Nestled in a corner of the Shale Creek Preserve section of Chestnut Ridge Park in New York is a beautiful example of nature’s infinite mystery. At first glance, the Eternal Flame falls seem quaint but unremarkable. But closer inspection of a small grotto at the waterfall’s base reveals what makes this location so special is a 4 to 8 inch flame dancing behind a thin veil of water. Despite its name, this flame is not really “eternal”. It goes out from time to time but it is always relighted by the next hiker passing through.
For years, scientists assumed that this flame was like dozens of others around the world which are caused by the emission of natural gasses produced by very hot and exceptionally old shale lurking beneath the ground. High temperature and pressure of the shale causes the organic matter between individual rock sheets to decompose, which emits natural gas. The gas then snakes its way through the layers of earth until it finds a convenient escape route in small surface fissures. Researchers from Indiana University however very recently announced that the shale located under the Eternal Flame Falls does not maintain a temperature high enough to create the natural gas, and thus the flame. For such a reaction to occur, the shale would need to be very hot – close to boiling temperature. But the Indiana University researchers measured the shale temperatures under the falls to be more akin to a mug of hot tea. These findings were published in the May 2013 issue of the Journal of Marine and Petroleum Geology. So if the shale isn’t the cause, than what exactly is responsible for the blazing light of Eternal Flame Falls? Researchers are still unsure. But the continued enigma presented by the falls make it an even more attractive travel destination.
Chestnut Ridge Park is located in the New York county of Erie. The park itself is certainly worth a visit and is particularly suited for family outings and light hiking adventures. The park boasts an array of hiking trails, cycling paths, picnic areas, neatly kept shelters, and even sports facilities.
The trail that leads to the Eternal Flame Falls is fairly removed from the hustle and bustle of the main park area. The trail head begins at the southern edge of Chestnut Ridge Park. It is unmarked so it requires a keen eye to spot. The hike to the falls involves some intimidating steepness but the trail is well maintained year round and does not require extensive hiking experience to traverse. The sulfuric smell of rotten eggs is the telltale sign that the falls are near. This smell is a result of the mysterious natural gasses which are responsible for the flame. There are actually two other known areas where natural gas seeps through the ground near the falls but these are unable to sustain a flame as impressive as the original “eternal” flame located in the grotto. Some of the gas seepage is situated under the water which pools at the base of the falls. They are observable as small streams of bubbles emanating from the bottom of the pool.
Those with an adventurous spirit can scramble up the Eternal Flame Falls and follow it upstream for a while. Or alternatively, hikers can follow the river downstream until it converges with another waterfall in the southern section of the park. The quality of the experience of the falls is largely determined by rainfall and ice melting. Generally speaking; the falls are only in their full glory in early spring or after significant rainfall has occurred. The Eternal Flame Falls can reach an impressive 30 feet when at maximum force. Unfortunately, when the falls are at their most spectacular the flame is extinguished due to the high volume of water cascading into the tiny grotto that houses it.
For now, the falls remain shrouded in scientific mystery. But even if the puzzle of the origin of the flame at Eternal Flame Falls is solved, it will remain an incredibly unique and breathtakingly beautiful destination.