Get outside: Our other waterfalls
Blessed as this region is with four distinctive seasons, there is a clear best time to enjoy every outdoor pursuit: biking in summer, snowshoeing in winter, and, in May, chasing waterfalls at their peak. The vibrant sun warms your back as you hike the trail, and those pesky April showers bring both flowers and spectacular full cascades. The lower Great Lakes are dotted with waterfalls, both big and small, as every little creek and waterway eventually cuts a path in the receptive geology. Consider these recommendations for exploring a few new options off the beaten path.
Eighteen Mile Creek, Royalton Ravine
Tucked away in an obscure Niagara County park is a half-forgotten historical site seated next to our first waterfall. Royalton Ravine may neither be the area’s deepest gorge nor contain pristine wilderness, but its wide paths offer a relative easy hike for kids that’s a reasonable drive away.
Lying east of Lockport, the park is accessed on Gasport Road, south of the town of the same name, between State Routes 31 and 77. The front half contains a typical mix of civic staples—picnic tables, a baseball diamond, pavilions—but behind the manicured lawn, a maze of trails emanates from the far wood line. A word of warning about mud: the path is sloppy in spots during summer, so expect extra soggy conditions in May. Don’t worry about following a specific color blaze; all the paths eventually head down into the valley, across the suspension bridge over the creek, and up the other side. There, from the top lip, you’ll enjoy a creekside view of the falls and the crumbling remains of a cobblestone home.
Not just one dramatic drop, this waterfall cascades down a rounded and protruding bulbous rock face: a thousand tinkling drips in the hot dry summer, a rushing curved wall of water in a wet spring. Across the path from the falls (and in an unfortunately sorry state of disrepair) stands the birthplace and early childhood home of Belva Ann Lockwood, a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. She was the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court, and the first woman to run for President, having done so in 1884 and 1888—interesting history to discuss with your children on the hike back.
Deer Lick Falls, Zoar Valley
The falls and streams in the small Cattaraugus Creek watershed are highly dependent on melting snow pack and rainfall, so there is a limited window for catching the best flows. Zoar Valley is perhaps best known for dangerous conditions and the rock slides that snare negligent hikers, but plenty of good views are available while still obeying the “No Trespassing” signs. Seek out Deer Lick Falls—on land owned by the Nature Conservancy—for a safe and satisfying trek.
This publicly accessible land lies just a few minutes’ drive south of Gowanda. To find the best parking for access, head east from Gowanda on South Water Street, turn right on Broadway, and then left on Point Peter Road. The Nature Conservancy’s lot will be on your left. The Deer Lick Sanctuary has many miles of hiking trails that access a remarkable variety of land types, from a newly reclaimed apple orchard to sheltered old growth along the gorge rim. The Falls itself is best seen from the Yellow Trail, which runs through the heart of the preserve.
Once again, be prepared for mud, especially in the initial climb to the older sections of the forest. The reward is worth the trek, however, as you can view both the espresso-colored slate headwater as it makes its roller-coaster like turn and descent, and also—from an upper nearby ridge—spot the length of the falls through the still bare trees.
Devil’s Punch Bowl and Ball’s Falls, Niagara Escarpment, Southern Ontario
Regular drivers of Canada’s QEW mega-highway that runs between Fort Erie and Hamilton are familiar with the many creeks that cross their path in sequential numeric intervals as regular as the mile markers. Easy to miss among the Fifteen and Sixteen Mile Creek overpasses, Twenty Mile Valley wine trail signs, and rows of factories lined up along the highway is the sprawling Niagara Escarpment Conservation Area to the south, a United Nations-designated World Biosphere Preserve. Like pearls on a string, parks and recreation areas run the length of the escarpment ridgeline from Niagara Falls to the western tip of Lake Ontario and beyond, and north to Tobermory at the furthest reaches of the Bruce Peninsula that separates Lake Huron from Georgian Bay. Two of those pearls contain impressive waterfalls, the Devil’s Punch Bowl and Ball’s Falls; together, they form a reasonable day’s worth of hiking on a single short trip from Western New York.
The nefarious devil gets his name attached to all sorts of geological formations, most often because the particular spot is especially inhospitable or colorful. The Devil’s Punch Bowl is no exception; this multi-hued rock garden looks like something you’d find in Arizona or New Mexico. Driving from Buffalo, take QEW exit 78 for Fifty Road south, then turn west on Ridge Road at the crest of the rise. Follow Ridge Road another ten kilometers and park in the small lot east of Stony Creek, just before it crosses the road. The drive along Ridge Road alone is almost worth the trip; the enormity of the Golden Horseshoe is spectacularly laid out before you, the industrial might of smoking stacks and glassy condo towers forming a waterfront rim all the way to Toronto.
It’s just a short walk from the parking lot to get the best view of the hundred-foot tall falls that carved the punch bowl from the top rim. In a geological eye blink, narrow Stony Creek has carved an impressive cauldron, a tiny ribbon of water bisecting the massive rock wall. To explore more, find the blue-blazed path north of the parking area along the tree line, and head down the escarpment into the canyon. At the base of the ridge, go left on the white-blazed trails (a small section of the 545-mile long Bruce Trail), and jaunt down the wooden stairs to discover the maze of paths that work their way toward the falls. While the base of the falls itself is inaccessible, your hike will take you past numerous smaller rapids, swirling hydraulics, and purple and green mud formations created by the mix of rainbow sedimentary rock.
For the second stop of the day, head back down the QEW toward Buffalo to discover Ball’s Falls Conservation Area near the village of Jordan. For easiest access, take exit 57, go south on Victoria Avenue, then follow the many signs, turning left on 6th Avenue. Ball’s Falls is named for the Ball family, who, in the mid-1800s, built grist and wool mills along the banks of Twenty Mile Creek to take advantage of the potential energy of two wide and rushing waterfalls.
While the Devil’s Punch Bowl trails are narrow and Spartan, the Ball’s Falls area features wide gravel walkways, a restored village (complete with church, barns, and brick homes straight out of a Department 56 catalog), and a new Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified visitor center with natural and cultural history exhibits about the escarpment. The place has the feel of fully realized potential, a well-crafted introduction to a greenbelt of outdoor experiences less than an hour’s drive from Greater Buffalo.
Follow Brian Castner on Twitter @Brian_Castner.