Salmon River Falls
The Salmon River Falls Unique Natural area is a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation protected space located approximately 1 hour north of Syracuse NY. At 100' high and over 200' wide, the falls are an impressive site that have drawn visitors to the region for over one hundred years. There are a few short multiuse hiking trails that lead hikers to the waters above the falls and to the deep pool at their base. Ideal for picnics, short hikes, and ice-climbing, Salmon River Falls is a great spot for an afternoon adventure in the Central New York region.
History In 1791 American Revolution veteran and successful merchant Alex Macomb purchased 3,670,715 acres of land in modern day Lewis, Jefferson, St. Lawrence, Franklin, Herkimer, and Oswego counties for about twelve cents per acre. After completing the purchase, Macomb divided the land up into multiple sections for sale resulting in the establishment of numerous townships throughout Northern New York State. The towns surrounding the Salmon River Falls Unique Area - including Orwell, Richland, and Williamstown - sprung up as a result of this purchase and partition. Tourist visitation increased in the area throughout the early 1800s as passengers and traders traveling through the region between the Erie Canal and the St. Lawrence river looked for recreation opportunities.
In the late 1800s and into the early 1900s hydroelectric power facilities sprung up on the banks of the Salmon River. It was during this time that the area around the falls was purchased by Niagara Mohawk corporation. In 1912 Niagara Mohawk Electric created the Salmon River Reservoir by damming the Salmon River just above the falls creating a sizable lake currently used for recreational activities like fishing and boating. After a rise in public use - and related vandalism and personal injury - throughout the 1960s Mohawk Niagara closed the location to all tourist visitation. In 1993 the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation acquired the land from Niagara Mohawk Electric and began developing a Greenway system along the Salmon River and around the falls.
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The Salmon River Falls Unique Area is located on Falls Road in Oswego county near the town of Orwell. If you are approaching from the North via Watertown or the South via Syracuse take I-81 to exit 34. Continue east toward Howardville on NY Route 104 for approximately 3.3 miles. Turn left onto County Route 22 toward Altmar. Continue on County Route 22 for approximately 9 miles passing through the small village of Altmar. Turn right on Falls Rd. and continue approximately 2 miles to the Salmon River Falls Unique Area parking lot on the right.
Salmon River Falls is both a warm-weather and cold-weather multi-use recreation area. During the spring, summer, and fall months, the trails surrounding the gorge area make for wonderful hiking; furthermore, swimming an fishing in the Salmon River provide ample opportunity to cool off during the warmer periods of the year. During the winter months, Salmon River Falls freezes creating a scenic spot for snowshoeing and ice-climbing.
Salmon River Falls is a great place to warm-weather hike. There are also ample opportunities to fish in the areas surrounding the falls. Adventurous types might consider swimming in some of the deeper pools surrounding the designated falls scenic area.
Hiking: At present, there are three main trails in the Salmon River Falls Unique Natural Area. The Falls Trail is approximately 1,100 feet in length and follows the gorge edge as it guides people to two platforms which overlook the falls. This portion of the trail is graded and even allowing individuals with disabilities to access the falls overlooks with ease. Hikers on this trail will notice two informational kiosks that explain the geological development of the area and the native flora and fauna.
The Gorge Trail leads from the Falls Trail to the bottom of the gorge below the falls. This trail is very steep and is recommended for the physically fit with proper hiking footwear. The trail drops in elevation more than 100 feet and features two rustic stone stairways that lead hikers down a 20 foot portion of the trail that traverses the steep gorge banks. Despite being only 600 feet in length, the average grade of the Gorge Trail is 30%, so be ready for a workout! At the bottom of the trail you’ll find the deep pool at the base of the waterfall that is great for swimming. Unfortunately, due to the steep grade on this trail, access for individuals with disabilities is not currently available.
The Upper Falls Trail extends from the falls overlook at the terminus of the Falls Trail approximately one mile alongside the river until it reaches Dam Road. The trail snakes along the bank of the Salmon River through dense hardwoods and occasionally into dry riverbeds. The Upper Falls Trail is part of the proposed Salmon River Greenway. This project hopes to extend trails from the Salmon River Falls Unique Area southwest toward the Lighthouse Hill Reservoir and beyond toward the village of Altmar and westward to Lake Ontario.
Fishing: Fishing is permitted in the Salmon River both upstream and downstream of the falls area. Due to water level fluctuations by the Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation, fishing this part of the Salmon River isn’t very consistent. Anglers would have better luck trying the area upstream in the Salmon River Reservoir or downstream toward Lake Ontario. For more information on fishing the Salmon River, check here.
Flora and Fauna: Besides the stately hemlock trees and plentiful ferns, Salmon River Falls also boasts some rare plant species such as the bird’s-eye primrose and the yellow mountain saxifrage.
Cold Weather Activities
Despite the relatively short length of the trails in the area, many people snowshoe here during the winter months. Ice climbing the falls is also a very popular pastime after the falls have frozen over in January and February.
Snowshoeing: Though the Falls Trail and the Upper Falls Trail are a combined 1.5 miles, snowshoeing both provides a great workout and a scenic winter walk. Extending from the parking lot along to the head of the falls and upstream approximately one mile, snowshoeing the Salmon River Falls Unique Area provides a great opportunity to get a look at the frozen falls and the towering Hemlock forest beyond. Remember, the trails aren’t loop trails, so once you reach the terminus of the Upper Falls Trail, you’ll need to turn around and walk back. Unfortunately, due to the amount of snow that falls in the area during the colder months, the steep and uneven Gorge Trail is closed from September to April.
Ice-Climbing: One of the most popular activities in winter months at Salmon River Falls is ice-climbing. Prohibited before the state acquisition of the property in 1993, ice-climbers now come from all over the Northeast and beyond to scale the 300’ wide and 120’ high gigantic mass of yellow ice. Despite the fact that the main waterfall and wall immediately surrounding it are off-limits, numerous stream and ground-water fed streams breach the steep gorge walls downstream of the main waterfall creating multiple runs for climbing. Avid ice-climber Jim Lawyer has created a comprehensive guide to ice-climbing in the Salmon River Falls Unique Area. You can find that guide here.