Reviewed by: Ashlee VanMeter
Have you ever noticed there's something different in the air around waterfalls, beside a thundering river or at the ocean? Can your senses pick up on the subtle change in the air just after a heavy rain? It turns out there really is something to the old expression that someone "just needs some fresh air." Fresh air has long been regarded as a remedy for various ailments, and modern science offers clues as to why that is. Waterfalls, waves, rivers, even evaporation from plants deep in the forest create a higher concentration of negative hydrogen ions in the air. This is due to the breaking of the surface tension of water. Benefits of breathing this air include increasing the flow of oxygen to the brain, neutralizing free radicals, and even increased energy.
This helps explain why it feels so good to hike deep in the woods, why kayaking down a river brings a rush of energy, or why we get that euphoric feeling standing at the edge of a vast ocean. While the stunning natural beauty of all of these things may be enough to elevate our mood, the increased levels of negative ions in the air around them are believed to produce biochemical reactions that boost levels of serotonin, a chemical associated with mood. Hiking to a waterfall, along the river or walking on the beach all are ways to increase exposure to negative ions in the air which may be a natural way to help enhance energy, relieve stress and improve alertness.
The New River Valley is blessed to have many places where these beneficial negative hydrogen ions are plentiful. The New River Trail is an excellent place to get your fill, especially if you stop by Foster Falls. For the full effect, Cascades is the best place to go to feel the intensity of negative ions in the air as well get in a refreshing hike along Little Stony Creek leading to a gorgeous up close view of Cascade Falls. This four mile loop trail in Giles County engages all of your senses. You can hear the rushing water as you approach the trailhead and feel the coolness in the air as soon as you step onto the wooded path.
The trail at Cascades Recreation Area is divided into sections, Upper and Lower. Although the Upper is somewhat easier terrain, I would recommend following the Lower Trail for the two mile hike to the falls and then taking the Upper Trail for the two mile return trip to the parking lot. The Lower trail provides up close views of the creek where white water pours between boulders and tumbles down the mountain. The Upper Trail is perched alongside the gorge and gives hikers a different perspective of the creek on their return trip. The level of difficulty for this trail could best be described as easy to moderate. Although it was not necessarily a strenuous four mile hike, it was definitely a workout. The terrain varies from wooded path to many sets of stone stairs and four bridges along the way. This is a family friendly trail that should be manageable even if you're not a regular hiker.
It took us just under two hours to hike to the falls and back, we kept a steady pace and stopped only to take a few pictures. I would recommend allowing three to five hours for the hike to take time for pictures, playing in the water, and stopping for a rest on one of the many benches that line the trail. Cascade Falls, the 69 foot waterfall, is breathtaking at first sight. There is an observation deck and railed platforms that lead you closer to the falls. At the base of the falls is an easily accessible large pool, one of the areas best swimming holes.
Be sure to bring something to swim in, good hiking shoes, a camera and plenty of water for an energizing waterfall hike. Cascades Recreation Area is about a scenic one hour drive from Pulaski. There is a $3.00 per vehicle parking fee. There are excellent picnic facilities with tables and charcoal grills, so pack a picnic and charcoal, and enjoy dining al fresco.