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The ‘hottest’ hike in WNY: How the eternal flame exists and the world record it broke

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Erie County Parks is celebrating its centennial this year and next. Back in 1925, a board of commissioners was formed, laying the groundwork to establish the first two Erie County Parks: Emery and Chestnut Ridge. The latter is known as the ‘crown jewel’ of the parks system, and has one of the hottest hikes in WNY: Eternal Flame Falls.

Fire and water are generally unharmonious, but secluded in the woods at Chestnut Ridge Park, the two thrive together and attract thousands of visitors a year. 

“There is kind of a curtain and the flame is in a small cave,” Emil Madsen said, who was visiting from Denmark. “That is very awesome to have this combination of water and fire in a waterfall.”

Parking is free at a large lot along Chestnut Ridge Road in Orchard Park. The trail to get there is just half a mile, but does include a nearly 150-foot decent, which received some major upgrades last year.

“We had a lot of slip and falls, so we tried to make it as safe as possible,” Troy Schinzel said, the commissioner of Erie County Parks, Recreation and Forestry.

The Chestnut Ridge Conservancy, a non-profit that works with Erie County to preserve and restore the park raised $135,000 to put stairs and railings for visitors to get down the creek below, easier. After a short creek walk, you’ll come to a waterfall with the stunning sight.

“It’s breathtaking,” Savannah Jedd said, who was visiting the flame. “It’s absolutely beautiful seeing the water running over the flame when it’s lit. Sometimes it does go out.”

Savannah Jedd is right. Despite the name suggesting otherwise, the flame does go out, which was the case when News 4 hiked down there recently. Thankfully Parks Commissioner, Troy Schinzel had a lighter on him just in case.

But how does the flame even occur?

About ten years ago, Indiana University Scientist Arndt Schimmelmann studied the gas leak with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy.

“I was alerted by this by my friend in Italy, who is a world expert in natural gas seeps,” Schimmelmann said. “After he saw that particular one, he said, ‘That’s the most beautiful one in the world.'”

Schimmelmann said the gas leak is there because of ice-loading during the Ice Age. And in his research, Schimmelmann found our Eternal Flame broke a record.

“It has the highest propane content of any natural gas seep anywhere in the world,” Schimmelmann said.

Despite that though, he said industrial businesses and humans cause far more Greenhouse Gases than natural gas leaks. And some good news: The eternal flame will stay lit at Chestnut Ridge Park for years to come, unless NYS lifts its ban on fracking.

But the eternal flame isn’t the only attraction at Chestnut Ridge Park. There are attractions year-round at the 1,200-acre park.

“It’s just spectacular,” Schinzel said about the view from the top of the sledding hill at the park. “You see downtown, you see Canada and it just never gets old.. it’s beautiful.”

During winter months, that hill is packed with families sledding and using the toboggan shoots. A casino there has bathrooms, concessions and a roaring fire. There’s also cross country skiing and snowshoeing.

“In the summer, you can hike, play disc golf, jog,” Schinzel said. “We just spent 1.5 million dollars on two accessible playgrounds (too). We have rentable shelters (and) a lake you can fish in. There’s just so much to offer.”

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Kelsey Anderson is an award-winning anchor who came back home to Buffalo in 2018. See more of her work here and follow her on Twitter.

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