A scene from Three Falls Woods Nature preserve showing a waterfall in the background and the seasonal stream in the foreground.
A closeup of a waterfall at Three Falls Woods Nature Preserve

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Location / Directions / Maps

Location: Directly off of Route 173. Three miles south/east of Syracuse; town of ManliusOnondaga County

Maps: Google MapTopographic

GPS/Locations: Waterfalls (approx.): N 42.99188 / W 76.01201
Parking: N 42.99423 / W 76.01507

Directions: Heading towards the village of Manlius from either direction, get onto Rt 173 (East Seneca Turnpk.) and heads towards its intersection with Sweet Rd. There are numerous ways to get to the waterfalls from here. The parking area and trailhead are located north on Sweet Rd about a fifth of a mile from the intersection with Rt 173. A proposed parking area, just 1/5th of a mile up Sweet Road from Rt 173 is planned for 2020. There’s also a pullover just east of the intersection on 173. This is very close to the falls. Use Google Directions.

Parking: At the CNY Land Trust parking area off of Sweet Rd.

Weather

MANLIUS WEATHER

Information / Accessibility / Accommodations

Note: The CNY Land Trust has acquired 60 acres of the property on the west side and provides access to the public to this area, which includes the falls, through the trailhead on Sweet Road only. Obey all POSTED signs.

Number of falls: 3. Viewing the falls head on, from left to right, they are Staircase Falls, Tall Twins, and Cascade Falls.

Size/Types: Tiered cascaded falls. The falls flow over a limestone bed (part of the Onondaga Escarpment) and have bases that are littered with eroded limestone block. The falls have straight drops of about 20 ft and continue to tumble down another 30-40 ft the rest of the way.

Best time to visit: Spring and fall; after heavy or prolonged rain.

Flow: Highly variable. Very dependent on rainfall. The falls can be basically dry in summer or when there has been a prolonged period without heavy rains.

Waterway: Two small unnamed tributaries of Limestone Creek, which then flows into Chittenango Creek and eventually Oneida Lake.

Time: 20-30 minutes for the waterfalls. You can take more time to explore more of the preserve, but we will just be covering the falls on this site.

Seasons/Hours: Year round; day and night.

Admission: Free.

Handicap accessibility: No.

Pets: Yes, but use a leash. There are some dangerous drops along the way. Pets do slip and fall, as do hikers when pets jump up on them.

Accommodations: None.

Description

Three Falls Woods is the largest remaining tract of undeveloped land in an area known for its rapid growth and luxury sub-developments. A little over 175 acres of forest with sections of old growth, watershed with limestone aquifers, and three gorgeous waterfalls are bordered on all sides by numerous highways and housing developments.

The water from a number of small streams tumbles over the limestone of the Onondaga Escarpment at Three Falls Woods, carving out a notch in the rock and forming the three namesake waterfalls. This action is probably very similar to the early formation of Chittenango Falls, also on the Onondaga Escarpment, to the east. The soluble limestone along the scarp is filled with numerous sinkholes, caves, and a complex underground drainage network, forming what is known as karst topology – a unique canvas upon which the beautiful Three Falls Woods ecosystem is built. The NY State DEC  categorized portions of Three Falls Woods as a State Critical Environmental Areas in  2005 and 2009, paving the way for it to become protected land.

For quite a while Three Falls Woods was completely privately owned, and up until recently the owner was stern about disallowing public access. In 2017, Manlius resident Harold Jones, a former Syracuse University Professor came to the rescue, working with Madison County to purchase a 60-acre portion of the land, on which the falls reside. The deal, which was finalized in 2018, resulted in the Three Falls Woods Preserve, now managed by the CNY Land Trust.

A closeup of a waterfall at Three Falls Woods Nature Preserve
One of the waterfalls of Three Falls Woods Nature Preserve

Hiking / Walking Trails

Difficulty: Easy to moderate.

Distance: Less than a mile to get to the falls.

Markings: None.

Description: The trails that are directly off of Rt 173 and Sweet Rd are very short, easy and provide a quick view of the falls from above the escarpment. You will wind around and down into the gorge to get a clear view of the falls. There are many branches and alternate paths. The previous route from the east was the most direct way to the falls (by walking the gorge), but that route is through private property. The best way is to now follow the trail from the parking area on Sweet Rd, head south.

Map: Interactive

A waterfall down a rocky slope in 3 falls woods

Three Falls Woods Interactive Map

Note this map is incomplete and not entirely accurate.

History

The area around Three Falls Woods has both a unique geological and historical significance stretching back millions of years. The area is best known for its excellent example of karst and limestone geology; best described as a rocky and porous terrain where streams flow over the limestone bedrock and aquifers surge below. The area was once home to a Devonian-era seafloor and is littered with marine fossils.

Over the years, erosion has opened up fissures in the limestone bedrock, creating what geologists call clints and grikes (large blocks and sizable cracks in layman’s terms). The large blocks of limestone tumble from the escarpment cliffs and litter the gully below the escarpment. Pieces of the limestone have been quickly colonized by many beautiful mineral-loving mosses and ferns, of which there have been over 65 species identified.

The area was used in the 1800s as a rock quarry to build the Erie Canal. Many firing kilns that were used to make the necessary materials for the canal are still there today. Not too far from the area in Chittenango, Andrew Bartow came across a natural limestone cement rock that became instrumental in waterproofing and mortaring the canal walls and locks to prevent degrading. Today, massive limestone quarries can be found to the west of Three Falls Woods towards Jamesville.

Many of the trails in the area are bridle paths for horses that were used to train the newly created State Police force in the early 1900s. There are also numerous moss covered stone walls that are remnants from a time when the place was used as a pastured and mixed farming area.

A wide angle showing 2 of the 3 waterfalls in Three Falls Woods Nature Preserve

Three Falls Woods Media

Coming soon…

Interesting Stuff

Chittenango Falls

Chittenango Falls State Park shares similar geology to the falls here although on a grander scale. This state park may have a more massive waterfall, but it doesn’t have nearly as much undeveloped woodland.

Green Lakes

One of the most beautiful State Parks in the region, Green Lakes is simply a must-visit, especially when fall foliage is at peak.

Photography Tips

Shoot wide

  • This is a unique area where you can photograph three waterfalls in one frame. When you first come into view of the waterfalls, you can take a picture straight on of all three through the trees.

Get wet

  • Wear waterproof boots so you can hop the small tributaries and get to the base of each of the waterfalls for close-up shots. There are a lot of fallen logs, trees, stumps, and exposed limestone rocks so be careful. Trying framing your shot so you have a picture of some of the moss covered rocks in the foreground.

Mossy Falls

  • Cascade Falls on the far right has the lowest water flow. Try to keep the shutter open as long as possible in order to get the water in the shot to appear whiter. It also has the higher concentration of beautiful moss covered logs. Try to include them for a splash of color.

Staircase Falls

  • Staircase Falls on the left is set the furthest back and has many trees and rock falls blocking the way. Try taking shots of it where the stream meets up with the other two and forms a deep pool. You can get interesting ‘whirlpool’ effects on your shots.

Silky Water Effect

  • To get that smooth cotton-candy look to the falls, you need to use a Neutral Density (ND) filter on your lens. The ND filter will block some of the light from entering the lens without altering the color, and thus allow your shutter to stay open longer. This blurs the water and creates a soft white gloss to the foamy areas of the falls.  Check out the article for the all the details.

More tips

  • See the Articles for more photography tips.
A waterfall down a mossy cliff at Three Falls Woods Nature Preserve

Who to Contact

Central New York Land Trust
7 Fennell St.
Skaneateles, NY 13152
Phone: (315) 575-8839
Contact page

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