One of the Tallest Waterfalls in North America, Also one of the Most Remote
One of the top five tallest and highest volume waterfalls on record in North America may exist on the southeast flank of Mt Shuksan in North Cascades National Park. If only we could get to it. The 2000+ foot vertical drop of water, Sulphide Creek Falls, is only visible from the ground via 10-mile round-trip hikes. The final two miles of this trek from any direction, is not defined trail. It is a build-your-own bushwhacking traverse across glacial fields and thousands of vertical feet in varied terrain.
Because the whole cascade of falls is so remote, and in such a recessed canyon, even if someone can get within sight of this canyon, the falls may be in shadow or too low volume to see. Inaccessibility makes precise measurement tricky, but the whole cascade of falls is estimated at 2180 feet tall with the tallest vertical drop at 400 feet.
Sulphide Lake pouring into Sulphide Creek Falls shown from an arial.
Copyright 2002-2016, John H. Scurlock, Photographer/Pilot http://www.pbase.com/image/65059532
Bryan Swan of Northwest Waterfall Survey has seen parts of the falls from the ground. But he confirms it is “really, really difficult to see.” After multiple attempts, he has determined the only way to view just the majority of this set of cascades, is by air, implying that viewing all of it at once may be impossible.
Swan has Sulphide Creek Falls ranked ninth tallest in North America, but says that leans on some generous assumptions. It could be around twentieth, says Swan, if an accurate measurement could be taken, and depending on what else is hiding in more uncharted areas like remote Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.
But Swan gives us hope, “The reason, if any, that it should be thought of as so significant is that magical combination of height plus volume, and in that regard it very well could be in a top five type ranking for North America. At least if it were visible, that is.”
The 2,180-foot height estimate listed by the Forrest Service, and on NW Waterfall Survey, is the approximate change in elevation from Sulphide Lake to where the creek levels out. The question to be answered is whether that entire run of the creek can legitimately be considered the falls, Swan says.
Based on various map and photo sources, Swan says at least 1,600 feet of the falls is legitimate, and that all of the falls is probably steep enough, but that it is near impossible to determine if all of the apparent cascade meets the bedrock requirements, because of the narrow, remote canyon hiding the rock.
He shares the vague standard for a waterfall versus a steep creek. It doesn't have to be fully vertical, but there has to be a distinct shift from shallow to steep and back to shallow. A second lesser-known requirement is that the falls must flow over bedrock rather than over/around boulders or talus.
Since there are so many locations that would qualify under these conditions in Washington, Swan has secondary limiters: it must be at least 15 feet tall and on a stream that flows all year long, or 50 feet tall and on a stream that flows for six months continuously. Exceptions are made in cases where there may be a historic name applied.
Swan wants to “make it abundantly clear that accessing the bottom of the falls on foot is exceptionally difficult and dangerous. Specifically due to the deep, swift, very cold stream fords which would be necessary in the basin. I've tried three times now and been turned around on each attempt well over a mile away from the falls.”
Further, because this is part of North Cascades National Park, it should in no way be encouraged that a guerilla trail be blazed in to the base of the falls either,” says Swan.
I can echo Swan’s perspective on attempting to view the falls. I hiked a popular Mt Shuksan climbing route: Shannon Ridge, that comes within a mile and a half of the falls. After a 10.5-mile round trip hike with 4,000 ft of elevation gain with my beagle, we were too limited by time, and lack of equipment and knowledge. We turned around about a half-mile into North Cascades National Park, discouraged by intense terrain changes and slow progress.
Bryan Swan, who has been chasing waterfalls since he was four, found out about the Sulphide drainage in the appendix of a Pacific Northwest waterfall guidebook in the mid-90s. The book mentions that the USGS had mapped Sulphide Creek Falls not by name, but with a generic "Falls" marker. “[I] wasn't able to really confirm it was as significant as it is until Microsoft started posting satellite imagery on Terraserver, which was at the time just black and white and really, really grainy,” said Swan.