Timothy P. Spira: The Lure of Waterfalls

Waterfalls and Wildflowers in the Southern Appalachians: Thirty Great Hikes, by Timothy P. SpiraWe welcome a guest post today from Timothy P. Spira, author of Waterfalls and Wildflowers in the Southern Appalachians: Thirty Great Hikes. If you love waterfalls, here are some of the best hikes in the Southern Appalachians. And if you love plants—or simply would like to learn more about them–you will be in hiking heaven: naturalist Tim Spira’s guidebook links waterfalls and wildflowers in a spectacularly beautiful region famous for both. Leading you to gorgeous waterfalls in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, the book includes many hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. As he surveys one of America’s most biologically diverse regions, Spira introduces hikers to the “natural communities” approach for identifying and understanding plants within the context of the habitats they occupy—equipping hikers to see and interpret landscapes in a new way.

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Waterfalls have captivated humans throughout the ages. We encounter them in myths and legends, poetry and painting, music and film. Gods, spirits, and the like are thought to reside amongst waterfalls in many traditional cultures. Waterfalls are powerful places that touch the soul.

Each waterfall has its own unique character. Some enchant you with their softness as water gently glides over bedrock; others impress with the height of their free-falling water; still others awe you with their rage, fury, and power. The constantly falling water, sparkling light, and swirling spray is exhilarating, soothing, and inspiring. Waterfalls seem to sweep away your concerns and make you live in the moment. They also make you feel good. It’s no wonder that where waterfalls occur, hikes to them are the most popular.

Waterfalls are constantly changing. A rapid surge in stream flow following a heavy rain can turn a modest waterfall into a raging torrent of water. Dry periods can transform a waterfall into a trickle of water (much to the disappointment of waterfall enthusiasts). A slight breeze can elicit a shimmering spray, and if the light is right, a colorful rainbow. If passing clouds obscure the sun, the brightly reflective waterfall changes to softer hues, and the rainbow vanishes into thin air.

The color of a waterfall can vary from crystal clear to sparkling white, or yellow, brown, or red, depending on the silt load the water carries. The rocks associated with waterfalls often display interesting colors that vary when wet or dry, in shadow or sun, or when covered by algae or mosses. In the moist environment of the spray cliff, many plants flourish, especially mosses and ferns, and some flowering plants. Seasonal differences in foliage, changing volumes of water, and subtle changes in light alter the appearance of waterfalls, providing a different perspective each time you visit.

The sounds of a waterfall also vary depending on the volume and velocity of water, the height of the falls, and the extent to which it tumbles over ledges. Falling water striking rocks at the base of the falls often produces a loud smacking sound; if falling water lands in a pool, the sound is more muted, with a deeper tone. The setting also influences the sound—surrounding cliffs amplify the sound; dense vegetation dampens it. The falling water acting in concert with the river below creates a symphony of sounds that adds to the magic.

But our eyes and ears are not the only ways we experience a waterfall. Cold air drafts near the base of the falls cool your skin on a hot summer day. Spray from a powerful waterfall may drip down your face, fog your glasses, and wet your clothes. In the mist of the falls, you may even taste the waterfall on your lips.

Waterfalls are rare or absent over much of the earth’s surface. If you’re lucky enough to live near (or travel to) an area where waterfalls are abundant, beware!¬†Hiking to waterfalls can become an obsession for which there is no known cure.

Timothy P. Spira is professor of biology at Clemson University. He is author of Waterfalls and Wildflowers in the Southern Appalachians: Thirty Great Hikes (2015) and Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia (2011).