closer look at them. Make visiting them a part of your trip to Yosemite Falls.
Most people are unaware that Yellowstone National Park is a huge volcano. The colorful hot springs and Old Faithful geyser may be major tourist attractions, but for watery thrills there is nothing quite like Yellowstone Falls.
Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park, was set aside for all citizens in 1872 by President U.S. Grant. It is located in the Rocky Mountains, primarily in the state of Wyoming.
Yellowstone Falls is one of the great sites in a park full of great places. The Hayden Valley is home to Yellowstone Lake, and water flows from there to the first part of the falls, called Upper Yellowstone Falls. At the bottom of the falls a new river section is formed. That water travels to Lower Yellowstone Falls, over which the largest volume of water in the entire Rocky Mountains flows. From there, it travels into The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a thousand-foot deep, narrow valley of unusual beauty.
You want to plan ahead for any visit to this far corner of Wyoming. The first site to visit is that run by the National Park Service.
Prepare for the trip to Yellowstone by getting all the factual knowledge down before you head out.
From bears to deer, Yellowstone is one of the great spots to view nature.
Perhaps no area in the United State is more interesting to earth scientists and geologists than Yellowstone.
For many people, the drive to Yellowstone will be a long one. Plan to stock up on books for the children to read.
Hello Yellowstone! by Martha Day Zschock
Younger children will delight in this adventure of mother and child bear as they explore the animal life of Yellowstone National Park.
Questions for Discussion
Some questions before and after your visit might help center this amazing experience in an educational context
Before Your Visit:
- Why is Yellowstone considered to be a volcano?
- In what three states is Yellowstone located?
- Why is Old Faithful given that name?
After Your Visit:
- Are there wolves in Yellowstone National Park?
- What are the rules regarding bears and human in the park?
Featured Image – Koshy Koshy / CC by 2.0
Daniel H. Franck is director of science for K12. He developed the scope and sequence for all science courses for grades 3-12. Dr. Franck has also worked for Holt, Rinehart, Winston, Harcourt, Scholastic, Inc., and Discovery Channel, among others, in developing science textbooks as well as multimedia products for students from kindergarten through high school. He was part of a team of educational specialists that visited the nation of South Africa under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development helping that nation's biology teachers restructure their national science curriculum. Dr. Franck has a Ph.D. in botany from the University of California, Berkeley and has been a professor of botany at the University of Wisconsin.