When the powerful waters of Niagara Falls appeared to freeze over a few weeks ago in January, it both dazzled and mystified the Internet. This beautiful wintry phenomenon attracts major attention even though it seems to happen every other year.
Each time, science-minded reporters and officials love to point out that Niagara Falls can’t ever freeze completely.
In fact, it has in the past.
While most of us sprint inside once outside temperatures dip below freezing, the photographers of the world and lovers of winter are outside taking advantage.
Winter is Mother Nature’s time to shine: Lighthouses, bridges, fountains and cliffs can turn into frosted marvels.
As research scientist Walt Meier explains, when freezing temperatures hit water, ice crystals form, even in a fast-moving river. Those small crystals start to stick together forming a slush and slowing the flow. Thus is the genesis of a frozen Niagara Falls.
Meier, who works for the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado, tracks the mounting massive losses of ice across the planet. We’ve lost nearly 50% of our ice cover in summer across our oceans and about half the thickness of ice in the Arctic.
But left to its own devices, winter, Meier points out, is capable of producing some spectacular (if temporary) art.
“It’s pretty magical to be out in the woods on a nice brisk winter and sunny day and the snow dampens the sound,” says Meier. “That’s one of the things that always strikes me.”
Here are a few of the world’s most striking winter wonders:
Aldeyjarfoss Waterfall, Sprengisandsleið, Iceland
Travel to Iceland in winter to catch the Northern Lights at night and you’ll have plenty to do during the daytime, too. All those dramatic landscapes become covered in snow and ice and there are plenty of glaciers, frozen tunnels, ice caves and waterfalls to explore.
One winter stunner is Aldeyjarfoss waterfall, just north of Vatnajökull National Park in the Icelandic Highlands. It’s 20 meters (66 feet) tall and both the rushing water and the lake below partially freeze for weeks at a time.
The surrounding Húsavík area has a number of pretty waterfalls, but this one is a local favorite because of its black basalt columns. Some 9,500 years ago lava flows here cooled into hexagonally-shaped columns, and now they’re a stunning dark contrast to the bright white ice.
The winter waterfalls at Wells Gray Park, British Columbia, Canada
The 1.3-million-acre Wells Gray Provincial Park sits between Vancouver, Canada, and Jasper National Park and contains 41 named waterfalls. It’s how Wells Gray earned its nickname, “Canada’s Waterfall Park.”
Winter temperatures can fall to 10 F (-12 C), turning much of the normally rushing water into mounds of aquamarine ice from December through March or even early April. Each waterfall offers its own unique winter scene thanks to rocks from an uneven flow of lava here some 200,000 years ago.
“Some waterfalls slow to a trickle and almost freeze entirely,” says Stephanie Molina, Manager of Tourism at Wells Gray. “While others, like the mighty Helmcken Falls, roar all year long, creating a dramatic cone and massive spray icicles.”
Most of the park’s viewpoints, roads and trails are kept open and clear throughout winter, and four of the most scenic winter falls are visible on a self-guided driving tour.
Lowell Fountain, Bryant Park, New York City
In 2002, Dan Biederman, executive director of the Bryant Park Corporation, decided to try a then-zany idea to keep the water flowing at Lowell Fountain in New York City’s Bryant Park.
While most fountains in the city shut off for safety (or to avoid frozen pipes) during the winter, Biederman thought the sight of all those empty fountains collecting trash looked depressing. So, he kept the pipes at Bryant Park running with heated water.
When a cold snap hit, the water flowing out of the fountain slowly froze, ultimately taking the shape of a massive crystalline cuff. It’s such a sparkly sight that a steady stream of photo-snapping visitors have turned it into an Instagram sensation.
“We never expected such a gothic-looking array of stalactites,” Biederman says. “Early on in the Instagram world, I took pictures of people taking pictures of the fountain.”
The winter scene at Bryant Park has made it a year-round tourist attraction. Along with the (frozen) fountain, there’s also Frost Fest, a shopping area and an ice rink with its own winter pavilion. It’s all a stone’s throw from New York City’s top tourist attraction, Times Square.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
The scenes of cascading ice at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are courtesy of an extraordinary natural phenomenon.
Water seeps up and out of the sandstone and freezes in cold temperatures, coating the cliffs and caves in cloaks of ice along this part of Lake Superior.
The surrounding Munising area averages around 140 inches of snowfall every winter (sometimes topping 200), and its 17 freezing waterfalls and ice caves (popular among ice climbers) have drawn new visitors.
Conditions are advertised regularly by the Munising Visitors Bureau, which also offers information on ice tours and guides. Downwind Sports offers ice-climbing adventures for pros and brave beginners alike; its ice-climbing festival is a February highlight.
The lighthouses of Lake Michigan, Michigan
Lighthouses along lakes and oceans are picturesque no matter the season, but winter adds a nuanced look.
Michigan’s lighthouses are special. Winds, picking up the water’s waves as they move west to east along Lake Michigan’s edge, can cause water to crash onto piers and splash the lighthouses. As the structures are colder than the water itself, the spray freezes instantly before it has a chance to run off the structures.
Braving the chilly air and slippery piers to photograph some of his favorite spots along Michigan’s coast, writer Aaron Cruz documents all of this beauty for his site, elATLboy.
“Me personally, I’ve always had a fascination with lighthouses,” says Cruz. “I took a liking to seeing how cool everything looked in winter.”
There are over 100 lighthouses around the edges of Lake Michigan, but Cruz recommends heading to his native lower peninsula, also known as “The Mitten.”
Niagara Falls, US and Canada
More than 45 million gallons of water run over the falls every minute. In March of 1848, that massive flow stopped entirely. The dead silence was so unusual, a few brave people living nearby left their houses to see what was going on.
Millions of tons of ice had blocked the water at the falls’ source in Lake Erie and the resulting thinned-out stream froze entirely.
Today, another total freeze is possible but extremely unlikely as a 1.7-mile-long ice boom is installed each year to prevent this from happening. Still, smart people flock to the falls knowing long bouts of cold will freeze ice along the river’s edges, catching and clumping together until the whole massive cascade redesigns itself for winter.
In addition, the massive amount of mist here travels everywhere and coats everything, says Anthony Annunziata, president of the Tourism Partnership of Niagara. That means the entire park area becomes an icy adventure land.
“It’s spectacular to look at because it’s all this ice and all these trees and all these buildings that are completely frozen,” Annunziata told CNN Travel on a particularly sunny day. “And it’s being hit with this light and you get all these colors.”
Fountains of Paris
Temperatures in the City of Light rarely dip below 35 F (2 C). When snow hits, it can snarl the city and wreak havoc on transportation.
Still, colder months are a wonderful time to take advantage of cheap flights to the French capital, and you’ll likely see a quieter version of Paris. If you find yourself there during a cold snap, head to one of the city’s iconic fountains. The Place de la Concorde and the Fontaine de L’Observatoire will suddenly transport you to a scene from “Frozen,” with hooves, manes and flaring nostrils decorated with daggers of ice.
Traveling through Europe? Be on the lookout for stunning winter photo ops of other fountains, like Manufaktura Fountain in Łódź, Poland, the Giant at Swarovski Kristallwelten in Austria, and the Queens Garden fountains at Kingston-upon-Hull in Yorkshire, UK.
Waterfall at Mimishui Scenic Spot, Pingshan, China
Mimishui Scenic Area is a favorite ecological tourist area in Pingshan County, about 95 kilometers from Shijiazhuang city. The area is home to more than 500 different kinds of plants.
The clear spring water cascades down in spring and summer but forms curtains of ice in winter. When they freeze over, however, they become walls of turquoise and white ice.
Colored lights highlight parts of the falls during an annual ice lantern festival each December, and this place becomes the photo spot of the season.
Panther Falls, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
Banff National Park is known for spectacularly powdery slopes and excellent skiing, but a winter hike offers a different kind of winter journey via calming views of frozen creeks and waterfalls.
Banff’s Bridal Veil and Panther Falls offer stunning winter scenes while massive icicles form along the cliffs. Clouds of ice billow over the Johnston Canyon waterfalls, and they’re accessible through a two- to three-hour hike from the parking lot.
Grab your ice cleats and head north to Jasper National Park and you can walk behind the frozen falls at Maligne Canyon, or chill out watching ice climbers do their thing.
If you’re not traveling near any frozen waterfalls, icy lighthouses or winter fountains, Meier says there’s still plenty of ice art to see all around you … Anywhere there’s a little vapor or mist and the conditions are just right.
“You get the frost on trees,” says Meier. “Especially when it’s sunny, you get this silvery sparkly ice, or snow kind of reflects the sunlight. It’s a fascinating and very beautiful thing to see.”