Looking Glass Falls, Pisgah National Forest, Transylvania County, North Carolina — in a cloak of ice…

After hearing that we would be having a visit from the Polar Vortex (otherwise known as Old Man Winter), I thought about the beautiful Looking Glass Falls in the Pisgah National Forest, and what it might look like if it were frozen.

We don’t often get temperatures in the single digits Fahrenheit down South, so this outbreak of cold weather should offer opportunities that we seldom see. Here is what Looking Glass Falls typically looks like in the summer:

Looking Glass Falls in the summer

The drive up to the Pisgah National Forest takes me about 1.5 hours, and the road is one of the most curvy roads that I’ve ever travelled. There are plenty of forest vistas to see along the way. The trip takes me over the Blue Ridge Escarpment of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, and that means I’ll be seeing lots of frozen creeks and small waterfalls beside the road.

In a nutshell, the Escarpment represents a dramatic rise in elevation from the foothills of the Piedmont, from about 2000 feet (600 meters) in elevation, to the low mountains at about 4000 feet (1200 meters) in elevation. This dramatic elevation change provides unique habitats for many hundreds of rare species and the chance to see many waterfalls. Here is a map of the major waterfalls found in the Carolinas. It is easy to see that the large majority of them are located on or near the Escarpment.

Looking Glass Falls is named after a nearby prominent granitic peak called Looking Glass Rock. Here is a shot of it from the Looking Glass Rock overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway:

Looking Glass Rock from Looking Glass Rock overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Arriving at Looking Glass Falls, I notice several automobiles in the parking lot. So, I’m not the only one that is curious about the scene. There are on-lookers with camera phones, Ipads, as well as those with heavy tripods, the latter looking to do some serious photography. Man, is it cold! I’m just not used to temperatures this low. At the time of my visit, the temperature at the falls measured 0 degrees F (-18 C). You folks in the great white north are probably laughing at me at this point, but this boy from the Sunny South is not ready for this cold weather…

So, I bundle up (as well as I can), load my camera gear, and begin the decent to the base of the falls down a steep, concrete staircase. Here is my first shot taken at the lower landing, just next to the falls:

Looking Glass Falls, frozen in the winter

The falls is about 60 feet (18 meters) tall, and there is only a minor amout of water pouring over the edge — much unlike what we see during the spring and summer. There are icicles both around the edges as well as on the rocks behind the falls. The spray also causes huge icicles to form on the rocks in front of the falls (lower right portion of the above image). These icicles are about 6-8 feet (2-2.5 meters) long!

I want to get a shot facing the falls, so I proceed down the lower portion of the staircase and onto the rocks below. They look clean and ice-free, but that look is deceiving. The spray has coated the boulders with a 3-millimeter layer of “black ice”, so clear that it is transparent to the naked eye. I didn’t realize this, so the first thing that happened is I took a spill on the first large boulder I stepped on. Fortunately, the only thing I damaged was my ego… Another photographer who had managed to climb up on a large boulder asked if I was OK, and I managed to grumble that everything was fine.

I set up my tripod and aimed the camera at the falls facing me. Here is the resulting shot:

Facing Looking Glass Falls from the edge of the river

From my precarious perch, I was able to get a closer shot of the huge icicles on the other side of the river:

10-foot icicles on the river's edge

If this image looks a bit foggy or hazy, it is because the lens filter on the front of my lens had frozen over with a thin coating of ice from the spray of the falls! That’s the first time this has ever happened to me. Turns out, it’s a common hazard for those taking pictures in such an environment. Who knew…

At about this time, I noticed a couple who had arrived down at the base of the icy boulder where I was sitting. I thought it unusual that she was dressed in fine fishing attire, complete with waders, fly rod, and net. Not being a fisherman, I didn’t know that this weather was good for trout fishing, but they told me that they were heading up the road, a bit, to do some actual fishing. Right now, they wanted to get some photographs to show their friends. Here is Simons Welty on a rock in the river looking up toward the falls:

Simons Welty in the river looking toward the falls

She managed to stay out there about 10 minutes, waiting for her companion to set up his camera and tripod. While she was waiting, she indicated that her boots had frozen to the rocks! I had finished with my shoot, so I proceeded to carefully extracate myself from the top of the icy boulder and head back up the path to the staircase. On the way, I got another shot of Simons — this time, with her companion’s tripod and camera bag:

Simons Welty standing on the frozen rocks in the river

Upon arriving at the top of the staircase near the parking lot, I saw the spectacular sight of a frozen cliff, studded with huge icicles. Here are a few shots of these monsters:

Icicles on the cliff face
Icicles on the cliff face

Even though I was wearing gloves, my hands were numb at this point, so I decided that I had had enough of photography in the cold. So I packed my gear and headed back home with the heater blasting warm air in my face the whole way…

–Jim

11 comments


  • Neat stuff

    January 09, 2014
  • John Fowler

    Wow, Jim, what an adventure! I’ve never gotten my feet frozen stuck to the ground. I can sympathize with the falling down part. Great photos! Thanks for this story and pictures.

    January 09, 2014
  • Federica

    what a beautiful place!
    I’m sorry for your ego… πŸ˜‰
    no, I’m glad you didn’t get hurt!

    January 09, 2014
  • Ben Rostron

    only -18C? Laughing with you… (not at you!)

    Great photos, as always.

    Stay warm.

    Ben R.
    Edmonton, Alberta.

    January 09, 2014
    • Jim

      LOL! It was both you and Lorne I was thinking about when I mentioned the “great white north”. πŸ˜‰

      January 09, 2014
  • Skip Pudney

    Spectacular! How I wish I could have joined you on that adventure. It’s been ages since I last saw this waterfall dressed in ice…and, at the time, I bruised my ego as well!

    January 09, 2014
  • Ron DeKett

    Thank you for the informative post and photos.

    January 09, 2014
  • margy

    Beautiful pictures Jim!!!!

    January 09, 2014
  • Scott

    Good work. I don’t care where you live. Zero degrees is still cold.

    January 09, 2014
    • Jim

      You are right about that!!! πŸ˜‰

      January 17, 2014
  • Neta Caldwell

    Wow! Such beauty and right at our “back door”! Having been around the world and 13,000 pictures later, not too many as beautiful as yours!

    January 11, 2014

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