Your Winter Hiking Goals Should Involve These Crystalline Frozen Waterfalls
Don't go chasing waterfalls—climb them.
Winter hiking can be a hard sell for even the most seasoned hiker, but stepping into the wild during a cold snap can reveal the kind of beauty usually reserved for antelopes and Sasquatch. And few wintertime sights can make you feel like you’ve stepped into an icy fairytale more than a roaring waterfall frozen mid-stream.
The US is a big and beautiful place, and from frostbitten national parks to urban green spaces, exploring its varied terrain in sub-zero temperatures can reveal mighty waterfalls transformed into giant icicles. Some freeze partially, while others become massive walls of crystalline ice so thick that adventurous climbers scale them with pickaxes. And once you see them, you'll never forget them. To inspire your next cold-weather hike, here are some of America’s most magical frozen falls.
Coloradans have always known Hanging Lake, located a few miles from Glenwood Springs, as one of the state’s most scenic destinations, and that’s no less true once the aspens have stopped quaking for autumn. Come wintertime, the gentle waterfalls feeding Hanging Lake can freeze into icicle-like columns; catch it on a quiet early morning and it’s like the whole world is standing still.
Columbia River Gorge
Considered the crown jewel of Oregon’s impossibly scenic Columbia River Gorge Highway, Multnomah is the main attraction on a highway literally overflowing with waterfalls. With its postcard-ready bridge and huge boulder at the bottom, the 620-foot waterfall just east of Portland is one of the state’s biggest tourist draws in the summer. But in winter, massive as it is, this storied waterfall can turn fully into ice once the temperature drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Sometimes it’s only partly frozen, but the streams of water running down over translucent blocks of ice makes for no less grand a view. The same goes for the more than 90 less-touristy falls hikers can visit just off the historic highway.
Snaking through one of the most gorgeous parts of the Black Hills, Spearfish Canyon’s towering walls conceal countless treasures, among them multiple falls. And in winter, when the only audible sounds are the river and the snowmobiles in the distance, Roughlock Falls and the hulking Bridal Veil transform into something extra surreal. Those are the big ones—the rest are for you to discover on your own.
The temperature has to drop and stay that way for a while in order for Niagara Falls to freeze completely, but it can—and does–happen. Probably more often than you expect (unless you live in Buffalo, in which case you definitely expect the right amount). For the most part, there’s still water flowing underneath the frozen surface, but Niagara Falls really does give the appearance of being iced over—and looks extra cool when it’s psychedelically lit up with multi-colored holiday lights.
Starved Rock State Park
Head southwest of Chicago to LaSalle Canyon in Starved Rock State Park toward the end of a cold snap, and you might find this gargantuan pillar of water perfectly suspended in mid-air right off the rock face. Follow the trail to take in the view from behind the falls, looking out through what would normally be a curtain of rushing water.
Winding Stair Gap
The imposing falls at Winding Stair Gap in Franklin—a town hidden in the forests of western North Carolina—freezes so solidly that it attracts ice climbers throughout the winter. It’s also conveniently accessible from the Appalachian Trail, for those of you who want to take advantage of the falls’ majesty without necessarily bringing a pickaxe.
Mountain Lake Park
There are several beloved waterfalls in Maryland known to freeze under the right conditions, including the 53-foot Muddy Creek Falls. Head into Swallow Falls State Park on the western reaches of the state for a tower of cascading ice you can walk right up to.
The signature brown running through these famous Upper Peninsula falls comes from tannins absorbed from cedar and hemlock swamps. In the summer, the water might just look muddy, but when it freezes, the tannins add an unexpected pop of color to the winter landscape. There are many, many frozen falls in Michigan's unofficial tundra—this is a place where the waves on Lake Superior freeze into ice volcanoes—but Tahquamenon is the most famous and accessible. Hell, there's even a brewery in the park. No wonder the closest town is called Paradise.
These 31-foot falls in Ozark National Forest, Arkansas, pours out of what looks like a large hole in a larger rock ceiling, and was so named long before your mind became dirty. Sometimes it’s a slow drip; sometimes it’s a raging waterfall; sometimes, when it’s below freezing, it’s a perfectly suspended column of water. The only leaky ceiling you’re likely to ever enjoy.
Zion National Park
Zion in the summertime? Overcrowded. Hot. Too many lines. Zion in the wintertime? Sublime. Peaceful. Wondrous. Surprisingly cold! The best time to visit this national park is definitely between November and March, when foot (and car) traffic is a tenth of what it is in the peak summer months, and when the waterfalls might be converted to icicles. As a bonus, this is also one of the best times of year to stargaze in total isolation.
Letchworth State Park
Known as the Grand Canyon of the East, this Western NY stunner has more than 20 waterfalls cascading off its 17-mile swath of rocky gorge cliffs, and in winter the deep chill has a habit of freezing them solid. Additionally, the snowmelt dripping off the walls of the gorge tends to frost over into giant icicles, creating the illusion that the entire canyon underwent the Day After Tomorrow treatment.
Bash Bish Falls
In addition to being incredibly fun to say, the waters of Bash Bish splish-splash into a series of pools before embarking on an 80-foot plunge into a deep pool. In the winter, however, the rushing waters are shockingly still as the freeze sets in, giving an even more otherworldly look to Massachusetts's tallest waterfalls. Seeing it is an easy—if blustery—hike into the falls’ namesake state park, which sits on the border of Massachusetts and New York in the Taconic Mountains.
Not every icy waterfall requires snowshoes to experience: Minnehaha Falls is located right in the middle of the Minneapolis park that shares its name, and makes a solid argument against Minnesota’s brutal winters being so damn miserable on the strength of its sheer beauty alone. Seeing the 53-foot walls hanging nearly motionless over limestone cliffs is the most stirring Minneapolis experience short of diving head-first into the purifying waters of Lake Minnetonka.