The mighty River Rhine passes through four countries as it flows from the Alps to the North Sea and it generates strong feelings of national pride throughout its length with each country regarding it as their own. It has been a major trade route since at least the times of the Roman Empire and probably much earlier and a major factor in the development of European industrialisation.
Apart from its attraction as a navigable river, it is also a significant feature of the landscapes through which it passes. The river has traditionally formed the border between different countries which has given rise to many impressive man-made structures such as castles and other fortifications. However, in most cases, the natural beauty of the river itself outshines such architectural masterpieces. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Rhine Falls. The falls are in Switzerland on the stretch of river known as the High Rhine where the waters cascade down to a lower level in a spectacular waterfall which has enthralled visitors for centuries.
Those unfamiliar with the area could be forgiven for expecting a river so far from the sea to be little more than a mountain stream but such assumptions are soon dispelled as the soon as the falls are seen. The sheer power of the waterfall is awe-inspiring. This power has for over a century been eyed by engineers looking to harness it for electricity generation but thankfully none of the schemes have been approved by the Swiss. As a result, the falls continue to run in full spate.
The Rheinfall continues to be a major tourist attraction with over one million visitors each year contributing greatly to the local economy and any perceived financial benefits of hydroelectric power generation, to the detriment of the falls, may be questionable.
Size of The Rhine Falls
The Rhine Falls are usually described as being the largest waterfall in Europe but it should be noted that many other waterfalls have greater drops and many are much longer where they form multiple drops or a series of cataracts.
The Rhine Falls have a drop of around 23 metres but are 150 metres wide making this a very large and impressive sight but the falls main claim to fame is the immense volume of water passing through which varies between 250 and 600 square metres per second. The lower figure referring to the winter months and the higher being the spring and summer flow rates where the river is fed by the melting alpine snows.
On a geological time-scale, the falls are a fairly recent development being formed between 14,000 and 17,000 years ago when the river took up its present course passing over a band of hard limestone which developed into a cliff-face as softer rocks became eroded. The large central rock formation, known as the Rheinfallfelsen, which is a notable feature standing in the middle of the waterfall is a remnant of an earlier part of this cliff-face, the waterfall now having moved a little way further upstream.
Visiting The Rhine Falls
One of the great things about this magnificent waterfall is that it is very accessible. It is located in northern Switzerland near Schaffhausen and lies between the villages of Neuhausen am Rheinfall and Lanfen-Uhwiesen/Dachien.
There are good roads making it ideal for visiting by car or cycle or, for those preferring to use public transport, there are railway stations on both sides of the river and the falls are easily reached on foot. The rail bridge crosses the river just above the falls and it also incorporates a pedestrian path allowing for visitors to walk completely around the falls and the Rhine Falls basin to view this spectacle from every possible viewpoint.
Car parking is available on both sides of the river. For many people, the greatest way to experience the full power of this natural wonder is to experience a close encounter and with this in mind viewing platforms have been built on both sides which reach out incredibly close to the cascading waters. Depending on the time of year and the rate of flow, visitors to these platforms can expect to be covered in spray and could really be described as soaking up the atmosphere.
Boat trips on the river below the falls are also popular and can take from around 10 to 40 minutes. Some even visit the massive central rocks, the Rheinfallfelsen, where a landing stage allows visitors to disembark onto the rock for perhaps the closest views of all. The falls are steeped in history and the magnificent Schloss Laufen which towers over the falls is a favourite destination and in addition to the viewing platforms, visitors can also enjoy the restaurant facilities and souvenir shop.
Rhine Falls Accommodation
For those wishing to spend more than a single day here, there is no shortage of hotel and B&B facilities in the adjacent townships but for those looking for hostel accommodation, the Youth Hostel at Dachsen is surely unique as there can be no other hostel set within a thousand year old castle.
Rhine Falls Activities
Simply viewing the splendour of the Rhine Falls makes any visit worthwhile but the experience can be even more memorable by night when the falls are illuminated and on some occasions fireworks are set off from the central Rhine Fall rock.
The adventurous may enjoy a visit to the Adventure Park where the emphasis is on climbing and it is possible to follow an aerial route from treetop to treetop, experience a free-fall drop or a ride along a “zip-wire” known as the Panorama Express.
Those preferring to keep their feet on the ground may prefer to take the walk around the Rhine Falls basin which involves a hike of around 3 to 4 kilometres or the slightly more arduous “Circular Trail” which starts from the village of Dachson and is around 8 Kilometres long.
Disabled visitors will be pleased to note that access by car is simple but those wishing to get close to the water’s edge are best advised to visit the north bank where designated parking spaces are provided right down near the Rhine Falls basin and wheelchair users will find a lift to a boat landing point.
The Best Time to Visit The Rhine Falls
The Rhine Falls are a year-round attraction with each season providing its own charm. In winter the weather can be cold but the scenery spectacular so short walks are probably preferable to canoeing. The rate of flow is generally at its highest during the summer making this a good time to experience the viewing platforms but a visit at any time of year is likely to be an unforgettable experience. This is a favourite stop off point for those visiting the area and regarded as an essential part of the “Swiss Grand Tour” but any itinerary should give a visit to the falls a high priority.
There continues to be talk about diverting part of the waters away from the Rhine Falls for power generation or considering how to make the stretch of the Rhine between Basel and Lake Constance navigable but such schemes have been mooted for many years and have turned out to be simply water under the bridge (and over the falls!) hopefully things will remain so.