If you want to see something genuinely fascinating on your next vacation, head to Chestnut Ridge County Park near Buffalo, New York. That’s where you’ll find Eternal Flame Falls – one of the most interesting natural phenomena in the country.
While the waterfall itself isn’t otherwise noteworthy, the glowing flame at its centre has inspired much delight – and confusion.
For centuries, people struggled to understand what caused an indestructible fire thriving in the most unlikely of places – surrounded by a waterfall. A popular local legend states that a Native American man lit the flame thousands of years ago. Even today, when the flame goes out, locals are quick to relight it.
While other so-called eternal flames are found worldwide, this example in upstate New York is different from most. For many years, it baffled scientists while it delighted visitors. In most cases, eternal flames are fuelled by gases released by the surrounding rocks. However, with Eternal Flame Falls, it’s a little more complicated, which we’ll explain below.
Eternal Flame Falls attracts many visitors drawn to its beauty and wonder. Do you want to visit this magical place where fire and water exist in harmony? Read ahead to learn more.
A Natural Phenomenon
Eternal Flame Falls is a completely natural phenomenon. Though never-ending flames like this one are rare, there are other examples around the world, which we list below.
However, when it comes to this waterfall, the cause of the flames is quite unique. When geologists began studying the landscape, they realised it was more complex than most other eternal flames. Typically, this type of flame is kept burning by a mix of gases emitted from the surrounding and underlying rocks. It is not commonly found this close to a water source!
But in the case of Eternal Flame Falls, they found that the landscape nearby is home to extremely high concentrations of ethane and propane. That allows the flame to stay strong and bright even when surrounded by the waterfall, which you would expect to snuff it out.
The gas flows from a pocket around 1300 feet (400 meters) below the surface.
While investigating the area, geologists also found many even smaller gas leaks, providing additional fuel sources for the flame as it seeps up into cracks in the shale. Studying the interaction between natural gas and shale rock at Eternal Flame Falls has allowed scientists to better understand this previously undiscovered geologic process.
Is The Flame Always Burning?
The answer is yes… and no. The fuel for the flame is always present, but the flame itself sometimes goes out due to wind, water, or human intervention. When it goes out, locals usually head to the Falls and quickly light it again. So in this regard, it is actually an eternal gas leak, not an eternal flame!
By the way, when you arrive, don’t expect a towering inferno. The flame is only 30 inches tall (76 cm) and consumes around 2 pounds (1 kg) of natural gas daily. It’s pretty small compared to the waterfall, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive.
Are There Other Eternal Flames in The World?
Yes, there are a number of other eternal flames found all over the world. Some of the most famous include:
• Flaming Geyser State Park, located in Washington State. It was named for a methane-fuelled flame, but the fuel eventually ran dry and no longer burns.
• The Jwala Devi Temple, or Jwalamukhi Devi Temple, is located in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, high in the Himalayas. It has been a Hindu site of worship for thousands of years due to its spontaneous natural flames.
• The Darvaza gas crater fire is located in Derweze, Turkmenistan. Fuelled by leaking natural gas, it has been burning continuously since 1971.
• Yanartaş, located in the Olympos National Park in Turkey, is home to many vents that seep natural gas and have been burning continuously for 2500 years. Many people believe this is the location of the ancient Mount Chimaera – more on that below.
• Baba Gurgur is an eternal flame burning near Kirkuk in Iraq. Locals say it has been lit for thousands of years.
• Murchison, New Zealand, is home to a natural flame lit by local hunters in 1922. The flame has been burning since, and tour companies serve tea and pancakes cooked over the open fire. Hungry?
• Manggarmas, located in Java, Indonesia, is home to the Mrapen flame, fuelled by natural gas. It has been burning, even in tropical storms, since the 15th century, yet it only burnt out for the first time in September 2020. It is considered very sacred and is used in many Buddhist ceremonies and to light the torch for sporting events.
The Legends Behind the Eternal Flames
We’ve only recently been able to use modern science to assess and understand eternal flames. So, what did people think about these places before the modern era?
For thousands of years, ancient cultures were just as fascinated by eternal flames as we are today. The existence of a flame that burned non-stop day and night went against everything they knew, so they created spiritual theories to explain what they were witnessing.
Some of the most common legends include the flames signifying eternal life, solar light, or the presence of different gods and deities. In some cases, the flames represent the presence of ancestors and their wisdom.
In one notable example, ancient scholar Pliny the Elder writes about Chimaera, located in modern Turkey. People were mesmerised by “a flame that does not die by day or night.” In this mountainous region, methane seeps from rock vents, and there are many fires burning all over the surface. This phenomenon fuelled the myth of the Chimera, a creature with a lion’s head and body, a serpent’s tail, and a goat’s head emerging from its back.
Today, modern scientists are increasingly interested in the cultural rituals and spiritual explanations of the past to understand the patterns and history of such sites. Studying ancient myths and legends can help researchers understand the flames’ patterns and historical behaviours. It can also rule out more modern causes for the flame, such as fracking or drilling.
Visiting Eternal Flame Falls
Eternal Flame Falls used to be considered quite an off-the-beaten-track destination. Today, thanks to social media, more people know about it than ever before. The access trail has recently been improved substantially, allowing larger groups to access the site. As a result, litter and vandalism prevention has been implemented to keep the Falls accessible to everyone.
According to locals, the best place to start your trek up to the Falls is around 1.5 miles south of the Chestnut Ridge Park entrance, which is on Route 277 just outside Orchard Park, New York. Unfortunately, the route to the flame is not clearly marked, so make sure you have good directions or a local guide.
What do you think about Eternal Flame Falls? Will you make the journey to witness this fascinating natural phenomenon?