story and photos by Derek Doeffinger
Easy Walks to Bewitching Winterfalls
Icicles as big as rockets, or as tiny as sewing needles. Glass spears threatening from overhead. Underfoot, treacherous ice sheets lurk, trying to trip the awestruck, inattentive walker. From cliffs and stream banks, shimmering baubles flaunt their icy wares, ready to challenge the crystal candelabras at the ballroom of Buckingham Palace.
It’s winter in the gorges, and ice-spangled waterfalls give new meaning to the phrase “winter wonderland.”
Almost as impressive is what you don’t see. The crowds – they are gone. The noise is gone. The only sounds you hear are the crunch of your footsteps on the snow crust, the muffled tinkle of water trickling beneath the ice, and the exhalation of your breath.
Winter waterfalls evolve
Early winter waterfalls dazzle. December, with its alternating cold snaps, warm spells, and sticky blizzards reveals waterfalls in all their fairyland fantasy forms. Fresh snow adheres to everything – rocks, limbs, twigs, trunks, trails – to frame the still-flowing falls in a snowy vista from almost all angles. As you stand and look in amazement, you almost expect a ballerina to twirl through the scene.
As the cold endures, cardboard-thin ice visors wrap around stream rocks. Ice formations, shaped like penguins’ feet, dangle from streamside roots, and bob in and out of the water like candles being dipped. Misty sprays drifting downstream cling to branches and twigs, transforming them into icy percussive wind chimes that click, clack, and clatter.
Then, from mid-January to mid-February, the prolonged single digit and subzero temperatures suck the joy out of fantasyland, and seal and silence the stream with lids of ice. Day by day, inch by inch, foot by foot, waterfalls succumb to the hungry ice.
Eagle Cliff Falls becomes a 40-foot wall of ice. Ninety-foot Carpenter Falls turns into a giant lumpy bud vase thrown by a first-time potter. Taughannock’s dark pool, 215 feet below the brink, vanishes under a giant beer-belly dome bulging upward 20 feet – and still growing.
The ice has taken over. The winter falls, at their worst and their best, are worth seeing.
Some frozen waterfalls to visit
Ithaca is a great destination for accessible frozen waterfalls. At Treman and Buttermilk State parks, you can park at the lower entrances to see the waterfalls located there. Their interior trails will be closed. At Taughannock Falls, the flat gorge trail off Rt. 89 is often open. Check ahead to be sure – 607-387-6739. The parking lot overlook (but not the stairs) is nearly always open. The short, mostly flat walk to Ithaca Falls is usually safe if traversed carefully.
Ludlowville (Salmon Creek) Falls in Ludlowville, 15 miles north of Ithaca, can be seen from the back of Ludlowville Park. It’s at the intersection of Ludlowville Road and Mill Street.
Shequaga Falls at the west end of Main Street in Montour Falls is easily viewable from the park facing it.
The drive on Rt. 14 from Watkins Glen to Montour Falls not only takes you past the roadside Aunt Sarah’s Falls, but also alongside a string of cliffs where dazzling displays of icicles often form.
In extreme cold, 90-foot-high Carpenter Falls on Appletree Point Road halfway down Rt. 41A on the west side of Skaneateles Lake often freezes completely. From the parking area for Bahar Preserve, walk west (back towards Rt. 41A) a few hundred yards on the trail. Hiking poles and ice cleats are recommended.
You can see small but picturesque Honeoye Falls in the center of the village of Honeoye Falls from a viewing platform at the back of Mendon Town Hall, or from the bridge over the creek.
You can get a good look at High Falls in downtown Rochester from the pedestrian bridge Pont de Rennes, next to the Genesee Brew House restaurant.
Whether in a parking lot or on a trail, any winter walk entails risk. If you want to get a closer look at a falls, be sure to put on some sort of ice cleats, take hiking poles, and tread carefully. Stay off the waterfall unless you’ve had ice climbing training and are properly equipped.