- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Enveloping all, the monotone and liquid gurgle from the hoarse impetuous copious fall the greenish-tawny, darkly transparent waters, plunging with velocity down the rocks, with patches of milk-white foam a stream of hurrying amber, thirty feet wide, risen far back in the hills and woods, now rushing with volume every hundred rods a fall, and sometimes three or four in that distance….

Walt Whitman, “An Ulster County Waterfall,” from “Specimen Days,” 1892

It’s the sound that hits you first. It’s more like a roar, which to the uninitiated can sound like something, well, technological.

“Where’s all that static coming from?” asks one youngster while making his way down a wooden stairway to Blackwater Falls in West Virginia.

“Can they turn it down?”

No, they can’t. It’s nature’s white noise, from one of its most treasured creations — a waterfall. From simple rapids to spectacular cascades, waterfalls abound in the Washington region. Just think of Blackwater Falls in Davis, W.Va.; Cunningham Falls in Thurmont, Md.; Swallow Falls in Oakland, Md.; and Washington’s own Great Falls. Many are just a day’s drive or less from the city.

So next time you crave a bit of natural beauty, venture out to a waterfall. Getting away is half the fun.

“Waterfalls are such a natural force,” says Steve Bordonaro, co-author of “Waterfalls of the Blue Ridge: A Hiking Guide to the Cascades of the Blue Ridge Mountains.”

“People are drawn to waterfalls for the same reason that they are drawn to the ocean. When you wake up, you feel good.”

• • •

In the days before the Internet and video games, waterfalls were popular destinations for trekkers, who would willingly make the climb up a mountain or two for the reward at the end. Walt Whitman praised a waterfall in Ulster County, N.Y. Frank Lloyd Wright built a house around one on Bear Run in southwestern Pennsylvania. Today, there are still a few hardy souls who like a bit of exertion before receiving the gratification at the end.

“Finding a waterfall at the end of a trail is like finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow,” Mr. Bordonaro says.

Not everyone is ready for a bushwhack into the woods in search of an elusive waterfall. Some of the more spectacular cascades in our region are located on public land, in state or national parks with easy access for families or individuals who can’t handle a strenuous hike.

Many parks, such as Cunningham Falls State Park or Blackwater Falls State Park, offer the waterfall aficionado a choice: an easy trail or walk to an overlook, or an even easier, “gentle” path to a view that is handicapped-accessible.

Falls watchers even can take a train to a waterfall, riding the New Tygart Flyer as it winds its way up past Elkins, W.Va., to the falls at the Cheat River.

Be warned, though: Those who want to be alone with their favorite waterfall may have to get up very early.

“You’ll see hordes of people on some of the trails,” says Kevin Adams, author of “Waterfalls of Virginia and West Virginia: A Hiking and Photography Guide.” Mr. Adams also has written about waterfalls in his home state of North Carolina.

• • •

Waterfalls are as much tied to people as to the land. Indians used them as meeting places and fished in the pools below. Early settlers harnessed their power for saw- and gristmills. By the turn of the last century, the new leisure class would venture out to a waterfall for recreation.

That certainly was the case at the Great Falls of the Potomac, where cascading rapids build in force as the Potomac makes its way through a narrow cut with a 76-foot total drop in elevation.

Waterfall viewers in 1907 could ride a carousel, eat a chicken dinner and enjoy the sight of a powerful waterfall that had delighted the likes of George Washington. The streetcar made that 1907 experience possible; earlier viewers would have had to make the 14-mile journey from the District on foot or horseback.

With views from both the Virginia and Maryland sides of the Potomac, Great Falls is a bit more pristine today than it was in 1907, when the amusement park, the eating establishments and a well-lit “lover’s lane” packed them in.

“That first year they had more visitors than an average busy year for us,” says Park Ranger Brent O’Neill.

Last year, the falls had about 500,000 visitors, Mr. O’Neill says.

The National Park Service took over the grounds in 1966 and has been working to preserve and protect the natural environment there. Twenty-first-century viewers have only to contend with boardwalks and foot traffic to see the falls.

“Now this one I really like,” Mr. Adams says, speaking of Great Falls. “It was so unexpected. I never thought that there could be this much of a waterfall so close to the coast.”

Usually coastal areas don’t have the kind of elevations that make waterfalls like Great Falls possible. But Great Falls is situated on the fall line, an area where the Atlantic Coastal Plain meets the Piedmont Plateau. The result is a diverse environment that includes bits of volcanic history and a variety of plant and animal species.

The falls also are a popular spot for kayakers — “a playground for white-water enthusiasts,” as Park ranger Brent O’Neill puts it.

There is much history here as well. Greenstone from the Catoctin Mountains has been found nearby, shaped into tools by Indians who used them as trade goods.

George Washington was interested in far more than simply a view of the falls when he made his way out from Mount Vernon. He envisioned a canal that would link Cumberland, Md., to Georgetown.

“He was looking to come up with a viable way of getting goods from the west to eastern markets,” says Mr. O’Neill, “and he also was looking for a physical way to unite the country.”

Washington established the Potomack Canal Co. in 1785. Later, in 1822, the C&O; Canal Co. obtained the commercial rights to the route. Locks and buildings from both canal eras still can be seen along the way, although the canal ceased operations in 1924.

• • •

History is much in evidence at Cunningham Falls as well, just about an hour’s ride from the District near Thurmont, Md. Nestled in the Catoctin Mountains at the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge, Cunningham Falls is surrounded by pieces of the past.

By the late 1700s, settlers in the Monocacy Valley were using timber from the mountains to produce charcoal, a necessary fuel for iron-making operations that lasted from 1776 to 1903.

During much of this period, the McAfee family owned the land that surrounded what is now known as Cunningham Falls. Then the falls were known locally as McAfee Falls. It was only when a turn-of-the century photographer named Cunningham started taking glamour shots of the 78-foot-high falls that the place picked up its current moniker.

By the 1930s, the federal government took an interest in the falls and the surrounding area. The Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era federal agency designed to provide employment for young men aged 18 to 25, began to develop the area with an eye toward turning it into a recreational destination.

• • •

What makes a waterfall? Obviously, you need moving water, through rocks and rapids in a river or as the river flows from the mountains. Most waterfalls form when there is a hard layer of rock covering a softer layer. This causes different rates of erosion, as the water cuts into the softer rock and forms a cliff. Over the years, all waterfalls cut their way upstream.

The effects of time can be seen at Swallow Falls in Western Maryland, about three hours from the District. Four falls can be seen there, ranging in size and vigor. The largest, at 53 feet in height, is called Muddy Falls, taking its name from the color of the creek that moves down from the Cranesville Pine Swamp.

Other falls at Swallow Falls State Park include the somewhat smaller Swallow Falls, Lower Swallow Falls, and Tolliver Falls.

Over the years, Muddy Falls and Swallow Falls have seen plenty of visitors, including an important foursome: Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison, and naturalist John Burroughs. The friends camped there in 1918 and then again in 1921.

Photographs even show Henry Ford doing his laundry beside the falls. (This was before the era of designated camping areas or concerns about the introduction of caustic agents into the natural environment.)

Like many folk, Ford also made the six-mile trip into Oakland, the county seat of Garrett County, which began drawing visitors from Washington, Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the 19th century. Then, people were attracted to the impressive views and “healthy air” that still characterize the spot.

Though most of the grand old hotels are long gone, the 1884 Queen Anne-style railroad station that brought most of the visitors still stands and is open to visitors.

• • •

Less than an hour from Oakland are the Blackwater Falls of West Virginia. Don’t be fooled by the fact that yours may be the only car on the mountain road that leads up to Blackwater Falls State Park in the Canaan Valley. This is a popular place, and you’ll have to come early if you want to commune with nature without scores of others intent on the same errand. The falls are the single most visited site in the county.

The 57-foot-high falls, rich in color from the deposits of countless evergreen needles, are compelling regardless of who is nearby. A switchback stairway of 219 steps brings you to the bottom, although there is a “gentle trail” too. With no steps, the “gentle trail” is easier than the stairway and is handicapped-accessible as well.

In 1851, long before the state park was developed, a group of four friends set out from Winchester, Va., on a “sporting expedition” to the falls. The story of their adventures, “The Blackwater Chronicle: A Narrative of an Expedition into the Land of Canaan in Randolph County, (West) Virginia,” has been reissued by West Virginia University Press.

Back then, of course, this was virgin forest filled with spruce and fir trees.

A scene of more enchantment it would be difficult to imagine, wrote Philip Pendleton Kennedy, author of the chronicle.

The forest with its hues of all shades of green — the river of delicate amber, filled with flakes of snow-white foam and the splendor of the rhododendron everywhere in your eye. Picture all this beyond the limits of the world you had known — and say, was it of heaven, or was it of earth!

He didn’t say anything about the noise.

Catching a train to the falls

Tired of boardwalks, marked trails or bushwhacking? If you are in the neighborhood of Elkins, W.Va., you can ride the rails to the falls — at least to the waterfall on Shavers Fork of the Cheat River.

In the past hundred years or so, the railroad has been as much wrapped up in West Virginia’s welfare as logs, mines and tourists. Today, the small lines that hauled coal and timber from forest to town to junction are no more, but many live on as excursion railroads, hauling sightseers, history buffs and those who just want to take a ride on the train.

On the New Tygart Flyer of the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad, there’s an added bonus. Along with reconditioned passenger cars from the glory days of rail, 1950s-era locomotives and commentary by local historians Lars Byrne or H.A. “Red” Payne, there’s something to be seen at the end of the line as well.

That something is the High Falls of Cheat. You won’t find the crowds you do at some of the state park falls here, just the folks from your train, although you will come across the occasional hiker or two.

Plus, you might just have the added bonus of watching a youngster such as Matthew Riggleman, 12, trying to hook a trout.

“I’ve taken a few out of here,” says Matthew, who lives in Belington, W.Va., and will be entering the eighth grade at Belington Middle School this fall.

As the engineer’s son, young Matthew gets to ride the train almost every day during the peak foliage viewing season in October. Every once in a while, he’s likely to catch something at the falls.

“I do whatever needs to be done on the train, but the best part is the falls,” he says.

The Cheat River is one of the state’s better trout streams, according to historian Byrne. The state, he says, has four kinds of trout — rainbow, golden, brook and brown.

The horseshoe-shaped falls are on two levels and surrounded by stones just waiting to be skipped across the pool at the bottom.

Along the way to the falls, you’ll see evidence of West Virginia’s coal and timber heritage and some very steep inclines: steep for a railroad, anyway.

“This was one of the toughest railroads to run,” Mr. Byrne says. “It’s not a straight-line railroad.”

That means trainmen have to stick “helper cars” in the middle of the train to provide an extra boost of power around the curves. Even the tunnels have curves, such as tunnel No. 1, a 1,700-foot-long passage built between 1900 and 1903.

Once at the falls, you’ll have time enough to explore, skip a few stones and pose for a picture or two. This may be the only place in the world where a train whistle is the signal it’s time to leave the waterfall and head for home.

Soaking up falls facts

Want to explore waterfalls? Here are some resources to start your search.

To see and hear

• 14039 Catoctin Hollow Road, Thurmont, Md. Run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. For information, call 301/271-7574; for reservations, call 888/432-CAMP. See www.dnr.state .md.us/publiclands/western/cunninghamfalls.html.

• Great Falls Park: Route 193 and Old Dominion Drive, McLean. Run by the National Park Service. Call 703/285-2965 or 703/285-2966 or see www.nps.gov/gwmp/grfa.

• Swallow Falls State Park: 222 Herrington Lane, Oakland, Md. Run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. For information, call 301/387-6938, for reservations, call 888/432-CAMP. See www.dnr.state .md.us/publiclands/western/swallowfalls.html.

To ride

• The New Tygart Flyer, Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad: Departs Elkins or Belington, W.Va., on round trips to the Cheat Mountain Wilderness that range from four hours to 7 hours long. Adult tickets $25 to $54. Call 877/MTN-RAIL or see www.mountainrail.com.

To read

• “Waterfalls of the Blue Ridge: A Hiking Guide to the Cascades of the Blue Ridge Mountains” by Nicole Blouin, Steve Bordonaro and Marilou Wier Bordonaro. Menasha Ridge Press, Birmingham, Ala. 2003. $16.95 (Third edition).

• “Waterfalls of the Mid-Atlantic States” by Gary Letcher. The Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vt. 2004. $17.95.

• “Waterfalls of Virginia and West Virginia: A Hiking and Photography Guide” by Kevin Adams. Menasha Ridge Press, Birmingham, Ala. $16.95.

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