Natural beauties frozen in time — for a while
A waterfall in motion, though beautiful, is nothing compared with one that has been arrested by plunging temperatures. Though we often visit them in warm weather, just like autumn leaves, waterfalls have their peak season, and that time is now.
There are excellent winter waterfalls to visit all over the region. Some of the best are in the southern Berkshires of Massachusetts and in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. On a day trip to either area it’s possible to explore several frozen falls — both spectacular and accessible — in just a few hours.
Depending on the weather, you might be able to walk to a winter waterfall in sneakers, but you will more likely require boots with good traction, snowshoes, or cleats such as MICROspikes, metal teeth held together by rubber webbing that are worn over ordinary shoes. These enable the wearer to be sure-footed even on slick, tightly packed snow or the icy surfaces that surround most falls at this time of year. Outdoor stores such as Lahout’s North Face Summit Shop in Lincoln, N.H., rent the spikes for as little as $5 a day, and the staff can steer you toward the most appropriate footwear, given their knowledge of local trail conditions.
Waterfalls can be easier to access in the cold. The streams and pools that separate us from the falls in warmer weather often freeze solidly enough to become a path that leads directly to the belly of the beast. In certain conditions, one can walk directly up to a waterfall and stand beneath its frozen flow without feeling so much as a drop.
The adventurous can get close to Bash Bish Falls at Mount Washington as long as they watch their footing and don’t mind the chilly mist. The falls, which plummets 80 feet and is interrupted partway by a boulder shaped like an enormous fang, is also visible from a viewing area. The rock splits the falls, and in the winter the resulting twin plumes are made all the more dramatic by a wreath of ice. The whiteness of the surrounding snow contrasts sharply with the pool below, whose turquoise hue is so vibrant that it seems transplanted from the Caribbean.
Greg Parsons, co-author of “New England Waterfalls,’’ estimates that the region has over 1,200 falls, though not all are equal in winter. “Some based on the structure aren’t going to be that impressive because they’re just a giant bubble of snow,’’ says Parsons. “But some are just incredible.’’ In addition to Bash Bish Falls, Parsons recommends Campbell Falls and the handful of different falls along the Race Brook Trail in the Mount Everett State Reservation, all of which are in the southwest corner of Massachusetts.
Campbell Falls lies just a few minutes’ walk from the road. There you’ll find a narrow gorge that amplifies the throaty roar of the partially frozen falls. The walls of the chasm are host to an array of ice formations, and boulders surrounding the falls are covered in scaly white, giving them the appearance of mythical Arctic sea creatures. Standing before this half-frozen, gushing wonder and hearing the thunder of the cascade is awe-inspiring.
The most alluring winter falls are those that are neither free flowing nor completely frozen but somewhere in between. The first falls you come to when following the right fork on the Race Brook Trail is an excellent example of such a combination. It looks as though a playful giant is in the process of pouring wax down the hillside: a plume at the top remains fluid, yet the rest of the flow is largely static. In places the ice is opaque, and in other spots it is clear enough to serve as a window to the water rushing behind it. Gaps in the ice expose running water, and peering into these small caverns can be as entrancing as viewing the larger whole.
In the White Mountains you’ll find Arethusa Falls, the reigning royalty of all New England winter waterfalls. This spot requires an hour of moderate hiking to and from the falls, but it is difficult to imagine anyone who would not feel rewarded by the spectacle. Through a clearing in the trees you suddenly find yourself faced with a towering wall of multicolored frozen water that assumes a host of different shapes. Minerals and tannins color portions of the ice blue and yellow, and when conditions allow, the center is dominated by a globular, floral formation that ice climbers refer to as “the cauliflower.’’ The scene is breathtaking.
Before you see the falls you may hear the axes of the climbers as they chip into the ice to secure a hold. Watching their ascent becomes part of the spectacle, and these sportsmen and women add scale to help you perceive just how massive the falls is. “Waterfall ice is always changing. It’s ephemeral,’’ says Maury McKinney, a North Conway resident who has been ice climbing for 25 years. While in the area, pull off Route 302 in the Crawford Notch State Park to see the Silver Cascade and the Flume Cascade farther down the road. These are both visible from the highway, and a short walk will take you in for a closer look.
Bridal Veil Falls is the winter pick for Steve Smith, an author and owner of The Mountain Wanderer map and guidebook store in Lincoln, N.H. Smith describes Bridal Veil as an amphitheater of ice, and he makes sure to visit it each winter. “I just like the variety of the formations you see, the diversity of shapes. Every time you go into a place it looks different,’’ he says. He recommends White Mountain winter waterfall viewing until April, at which point they begin to thaw.
“You don’t have to have as much gear to see a waterfall in winter as you do to climb the 4,000 footers,’’ says Smith. Both are inspiring, though one is certainly easier than the other.
Aaron Kagan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.