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From the August 2013 Conservationist

A waterfall flows over the stepped ledges.

Photo: Chris Murray

Chittenango Falls

By Chris Murray

a low waterfall in a creek in the woods
Chittenango Creek

(all photos by the author)

Chittenango Falls is one of the most breathtaking, yet little-known waterfalls in New York State. Plummeting 167 feet, the falls is the main attraction at the state park that shares its name. Here, Chittenango Creek makes its dramatic entrance into the park before winding its way down to meet with Oneida Lake.

Like virtually all landforms in New York State, the falls are a remnant of the last ice age; created as the glaciers retreated some 12,500 years ago. As an outflow of Cazenovia Lake, Chittenango Creek descends the north margin of the Allegheny Plateau through a narrow valley, which constricts into a gorge where the falls are today. Rather than a sheer drop, the falls are a series of cascades over ledges of resistant layers of rock.

Chittenango falls in summer with orange daylilies in the foreground
Chittenango Falls

While the falls are a relatively recent geologic feature, the rock over which they flow is much older. The gorge below the falls cuts through massive beds of limestone and dolomite that were deposited in a shallow sea more than 390 million years ago. Study the rock closely and you will see fossils of long-extinct species. Early forms of marine algae, sponges, corals and mollusks are visible in the exposed outcrops and streambed in the falls area and along the creek below.

Chittenango Falls waterfall in the state park in fall
Chittenango Falls State Park

Although largely industrialized in the 1800s, the area surrounding the falls was made a park in 1922 to protect the area's rugged, scenic beauty. Today's visitors can enjoy a variety of activities here, including fishing, hiking and picnicking. The picturesque falls and creek below are a photographer's dream. While stunning in all seasons, the falls are especially attractive in autumn, when fall colors are at their peak. Just downstream from the falls, visitors can find beautiful views of Chittenango Creek from various turnoffs along Route 13.

In addition to its natural beauty and recreational offerings, Chittenango Falls is also known for its rich biodiversity. Importantly, the area around the falls itself is home to several unique and significant animal and plant species. Chief among them is the Chittenango ovate amber snail, a small land snail found nowhere else in the world and whose population is threatened (see next page). The park is also home to two unique plant species, the roseroot and the harts-tongue fern. The roseroot is known to occur in only three other locations within the state and survives by clinging to the falls' high, sheer ledges. The harts-tongue fern has been observed in fewer than ten locations in New York. Once more common, its existence has been threatened by plant collectors over the years.

The beauty and majesty of Chittenango Falls is without question, as is the need for its preservation. Geology and time have conspired to make the area critical to its unique flora and fauna; this fact alone makes it our duty to protect this natural resource. The survival of the Chittenango ovate amber snail and other rare species depends on our willingness to accept this challenge.

A landscape photographer for more than fifteen years, Chris Murray has a PhD in geology and works part-time as a geological consultant. You can find him online.