Eternal Flame Falls: Nature’s Enigmatic Wonder That Continues To Mystify Scientists And Hikers Alike

A place where fire and water coexist in harmony.

The Eternal Flame Falls in Shale Creek Preserve, New York. Photo: Mpmajewski

If you visit Shale Creek Preserve (a section of Chestnut Ridge Park) in Western New York, you can witness a magical wonder that has puzzled scientists and hikers alike: the Eternal Flame Falls. What makes this small waterfall so special is that behind the cascading water, there is a small grotto that emits natural gas, which can be lit to produce a small flame. This flame is visible nearly year round, although it can be extinguished and must occasionally be re-lit.

The Eternal Flame Falls is not only a beautiful sight, but also a scientific mystery. For a long time, scientists have believed that the fire burns because of gas pockets that rise from the old, extremely hot bedrock made of shale. It was thought that the rock’s high temperatures break down the carbon molecules in the shale, which in turn creates natural gas.

Despite its name, the flame is sometimes extinguished and has to be relit. Photo: Vsevolod.oparin

However, a group of scientists from Indiana University led by Professor Arndt Schimmelmann, found that the shale under the waterfall isn’t actually hot enough or old enough to be causing the formation of gas pockets.

According to Schimmelmann, “this flame and these seepages have occurred for millions of years in those areas and we know that the source rock, about 400 meters deep, is not very warm. It should not even be able to produce much gas at this temperature, yet the gas is coming and it’s not being depleted. So our hypothesis is that a different mechanism is responsible for continuous gas generation at depth.”


In other words, something else must be keeping the “eternal flame” burning and to this day researchers still don’t know exactly what that may be.

The trail leading to the falls can get quite muddy and slippery, but it’s definitely worth it. Photo: Kim Carpenter

If you want to visit this amazing natural wonder, you will need to hike about half a mile from the parking lot to the creek bed (map here). The trail can get quite muddy and slippery during the rainy season, so make sure to wear proper footwear and exercise caution.

Once you reach the creek, you will need to follow it upstream until you see the waterfall. You may also need to bring a lighter with you, in case the flame goes out due to wind or water. If you are lucky enough to see the flame lit, you will witness a rare and magical phenomenon that defies logic and captivates the imagination.

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