Three Falls Woods

First, you notice the sound – a continuous low rumble like thunder in the distance, coming from somewhere up the gorge. Like the stream beside us, we meandered through brush and trees, getting closer. Soon the rumble changed to the
unmistakable symphony of falling and splashing water. Ahead of us we glimpsed white water tumbling over cliffs.

I had heard about these waterfalls several years back, but never found time to check them out. One fine mid-January day, when the thermometer read an atypical 60 degrees, my brother Jim and I set out to explore Three Falls Woods in Manlius. It’s a hidden jewel known well by the locals who use it for hiking, bird watching, skiing, snowshoeing, mountain biking and photography. Plenty of trails crisscross this 175-acre area.

There are several places to gain access to Three Falls Woods. One is a trailhead on Sweet Road about half a mile from its intersection with Route 173 – it’s on the right as you head north. From the same intersection headed east about a half-mile on Route 173, the stream that feeds one of the falls passes under the road, and there is a handy parking spot on the left. You literally step out of your car and walk 15 feet into the woods to behold these lovely falls. Farther down Route 173 towards Manlius, turn left onto Glencliffe Road, and drive until you come to a sharp bend in the road. Look for a parking spot between the houses on the right side of the road, then walk up the hillside.

Clints, gilks and history lessons
If you enter from Sweet Road, you’ll notice the limestone rocks and the multitude of emerald colored mosses that cover them. It looks like stone pavement from some ancient civilization. Called “karst” landscape, it is made up of carbonate rocks, such as limestone and dolostone, that have certain unique surface and subsurface features.

It appears man made, but it is actually the natural result of advancing glaciers bulldozing away any overburden to expose the horizontal beds of limestone. The limestone is ever-so-slowly eroded by rain, a process that speeds up slightly when the rain is mildly acidic. Over thousands of years the surface dissolves and cracks. Joints and fissures become deeper and wider to form “clints” (the slabs of rock) and “grikes” (the spaces between them).

Following the path eastward we came upon an old quarry, and spent some time climbing over the talus slopes looking for fossils. Limestone in this area was used to build the Erie Canal, and there are several kilns still standing that were used to make cement. Some of the trails here were bridle paths used around 1917 by the newly created state police force. Their training place, Camp Newayo, was nearby. We also saw massively built stone walls parallel to our path. We figured they were left over from the days when this land was used for pastures.

Three falls in one view
Jim and I came to a cliff overlooking a small stream. We turned west and walked until we found a spot that allowed us to easily climb down to the stream and then make our way up it. Jim and I don’t like to stick to the beaten path.

The farther we went, the higher the cliffs became on either side of us. Part of the Onondaga Escarpment, they’re made up of layers of limestone laid down 500 million years ago when this area was covered by warm inland seas. The shells of tiny sea creatures accumulated over the years on the sea floor to depths of hundreds of feet and then, over time, were compressed into solid rock. You can find the fossilized remains of various corals here and there.

We came to a spot where we could see all three waterfalls in one view. What a beautiful sight! We were standing in a bowl, the floor of which was carved up by the three streams that converged to form the one we had followed. Woods, strewn with limestone boulders and fallen trees, filled the bowl.­

Many shades of moss grow on everything. I have heard that there are over 65 different species of moss in this area, along with trillium, wild ginger, hepatica, trout lily and blood root.

Looking at the falls, from left to right, is Staircase Falls, its waters cascading down rock ledges from Route 173. The middle falls is called Tall Twins because it has the highest vertical drop and is split by an outcropping of rock near the top. Tucked around a corner of the cliff is Cascade Falls, a thin, broad sheet of water falling from the cliffs’ edge onto a jumble of moss-covered boulders.

Unfortunately there is a looming threat of development to the lands above and below the falls, which could severely impact the quality of this area, but an organization called Manlius Greenspace Coalition is striving to preserve the landscape. Their long-term goal is to create a nature corridor that would connect Green Lakes State Park in the east with Clark Reservation to the west. It’s an ambitious plan considering the number of acres and landowners involved but well worth the effort.

For more information or to support Manlius Greenspace Coalition, please check out their website at­­

by Phillip Bonn
Phillip Bonn won the grand prize in the 2006 Life in the Finger Lakes annual photo contest for “Frosty Morning at Green Lakes State Park.” He’s been taking photos as a hobby for over 20 years. He said, “I try to concentrate on taking close-up nature photos, small scenes that are there only for a moment and mostly go unnoticed. I’ve learned the hard way to always have the camera with me and to be ready to take a great photo when I see it.” Contact Phil at

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