Eternal Flame Falls
I was in need of a good hike. I hadn’t hiked in months and was seriously craving it. I have two young children, so I try to spend most of my free time with my family. I was overdue for a nice solo hike, so I took a quick break from the family for an hour and a half.
The hike to Eternal Flame Falls is located in Orchard Park, NY (home of the Buffalo Bills). It’s the best hike in the area. I have probably hiked the trail at least a couple dozen times, but I hadn’t done it in a year or two.
The trail can be extremely popular. I was hoping to enjoy a relatively crowd-free hike, and thanks to a couple of factors I succeeded. First off, I chose to hike the Sunday morning after Thanksgiving. I figured about half of the Western New York population was either at church or tailgating for the Bills game. It also wasn’t too warm, so I hoped that would keep a lot of people off the trail. It had rained the past few days, but the forecast for Sunday was sunny and about 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
I was really looking forward to my hike and was almost ready to head out when I nearly had my plans derailed. My daughter (18 months old) was walking around the kitchen eating a piece of bacon when I saw my dog, Noelle, approach her. I knew Noelle wouldn’t harm Charlotte, but she loves stealing her food. I tried to quickly lunge between them to let Charlotte finish her bacon, but in the process I accidentally kicked the corner of our kitchen cabinets. I kicked them so hard that I immediately screamed in pain and thought I broke a couple of my toes. I just stood there with my throbbing foot in the air for a minute before sitting down in agony (sidenote: Noelle got the bacon). After a few minutes I was able to walk and move my toes. They still hurt like hell, but I decided I probably didn’t break anything. After icing them for a little bit, I laced up my boots and drove to my favorite local trailhead.
The trail to Eternal Flame Falls is only about two miles roundtrip. It has a couple of steep sections and requires some walking through water and the potential for climbing over logs and debris in the creek, which can make the hike moderately difficult. It’s a nice hike through the woods, but the destination is what makes it especially unique. There is a flame that burns below a section of the waterfall. The fire is fed by natural gas that emits through cracks in the shale. The waterfall occasionally puts out the flame, but it’s never long before another hiker reignites the flame with a lighter.
I made the short drive to the trailhead on Seufert Road. There are actually two trailheads now, but I prefer the one that is a little longer and has less foot traffic. There were only a couple of cars parked beside the trailhead I chose. I grabbed my water bottle and camera and hit the trail.
The trail conditions were less than ideal due to the recent rains. There was mud everywhere. Slick leaves littered the landscape as well. I embraced the messy conditions, figuring there would be more water flowing over the waterfall.
A familiar feeling came over me once I started down the trail. The best way I can describe it would be to call it a sort of comfortable joy. I felt relaxed and content, almost as if I had come home to where I belong. My toes still hurt a lot, but I was instantly pleased with my decision to hike on.
After I rounded the first bend in the trail I got to an area that is always muddy. It was extra sloppy due to the recent rain, but I had waterproof boots on so I didn’t care if I got messy (as long as I didn’t slip in the mud and fall in it).
Soon the trail began to descend on a curve down to the creek. This portion of the creek is actually upstream of the waterfall. The creek was a few feet wide, with some large rocks across it making for an easy crossing. The landscape, covered by wet multi-colored leaves, sloped up gently from both sides of the creek. A couple of trail runners passed by me as I photographed the scene. I stood there for a moment, listening to the peacefully flowing water.
I casually crossed the creek and started up the opposite side of the trail. I passed a couple of large trees that had a whole lot of initials and short names carved into them. Then the trail dipped back down again briefly before climbing again to a relatively open wooded area. This is where the paths from the two trailheads converge. There are a lot of tall, mostly thin trees in this spot. A steep cliff with a sudden drop off lined the left side of the forested area. About 100 feet off to the right side I saw a tree I used to climb whenever I visited. It had a lot of very short branches that made for great handholds. I’m fairly afraid of heights, but that never stopped me from ascending 20 or 30 feet into the sky. Now that I have my kids, I think twice about doing things like that.
I mentioned that it had probably been a couple of years since I last hiked this trail. Well, a lot has changed since then. Not only is there a second closer trailhead, but there are signs all over the place. A year ago one person fell to his death on the trail and several others got hurt. As a result, the County Parks Department littered the trail with signs. Several large signs attached to trees near the edge of the gorge stated “STAY ON DESIGNATED TRAIL.” Another sign read “DO NOT CLIMB UP OR DOWN RAVINES & WATERFALLS RISK OF SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH MAY RESULT.” There used to be small trail markers on the occasional tree following the trail, now there were approximately twenty numbered markers with pictures of a fire to point hikers in the right direction.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been there many times before, and know the place like my backyard, but I think all of this is a bit much. I’m all for safety first, but I think all the signs take away from the natural beauty of the area. From the time I reached that part of the trail I don’t think there was any time where I couldn’t see at least one sign. I can imagine them being helpful for people who have never been there before and for kids, but I think it would be pretty difficult to fall over the edge of the ravine (but I suppose it has happened in the past).
I followed the trail through the wide wooded area and then as it paralleled the ravine. It was a well-defined path about ten feet from the cliff. Care is needed as the trail is often covered with tree roots.
After a couple of minutes the trail made a sharp left toward the gorge where I began my descent. This section is short, but very steep. It only takes a couple of minutes to reach the creek at the bottom of the ravine, but this is when extreme caution must be used. There are a lot of roots along the trail in addition to leaves and mud. There are some spots were steps are carved into the trail and others where it slopes steeply down.
After that I had to shed my hat and gloves, because I was getting pretty warm despite the cool temperature. The path paralleled the creek for a short distance and then essentially dropped down to the creek bed itself. Portions of a path popped up on both side of the creek at times, but from then on the main idea is to simply reach the waterfall without getting too wet in the process. I ended up having to cross the creek a couple of times and I didn’t mind stepping in a couple inches of water a few times since I was wearing waterproof boots. The rain that had fallen over the past couple of days made the creek swell over its typical autumn depth. The creek was more than a foot deep in a few spots and rocks and logs in the creek were wet and slippery, so I had to take my time and be careful with each step.
The flowing creek created a comforting white noise. It was soft and constant, but it increased in volume when mini cascades formed over debris in the creek. I’d guess the creek is around ten feet wide for most of the distance that you follow it. After a few minutes I passed a 20-foot-tall thin waterfall that cascaded steeply down the right side of the ravine.
I continued my hike along the messy trail beside the creek. Soon I smelled the unmistakable stench of natural gas. It was like someone littered the gorge with rotten eggs. That meant I was very close to my destination.
After another minute or two I rounded a bend in the creek and laid my eyes on Eternal Flame Falls. The cascade was flowing beautifully. The recent rain helped fill out the waterfall. It can be nearly dry this time of year, while it is typically gushing in the springtime. The added water caused the waterfall to roar to my delight and made the sight considerably more impressive.
The waterfall begins through a narrow chute then it expands as it cascades down ten feet to a wide ledge. From there it grows broader still as it pours down twenty additional feet to the creek bed. A small alcove houses the eternal flame under part of the right side of the waterfall (when facing it). I could see two flames, each a few inches tall, when I was there. Sometimes there are three flames burning at once.
The waterfall itself is a stunning sight, but the fact that there is this strange fire burning inside of it makes it a unique phenomenon. I was all alone at the base of the waterfall, which is a rarity. The previously mentioned day, time, and weather conditions certainly helped with that.
I used to always climb out of the ravine from the base of the waterfall. There are two different options. I would climb the outside edge of the waterfall with the help of some exposed roots to the top of the fall and then cross it to where plenty of roots lead to the top of the gorge. That way leads back toward the large open forest earlier in the trail. The other option I used to tackle was climbing up roots a few feet to the right of the waterfall all the way to the top of the ravine. That put me on the opposite side, but closer to the trailhead.
Chestnut Ridge and the Eternal Flame are so close to home that I used them as my training ground before making my long road trips out to the National Parks out west. I used to hike down to the flame and then climb up beside it and repeat the circle a couple of times with a loaded backpack on to try to prepare for longer hikes out west.
Now there are numerous signs posted warning people not to climb out of the gorge. I’m older now with two kids of my own, so I decided to heed the warnings and hike out instead. I passed two families heading toward the waterfall on my hike out. They asked how the conditions were in the creek and I just advised them to be extra careful since it was slippery.
All in all I had a great hike and was glad to finally fit a hike in. The Eternal Flame Falls hike is a pretty short and easy trail, but it is close to home and quite enjoyable (especially when it isn’t a crowded summer afternoon). I’m just glad that piece of bacon didn’t end up keeping me from getting out on the trail.