by Chris Clemens
The Genesee River is one of only 33 in the entire world that flow North. At 144 miles long, it has a number of waterfalls that pale in comparison to Niagara, but are still pretty majestic and super powerful. In fact, the Senecas who once called the area home referred to the Genesee as “Casconchiagon” which translates to ‘River of Falls”. Rochester has three naturally occurring sets and though High Falls is aptly named, its 96 foot height is actually shorter than the Lower Falls closer to Lake Ontario, which drops water 110 feet down its 276 foot U-shaped span. Middle Falls lies between the two just South of Lower Falls and has a dam attached to it. At only 20 feet tall, they don’t get quite as much attention.
Lower Falls was recognized during the early 1800’s to be a perfect spot as a mill site. All that water coming through could turn large turbines (or, water wheels) which would easily power the turning of millstones to grind up grain and help create the industrial powerhouse that Rochester used to be. Though the top of each side of the gorge was lined with mills and buildings of industry, things look much different now. Rochester Gas and Electric has a station positioned on the East side of the gorge and on the top of the West side is the historic Maplewood Park and Rose Garden, a public use park designed by the famed Frederick Law Olmstead.
Parking in the Maplewood Rose Garden will grant you access to a few walkways where you can view both the Lower and Middle Falls. A sidewalk leading toward the gorge will descend a few steps and turn a sharp right to go under the Driving Park Bridge and continue in to what is colloquially known as “Lower Falls Park”. There are some really impressive views from the top of the gorge, but those views become even more impressive from “Rico Cave” at the base of the Lower Falls.
DISCLAIMER: I DO NOT IN ANY WAY RECOMMEND GOING INTO THE GORGE OR TO THE BASE OF THE FALLS. IT’S INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS AND NOT AN EASY DESCENT. The safety of the exploration becomes even more troublesome when the dam at Middle Falls opens up to let water through. An alarm sounds to warn of the impending rush, but many people have died in the river after being swept off. Rescue teams regularly have to get people out of the gorge and furthermore, it’s known that the area has trouble with crime.
That being said, I went. In fact, even fell for part of the descent which made that stretch of the path go slightly faster. If you descend those steps from Maplewood Rose Garden and decide not to turn right, you’ll see that the railings have been bent and just barely allow a full-sized human to slip through. A poorly identifiable trail starts at this point and descends the entire wall of the gorge and down to the river. My friend Luke and I grabbed our photo gear and with his dog Mugsy in tow, we went for an adventure that had us in smiles the entire time.
The gorge is often filled with anglers searching for the perfect cast and is known to be a heck of a fishing hole for those capable of getting there. On the day I went, there was even two crazy people in head-to-toe rain gear standing literally at the base of the falls. Being up close while countless gallons of Genesee River water pour over the edge of a surreal set of falls is an experience unlike any other I’ve had. Walking along the river’s edge to get closer access gets tougher and tougher with the closer you get to the falls. Because the spray is so strong, not only is visibility really low, but everything is soaked and the rocks are covered in a constantly wet slimy moss. But, we were there to find this elusive ‘Rico Cave’ that I had read about online so we kept our footing strong and kept going.
A man-made ‘cave’ at the base of the falls on the west wall of the gorge is nearly invisible until you’re just upon the opening. It’s not a naturally occurring cave at all, an opening at the top indicates its intended purposes as a water management system. A Puerto Rican flag that has been spray-painted on the wall of the cave supposedly helped earn the spot its ‘Rico Cave’ moniker, but finding info to back that up has been difficult–I believe it’s more widely known simply as “Lower Falls Cave”.
While I consider myself pretty adventurous, getting to the gorge in the summer months was not easy. I’ve always wanted to go during the frozen months but my courage has given way to mom’s warnings to be safe in all I do. Luckily, there’s a few people in Rochester who are much more brazen than I, like Steve Carter, who is the founder of a grassroots movement called ‘Explore Rochester’. Currently an Instagram movement, you can follow the @ExploreRochester account and share your own adventures with the #ExploreRochester hashtag. Steve was kind enough to share the following wintertime photos of the gorge and cave with you guys while I sit warmly in my house sipping hot coffee writing this post.
Resources and Additional Reading
RG&E Hydro Tunnel (includes technical diagrams and photos of construction)
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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