For outdoor adventure close to home, mingled with scenic grandeur, nothing beats a winter walk to a waterfall. Such a walk is most challenging, and most inspiring, when snow covers the ground and days of freezing weather have sheathed our local streams in ice.
From the variety of fine waterfalls in the area, we chose Stony Kill Falls in Kerhonkson for our destination recently. Rebecca and I wanted to bring two other couples with us to see this waterfall, whose 87-foot drop is the greatest in Minnewaska State Park and second greatest in the Shawangunks. Since I hadn’t taken this short hike in several years, I decided to go on my own the day before.
I was really alone the day of my “dry run.” The temperature was frigid, as it had been all week, guaranteeing icy conditions near the waterfall and on the rocky trail leading to its base. I was prepared for the treacherous footing with cheap, but effective, crampons, but could not be prepared for the overwhelming feeling of awe that struck me when I stood before the frozen cataract. To say that it took my breath away might seem trite were it not literally true. I heard the crash of water well before the waterfall was in view. By the time I reached my goal daylight was starting to fade, which seemed to magnify the cathedral stillness of the place. It was necessary to clamber around large, ice-glazed boulders to get past a stand of hemlocks that partially obscured the falls from view. Finally I stood gasping before an immense sculpture of ice, snow and spray.
Unlike other memorable waterfalls I have visited in the winter — and they always seem most memorable in the winter — Stony Kill Falls lacks a large plunge pool. Instead, its waters drop into a snow-covered ice cone about ten feet across that resembles nothing so much as a white volcano. This “snow volcano” even seemed to be “erupting” as water gushed like lava from its “crater,” where the thick, translucent ice was sea green. The waterfall itself plunged through a massive hollow column of ice that hung from the rock lip directly above the volcano. It’s a spectacle that beggars description and invites wild and outlandish comparisons. Hence, the hanging ice column, invoking Norse mythology, could be a giant crystal chandelier in the hall of the mountain gods, and the huge rows of fused icicles varying in length suggest pipe organs, or when separate, saber-tooth tiger fangs or walrus tusks. Well, you get the idea…
I returned to Stony Kill Falls with Rebecca and our four fellow-adventurers. We set out at a more sensible hour this time, on a bright, blue-sky day, which had brought others to this rather remote spot, too. We walked past a gate into an open field where shale showed through patchy snow and brown dried skeletons of weeds like wild carrot, aster, mullein and evening primrose with its urn-like seed capsules poked up. Across from the fenced compound over a shaft leading down to the Delaware Aqueduct, which conducts water from the Rondout Reservoir to New York City, we paused to pick some wild bergamot seed heads, crushing the brown globes in our fingers to release their spicy, minty scent.
From the first gravel field we descended to a lower one, an old quarry studded with low hills like buttes, whose flat tops showed the ground level here before the shale was excavated. We followed the jeep trail to the other side of the quarry and entered the woods, picking up an unmarked trail that paralleled the Stony Kill in the ravine below. A litter of green hemlock twigs on the snow suggested porcupine activity and a barked maple with large incisor marks confirmed it. Since porcupines don’t stray far from their winter quarters, I felt sure they had dens in the cliff that loomed over the ravine.
The waterfall impressed our friends, I’m sure, as much as it had impressed me. While I enjoyed seeing it as much or more in their company as I had alone, the experience, not surprisingly, was different. Perhaps only solitude grants one the full experience of awe I had on my first visit. With companions, however, I had the pleasure of sharing the experience. Mike, with his keen powers of perception, helped me see something I had missed on my own: he asked whether the huge hanging ice column was moving. Skeptical at first, I focused intently on its lower portion and saw that it was — tremulously, almost imperceptibly, but actually — moving, set faintly swaying in air stirred by the waters falling through it.
I was glad I had checked this site out before leading others to it. For one thing, I was able to insist that we all wear some kind of traction aid on our boots. Also, I could say with confidence that this excursion would more than repay whatever effort or discomfort it might cost us to make it. Mainly, what such a walk asks of us at this time of year is a willingness to approach the edge of our comfort zones. In 40-plus years of leading people into natural areas, I have found that edge to be where the most memorable experiences happen and where the most durable learning takes place. This observation applies equally to children and to adults. We live at a time when tolerance for risk, especially in the outdoors, seems to be at an all-time low. There is a bitter irony in this, as many appear quite willing, for instance, to endanger the livability of our planet by ignoring the more and more obvious risks of climate change. Or to endanger aquifers, ecosystems and rural communities by the risky practice of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.
Certainly we want to keep kids safe, but does that really require never allowing them to get near the edge of their comfort zones? Or maybe we should look at the issue a different way: whatever the risks of going outside under challenging conditions, we might ask, what are the risks of not going outside? For all humans, curiosity, a spirit of adventure and a sense of wonder — all of these, I believe, thrive best, as ferns and lichens do, when exposed to the world’s weather. So dress in layers, strap on crampons if necessary, and push your own boundaries this winter, into the realm of ice and snow.
This trail to the base of Stony Kill Falls is at the end of Shaft 2A Road in Kerhonkson. Turn right off Route 44-55 about 1 mile southeast of the intersection with Route 209 onto Minnewaska Trail Road (or turn left on to Minnewaska Trail Road 4.3 miles northwest of the main entrance of Minnewaska State Park), then turn left onto Rock Haven Road. Follow 1.9 miles to Shaft 2A Road. Follow Shaft 2A Road 0.4 miles to end. Parking is limited and tricky: you must not block the gate and the road has little or no shoulder.