Eternal Flame Falls is a waterfall gorge featuring a natural gas powered eternal flame in a small grotto created in the shale rock bed.
by Chris Clemens
Orchard Park is a southeast suburb of Buffalo. It’s probably most famous for being the home the holiest of sites for Upstate football fans. In addition to being the home of the Buffalo Bills, Orchard Park has probably one of the coolest little gems you can find in the Niagara Frontier Region.
Chestnut Ridge Park
Chestnut Ridge Park is made up of over 1,200 acres of wooded, rolling hills. The park’s name was inspired by early settlers who noted the vast collection of Great Chestnut trees in the area.
The Casino in Chestnut Ridge was built in 1938 and it’s available to rent all year round as an all purpose lodge. Though there isn’t actually any gambling to be done in the Casino, the view from the two story lodge is really incredible and on a clear day you can almost see right to the Canadian border.
Much of the rest of the park has areas laid out for picnicking, sledding, hiking trails, athletic fields and even a disc golf course. Though the park itself is a really nice one, there’s one area in particular I drove out to see.
The Eternal Flame Falls is a naturally occurring phenomenon that is the result of geological history. That’s what I was there to find.
Located in the Shale Creek Preserve section of Chestnut Ridge Park, much of the area is layers of shale. A sedimentary rock made of mud and clay minerals, shale is a soft, fine-grained rock. It’s instantly recognizable by the parallel layers of rock.
Located at the end of a quick one mile hiking trail is a small, classic Upstate example of a waterfall. Because shale is so soft and crumbles easily, a naturally occurring grotto has formed and within it a break in the floor of the grotto releases a natural gas formed by ongoing decomposition beneath the bedrock.
Upstate New York has miles and miles of shale rock and many of the popular waterfalls in our region pour out over shale. From what I’ve been able to find online, there is only one waterfall in the state that someone has been able to find anything like the Eternal Flame.
The flammable gas is emitted constantly all year round and because it almost never stops, lighting the gas leak will cause the leak to become exactly like a blowtorch.
Most times the flame is already lit but you may want to bring a waterproof lighter or matches in case it’s blown out when you arrive. Placing the lighter toward the back left of the grotto should get it going again. (*Please use caution, remember that you are sticking fire in to a cave of gas!)
How To Find The Eternal Flame
A gated entrance near the parking lot in the Preserve is the start of the trail.
There’s a super easy open wooded area trail that is flat and clearly marked which makes for a quick walk. Once the trail reaches the edge of the gorge, you’ll begin a 150 foot descent to the creek bed. Because of that descent, I’d classify the majority of the walk as not very easy. That’s not to say that it’s difficult, but it’s far from being handicapped accessible.
At the bottom of the gorge wall, you’ll walk up the creek bed for about a quarter of a mile. Just after the creek meanders one last time you’ll be in a clearing. This natural gorge was made from thousands of years of trickling water wearing away at the soft shale.
What was interesting about being in the base of this clearing was hearing an airplane far off in the distance. That was until I realized it was actually the blowtorch-like sound coming from the flame in the grotto!!
Getting up closer to the waterfall is pretty easy depending on the water levels. Once you’re up next to the flame you’ll really hear the roar of the gaslighted flame. Plus, it was kind of a surprise that you could smell the natural gas prominently.
My friend and I couldn’t stop smiling at how cool it was to see this phenomenon in person.
What To Know About Eternal Flame Falls
From what I’ve read, there’s actually three different breaks in the rock at the waterfall and each has a flame. Despite playing with lighters for a half hour, we were only able to find the one best-known Eternal Flame. That was easy because it was already lit when we arrived.
I’m sure that different environmental factors play a role in how much gas is emitted at any one time and those same environmental factors may play a role on what you get to see while visiting.
There wasn’t a ton of water flow at the time we went. That meant walking up the creek bed was easy, but Spring might be a cool time to see it with more water. A winter scene snow covered grotto with a flame I’m sure would be worth the effort too!
Eternal Flame Falls Trail Map
Here is a trail map for finding the Eternal Flame Falls in Chestnut Ridge, provided by the Erie County Park System.
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens