Amazing Places

How Fire Burns Beneath a Waterfall at Eternal Flame Falls

Fire and water don't mix, unless you're in New York's Chestnut Ridge County Park. Out near the park's borders is a waterfall that frames an ever-flickering flame. How it burns despite the water is due partially to science and partially to some helpful hikers.

Am I Only Dreaming?

Eternal Flame Falls is a part of Shale Creek, so named for the 90-foot (27-meter) thick layer of gray and black shale dating back 400 million years to the Devonian Period. At that time, plants and animals died, decayed, and were buried beneath layers of sand, silt, and rock. Millions of years of geologic pressure transformed that decaying life into methane-rich natural gas.

That flammable vapor seeps out through cracks in the rock, and a particularly large crack sits right below the waterfall. Hikers, guided by the telltale rotten-egg smell of the sulfuric compounds in the natural gas, clamber up a small grotto beneath the falls to light — and relight — its titular "eternal flame." Once lit, the flame reaches up to 8 inches (20 cm) in height. From a distance, water rushing down the falls diffuses the light like frosted glass.

Hikers Beware

According to Atlas Obscura, this natural phenomenon has generated imaginative legends of elves in the area. While you're unlikely to encounter any mythical creatures, it's still a good idea to take care when hiking. Erosion has left the ground thick with tree roots ready to trip an unsuspecting hiker, and rainfall can make the path slick and treacherous. Gaze at the flame all you want, but keep your safety in mind while you do it.

Eternal Flame Falls

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Written by Ashley Hamer January 16, 2018

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