Frozen treat: Legendary waterfalls in winter

Glen Onoko, Pa., has attracted hikers since the late 1800s

Short Hop

February 01, 2004|By Cindy Ross | Cindy Ross,Special to the Sun

DANGER! People have died on this trail!"

My two young children stare open-mouthed at the huge orange sign that marks the trailhead to Glen Onoko Falls.

"Make sure you're wearing the proper footgear."

They glance at their hiking boots, and I reassure them that we're covered. We are in Lehigh Gorge State Park, outside Jim Thorpe, in northeastern Pennsylvania. The park is famous with boating enthusiasts for its whitewater and with cyclists for its 20-mile-long converted rail-trail.

But after you've gone under the active railroad track and up the trail, you are on state game lands. And it is the state's responsibility to warn hikers that the one-mile trail to the falls is rough and exposed, and capable of taking your life.

The trail we are about to walk was famous in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as throngs of men in top hats and women in long dresses came from New York and Philadelphia to enjoy the falls. They stopped at the long-gone railroad station, checked in at the luxurious (and also long gone) Wahnetah Hotel, which sat on the banks of the Lehigh River, and made the climb to the falls the highlight of their holiday.

In those days, sometimes 18,000 visitors a day, and 250,000 each summer, made the trek up the mountain to view nature's glory.

Sight to behold

More than a century later, the trail is deserted on this crisp winter morning, although footprints in the snow show that others had come before us. Summer is still the most popular time to visit the glen, as it is called, but I've heard that in the winter the frozen waterfalls -- there are actually three of them -- are a sight to behold.

The stream that forms the falls is notched out of a glen, or narrow valley. It tumbles and splashes through the chasm, freezing where it slows and disappearing under crystal ice. The steep slopes are still green because they're covered in mountain laurel and rhododendron. The forest canopy, both deciduous and conifers, makes the glen dark and even cooler.

The beginning part of the trail is smooth and gradual. We see signs of trail construction -- rock steps and impressive rock retaining walls, originally built by the Wahnetah Land & Improvement Co.

Every now and then, a cast-iron water pipe surfaces out of the snowy trail. The pipes carried water to the luxurious hotel, which burned down nearly a century ago.

In those days, romantically inclined hikers attached names like Hidden Sweet, Lover's Bath, Heart of the Glen, Home of the Mist to their favorite spots, but these are now long forgotten. Most modern-day hikers peer through the dense undergrowth for the first view of the three large falls.

Normally, the sound of falling water close by is deafening, but in the winter, the frozen wall of ice that forms in front of the falls muffles the roar. The falls remind me of steep-sided glaciers, frozen in midair, looking as though they are still moving. The pool at its base is frozen, which means you can safely walk up to the falls and touch them.

When the trail gets steeper, we use branches to stabilize ourselves and the edge of our boot soles to cut in steps. Those that have gone before us tramped the trail down well, making a deep trough to contain us.

We walk switchbacks up to the middle falls, the tallest at 64 feet, and are surprised to find ice climbers hanging on the side of the frozen water. We watch as they bang their ice hammers, held in each hand, into the sheer ice face. Strapped on their rigid boots are a dozen pointed metal crampons, whose 2-inch teeth they also ram into the ice.

The climbers are able to actually stand on the side of the falls this way, on their toes. A rope goes from around their hip harnesses up to a secured point on the top, and back down to a "belayer," who coaches and constantly takes up the slack rope so if they fall, they won't fall far.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission allows such activities as long as they are not deemed illegal or damaging to the land. The time when most accidents occur in the glen is summer, when people get careless and venture too close to the edge of the trail.

We stare past the climbers to a rock ledge that was the site of two tragic deaths six years ago. A son slipped, and when his father reached out to save him, he went over too, falling some 80 feet.

The entire trail is blazed with orange paint, in both directions, to assist hikers as it loops around, and it can be confusing. Fred Merlozzi, a wildlife conservation officer who works for the state game commission and is in charge of the glen, explained that a woman once took it upon herself to blacken out the blazes because she thought they looked unsightly, not realizing their importance.

A risky hike

There have been about eight deaths on these trails recorded in the past 10 years, according to park officials, and at least half a dozen injuries a year, but perhaps the most famous death is the one for which the falls were named.

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