Deep freeze: Frozen waterfalls offer rare winter spectacle

It was cold, but I was prepared. Leggings and Underarmour, sweatpants and sweatshirt, parka and hiking pants, an array of hats, gloves and scarves — it was safe to say I’d dressed for the forecasted high of 27 degrees.

I’d spent much of the past week indoors, wrapped in blankets against the single-digit chill that assaulted my apartment and dreaming of warmer days. But as the weekend drew near, a realization dawned — all this cold had surely created some beauty out of Western North Carolina’s abundant waterways. I made a decision: I would brave the cold, and I would go find a frozen waterfall.

Luckily, I also found a couple friends — and their three dogs — willing to hike with my pup and I in 20-degree weather, and so Saturday afternoon we set off for Cullowhee Falls.

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The sky was pure blue but the sun without heat, my toes developing a chill even while in the heated car, shrouded in thick socks. But in our quest for frozen falls, the curvy mountain road seemed to say that we were on the right track as we passed seeping rockfaces transformed into walls of ice. And when we arrived at the trailhead, the line of parked cars revealed that we weren’t the only ones who’d had this idea.

A gust of wind greeted us as we tumbled out of the car, wondering just how frigid of an experience this hike would be. I zipped my coat tight around me, adjusting the combination of hat and neck scarf I’d devised to ensure only a minimal amount of skin would remain exposed to the elements.

But then we started walking, and I was surprised at how quickly warmth started to gather between my layers. Soon I was pulling off my gloves, then my hat, unzipping my parka and putting the neck scarf in my pocket.

And in the midst of all that, the ice started to appear. There’s a place not too far from the trailhead where the forest opens up to reveal a steep, steep tumble down to the river far below, and today that river was constrained by a border of ice, thicker and whiter along the banks and progressively thinner until reaching the center, where the water still ran freely.

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For the next bit of trail, the river itself stayed mostly hidden, save for glimpses here and there where the path came near enough to the banks that the thickly growing rhododendrons couldn’t hide the water. But evidence of the deep freeze was everywhere. Rock seeps along the path had frozen over, a beautiful combination of ice blocks and hoarfrost and glazed puddles, and on the trail itself frozen water accumulated to create sheets that resembled miniature ice skating rinks. The remains of a days-old snow dusting still appeared here and there, pockets of powder buried under leaves or in the shadows of rocks where the stingy winter sun would never shine.

It was all gorgeous, but these sights were really just low-key opening acts compared to the double headliners that would anchor the afternoon.

The first of those headliners, a waterfall that in warmer conditions cascades softly down a series of moss-covered rocks on the opposite bank, delivered its show in complete stillness.

It was all frozen, the gentle cascade stopped time and again by the cold until it formed layers of frozen water that combined into a thick, textured, icicle-laden sheet. Rocks in the river below were ringed with white discs of freeze, only a small stream of water, blue-black in shadow, remaining open.

It was dramatic, sure, but nothing compared to the grand finale.

Cullowhee Falls is impressive even on an average day. Though its volume is usually pretty low, the falls spills 150 feet over the cliffs of the Tuckasegee Gorge in a two-tier drop before crashing down into the rocky canyon below. Several days each year, the effect intensifies as Duke Energy does a special release from the falls’ source, Lake Glenville. On those days, Cullowhee Falls becomes one of the most powerful waterfalls in the region.

Today, however, that motion was more stilted, and the effect much more grand; the scene resembled some artificially created movie set rather than a natural phenomenon. Water kept moving at the falls’ center, but it was hemmed in by a series of frosted icicles that grew ever thicker and longer, merging into each other to create a continuous covering on the rockface.

The small beach where on warmer days I’d enjoyed many a trail snack, watching the water cascade and thinking thoughts that I’d like to believe were somewhat deep, was on this winter day frozen over completely. I took a tentative step on the edge, planting one foot there, then two, and, seeing no cracks form, tested out a jump. The ice held, and while I wasn’t quite willing to risk stepping out toward the center, the dogs had no such qualms. They ventured out, immune to admonishments to come back and stay, paws slipping haphazardly as they explored this curious new substance, the ice thankfully holding their weight.

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I, meanwhile, did some exploring of my own, following my pup up and over a few dry rocks before dropping my jaw as I encountered the place where everything was ice. An inches-thick sheet covered the rocks, continuing out to the water itself and up the icicle-hung falls. A winter wonderland, if ever there was one.

If there had been just a little bit of sun glimmering on the ice surface, the magic would have been complete. But in the deep of winter — and especially in a canyon — that’s an elusive wish. The sun was already sinking, half out of sight behind the trees.

But even sunless, it was enchanting, and it’s probably good that I wasn’t there alone. If left to my own devices, I probably would have sat, staring, until the chill was so advanced my legs refused to move.

As it was, somebody else made the suggestion that we should perhaps think about leaving, and I begrudgingly agreed.

I’m glad to see the 4-degree weather go, and when spring comes I’ll rejoice at the warm sun and blooming wildflowers just like everybody else. But the frozen world is full of beauty too and it’s a beauty I hope to see again — the next time that real winter visits Western North Carolina.

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