Chasing waterfalls in the Helderbergs

Outlet Falls drains Thompsons Lake and can be viewed from the Indian Ladder Trail.

A few years back, a popular song urged, “Don’t go chasing waterfalls,” but there is no doubt that H20 pulled under the influence of gravity over precipitous drops and releasing dissolved oxygen in a froth of bubbles — to put the process prosaically — holds great fasciation for most of us.

In his great novel “Moby Dick,” Herman Melville mused about the human fascination with water and wondered: “Were Niagara [or any waterfall] but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it?”

This part of New York state is blessed with numerous waterfalls both permanent and seasonal and one of the finest examples — the Cohoes Falls — is easily accessible at any time of year and is impressive even in times of low precipitation.

But looming to the west of the Capital District and Schenectady is the great escarpment of the Helderberg Plateau and both at its sheer cliffs and deep in its shadowy valleys and gorges it features numbers of waterfalls; some flow only in events involving heavy precipitation, some usually just trickle, some gurgle deeply, and all are capable of roaring in times of heavy rain or sudden snowmelt. 

To view the escarpment during events of very heavy rain such as one of the tropical storms that occasionally pass through New York state is to witness a scene out of “The Lord of the Rings” when dozens of foamy torrents pour over the craggy cliffs.


At Thacher Park

Minelot Falls and Outlet Falls are two impressive waterfalls that can often be seen from the Indian Ladder Trail in Thacher Park and Minelot can also be viewed from a vantage point atop the escarpment close to the LaGrange Bush parking area.

But the key word here is “often,” for in stretches of dry weather the falls can disappear leaving their courses above the cliffs parched and the great piles of boulders that they formerly blasted dusty and dry.

Neither of these falls is what geologists call “seasonal” or “temporary.” Outlet Falls is fed by a stream that is a drain for nearby Thompsons Lake and can collect groundwater as it flows toward the cliff. (Some of its water also drains to the southwest through a cave.)

The stream that feeds Minelot Falls takes seepage from the upper escarpment as well as groundwater.

The key to their apparent whimsical nature is that the landscape of this area of the Helderberg Plateau is karst: The bedrock of the streams is limestone, honeycombed with caves and riddled with vertical fissures and sinkholes, which are capable of pirating the water feeding the waterfalls and channeling it into underground conduits that emerge at the base of the cliffs beneath the dry falls.

This “pirating” phenomenon can often be observed near the intersection of routes 85 and 443 where the Onesquethaw Creek crosses under Route 85. The Onesquethaw draws much of its water from Helderberg Lake and in times of high water roils over the limestone bedrock creating whirlpools and rapids.

But in dry periods the low-volume stream disappears into the fissures that scar the bedrock and flows underground to resurge in the gorge that borders the village of Clarksville.


At the Huyck Preserve

By far one of the most picturesque falls is on Ten-Mile Creek in the Huyck Preserve in the hamlet of Rensselaerville. Just a few minutes’ walk from the parking area on an easy trail, the waterfall drains Myosotis Lake through a fault-created canyon and tumbles in stages down a hundred or so feet.

Though its volume of water varies with the amount of precipitation throughout the year, the waterfall never goes dry and the sounds it generates as it splashes over the layered shale and sandstone strata never fail to soothe.

In winter, many waterfalls — these three in particular — freeze up and produce massive ice floes and columns.

Though the Indian Ladder Trail is closed in the cold months and Outlet Falls is not accessible, Minelot Falls becomes a giant column formed of a huge ice stalactite and stalagmite looking for all the world as though it belongs in Carlsbad Caverns, and it can easily be viewed from the overlook at the LaGrange Bush parking area.

Though the short rail to the Rensselaerville Falls can be icy and requires care to navigate, the waterfall becomes a descending display of distorted icicles and other odd shapes with frigid waters flowing through and around them and is well worth the hike.

As Melville observed, the sight of falling waters — whether miniscule or grand — seems universally to evoke fascination in humans.

But regarding his thought on a Niagara of sand — spacecraft orbiting Mars have sent back spectacular photographs of massive amounts of red dust carried by the alien winds cascading down into craters.  Future travelers to Mars, take note!