The walk up from the parking area was pretty – oaks, maples, hemlocks, and beech trees ablaze with fall colors. Before long my brother Jim, nephew Matt and I came around a bend in the trail and caught our first glimpse of a long ribbon of white water plunging over a stone ledge into a deep ravine – an amazing waterfall.
The falls are located about 20 minutes south of the village of Skaneateles. Travel south on West Lake Road (New York State Route 41A) for 12 miles, then take a left onto Apple Tree Point Road. The parking area is located at the intersection of Apple Tree Point Road and Carver Road. There is a small kiosk not far from the parking area with information about the park and maps showing the trails leading to the different falls.
For the adventuresome with a GPS, the falls can be found at: N 42.81174 / W 76.34305.
After taking several photos of the falls through the colorful foliage, we proceeded further up the trail to get a better look. We were presented with an awesome display of nature. The water of Bear Swamp Creek is channeled through a notch in the thick, overhanging limestone ledge, plummeting straight down for 80-plus feet. This was a fantastic sight well worth the long drive from Fayetteville.
Here, the trail continued up to the road to a place where it was possible to climb down into the stream and follow it to the plunging point. It’s a butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling to stand at the edge and look over into the abyss.
The ravine that Bear Swamp Creek carved is deep and well-enclosed by the surrounding trees. After spending a bit of time taking photos, we went back down to where we saw a branch trail that seemed to wind closer to the falls.
The softer limestone below the harder capstone of the falls has eroded, leaving an amphitheater-like hollow, making it possible to walk behind the falling water. When done with caution, you get an impressive sensation standing behind the plunging ribbon of water and looking out over the ravine. We spent time taking photos and looking for fossils here before heading back up the trail.
We decided to go all the way to the bottom of the falls to get a different perspective. Fortunately, there were several paths headed down to the bottom. The trail entailed navigating down a fairly steep, stone-covered series of switch backs, as we grabbed any convenient tree we could to keep from sliding down uncontrollably. After the experience, I can say that only experienced hikers in peak physical condition should take on this trail. The trails going down into the gorge are informal, unmaintained, and treacherous. The Finger Lakes Land Trust does work with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) to maintain the upper trail along the top of the gorge, but not the informal trails down into it.
Once we reached the bottom, we realized the trek was well worth the effort. Envision an 80-foot ribbon of white water free falling over a rock shelf, fanning out near the bottom before splashing into the pool. It’s framed by the limestone bowl which is surrounded by colorful fall trees.
At this point, we decided to follow the stream’s downward run over the flat, sloping limestone through the ravine. It was a wet and sometimes slippery walk down the creek with loose shale, wet rocks and downed debris making the journey rather difficult. I don’t recommend this route for the average hiker. We chose it because it was certainly off the beaten track and the chance for great photo opportunities was high.
The gorge was markedly cooler and very shady with the tall trees arching overhead, blocking most of the sky except a small glimpse of blue. There were plenty of ferns and mosses covering the banks of fractured limestone, which gave everything a very lush look.
Our decision to walk the gorge was well-rewarded with the discovery of another waterfall. This was a cascading type, nearly 20 feet in height, flowing into a pool surrounded by shale beaches. Jim decided to head up the slope to the main trail we figured was above us while Matt and I explored further. We came across two more falls thereafter, each unique in its own way.
The best was saved for last. The horizon line visible from the last of the smaller falls promised a great vista. As I walked to the edge and peered over, my butterflies fluttered again as I gazed at an amazing view.
Matt and I were looking over the top of a vast limestone bowl with a shear drop of roughly 100 feet to the pools below. This was Angel Falls with a 60-foot overhanging drop, followed by a 20-foot cascade into a deep pool. Far below we could see Jim making his way up the stream – how he got there was a guess! Matt and I followed a steep trail up to the main trail where we looked for a way down to Angel Falls.
We were met with a challenge – an even steeper descent than the one we just came up. A hike up the rocky streambed brought us to the base of the towering falls with its large main pool.
This area is perhaps a favorite swimming spot if the amount of trash on the ground was any indication. We spent a fair amount of time taking photos, wading in the pool and checking out all the fossils Jim had spotted. There are plenty of Rugosa or horn coral fossils present in the limestone.
We headed downstream again in attempt to follow the creek, which allowed us to bypass a very steep climb out. The going was fairly easy with one small cascade waterfall along the way. We came upon a road leading to some summer camps along the lake. The trek through the gorge ends at a little crescent-shaped beach which is part of the Bahar Preserve owned by the Finger Lakes Land Trust.
Our trek through the gorge was not far as the creek corridor is only a mile long. This protected area was completed only two years after the purchase of Carpenter’s Falls in the acquisition of a 30-acre parcel bought from Steven Nemec in April of 2007. With this purchase, the Land Trust had a mile-long unbroken corridor of protected lands from the falls to the lake shore of Bahar Preserve. Recently the Land Trust transferred management of a portion of the site, which includes the high waterfalls, to NYSDEC and plans to work cooperatively with the state to develop a joint management plan, providing both protection and public access. Currently the Land Trust still owns approximately two-thirds of the site and the area remains a work-in-progress.
The creek is an important tributary to Skaneateles Lake, which in turn supplies drinking water to many communities, including the city of Syracuse.
My thanks go out to Scott Winkelman, a Land Trust Volunteer of the Year who was the driving force behind getting protection of Bear Swamp Creek and in obtaining the Nemec property for the corridor. With his efforts, this picturesque area will be preserved for generations of explorers like us.
by Phillip Bonn
Phillip Bonn is an avid hiker and freelance photographer/writer. Check out his website at www.philbosphotos.com.