There are plenty of well-known waterfalls here in western New York State. In this eroding foothill region, we not only have that world-class cataract known as Niagara, we also have hypnotic falls at Letchworth, Stony Brook, and Watkins Glen state parks, not to mention Taughannock Falls near Ithaca and a host of other lesser knowns, all of them glacially-toned and fascinating in their own ways.
A falls is a vertical or nearly vertical drop of water. For the sake of argument let’s say it should have a minimum height of five feet, with water flowing over it for most of the year if not all of it. A cascade is a type of falls with a steep or moderate slope, as opposed to being upright. Basically speaking, there are three classes of waterfalls.
First, there’s a ribbon falls, whose height is notably greater than the width of its brink, or crest. (In a moment I want to describe a ribbon falls I recently visited in Virginia, the highest falls east of the Mississippi River). Secondly, there’s what is known as the classical falls, whose height is basically equal to the width of its crest, or top. And thirdly, there’s the curtain falls, whose height is notably smaller than the width of its crest. All three classes of falls can be found in my rivertop country.
What counts is our emotional response to waterfalls. A gentle falls usually has a soothing or relaxing effect on those who take the time to pause beside it. A large one may command respect and wonder, even the suggestion of infinity, as one gazes into the unending break-up and regathering of waters. Whether a wriggling thread of water or a thundering cataract, a falls can elicit awe. I enjoy contemplating a site from below or above the falls, which is safer, of course, than getting sucked in physically like the Maclean brothers do while rowboating in the movie A River Runs Through It.
Crabtree Falls is located in the George Washington National Forest of Virginia. It’s known as “the tallest falls east of the Mississippi River.” From Charlottesville, we made a visit to this falls that cascades from the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a drop of more than 1000 feet. The cascade of this ribbon falls can be divided into five major parts, with its greatest singular drop measuring 400 feet in height. Mind you, this is water falling all year round, even during the driest parts of summer.
With a three-dollar parking fee that’s paid near the base of the falls, you are ready to follow this vertical tributary of Virginia’s Tye River, some 30-miles southwest of Charlottesville. The lower end of the trail, approaching the bottom-most falls, is paved. The trail then becomes dirt and climbs a series of nine switchbacks to the top of the falls, about two miles into the sky. Wooden guardrails edge the well-kept path and its overlooks. Signs are posted that warn you of slippery algae that coats the rocks if you dare step beyond the rails. To date, 23 people have tempted fate and fallen to their deaths at Crabtree Falls.
After a climb of 1.7 miles from the valley you arrive at a wooden bridge near the top of Crabtree where you can have a great overlook on the valley floor and Blue Ridge Mountains. The hike can be taxing but should be rewarding in any season, weather-permitting.
We climbed it on a misty, foggy day. Because of the fog we never had much of a long-range view, except in sudden moments when the clouds parted briefly and reminded us how small human nature is when we can see the world beyond.
The power of waterfalls comes from any number of atmospheric directions. It can apprehend us from the top of a ribbon structure. It can come from classical perspectives like that of the majestic Niagara, or from a quieting curtain falls, like the one you might consider swimming underneath, or casting a fly to for the mystery of what lies under.