Waterfalls are one of those treasures in life that we don’t often come across—but when we do, we’re mesmerized.
While New Jersey has a handful of picturesque cascades, most are tucked away on hiking trails or in wooded areas, such as Hemlock Falls in the South Mountain Reservation in West Orange or Boonton Falls in Grace Lord Park in Boonton.
If you’re not much of a backpacker, however, or are just looking for a quick jaunt, check out Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park in Paterson. It’s an easy day trip with a view to remember—and one you can drive right up to.
The falls are a natural break in the Passaic River. As the waterway flows over a 77-foot cliff, it drops nearly two million gallons of water each day before it continues on its way. Ice Age glaciers are to thank for carving out the canyon. Though there are several sections to the waterfall, the widest span is 300 feet across.
It's the second-most-powerful waterfall east of the Mississippi River, so it’s no surprise Alexander Hamilton chose this spot to center his planned industrial city of Paterson in 1792. The energy from the rushing water was harnessed to power factories, ushering in a new era of industry in America—and commercial independence from Europe.
If you're lucky, you'll catch a glimpse of a rainbow in the falls.
Though the historical importance may go over kids’ heads, the falls are no doubt of interest to visitors of all ages. Young and old alike are enthralled by the roar of the river, the gentle spray of the drifting water and, if you’re lucky, the sight of a cheery rainbow. It’s common to find an artist or two capturing the surrounding natural beauty on canvas.
You can approach the falls two ways: If you enter on McBride Avenue near the historic S.U.M. hydroelectric plant, you’ll have to cross a high-span footbridge. If you arrive via Maple Street, a short walk through Mary Ellen Kramer Park leads you to the falls; you can still walk over the picturesque bridge to get another perspective.
There is an observation area in Mary Ellen Kramer Park that brings visitors within a couple hundred feet of the aquatic action. Step right up to watch the incredible force of water gushing down, and gaze at the bubbling foam as it makes its way around rocky outcroppings. The constant white noise is calming. Stone walls and metal railings keep families safe.
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Cross the footbridge to continue exploring the falls and surrounding area.
Across the footbridge, the power plant continues to produce clean, renewable energy for thousands of people today. Nearby, a statue of Alexander Hamilton looks on proudly toward the falls.
Honoring the beauty of New Jersey’s nature and Hamilton’s handiwork, Paterson Great Falls was declared a national park in 2009 by President Barack Obama. The added federal funding has helped pay for several improvements to the park and continues to provide welcome upgrades. Currently, the Overlook Park parking lot on McBride Avenue is closed. For alternate parking options, visit the website.
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Access to the falls is free!
Access to the falls is free. There is a gift shop inside the Welcome Center on the corner of McBride Avenue and Spruce Street. A variety of literature about the falls is available there. You can also pick up an activity book that kids can complete then return for a Junior Ranger badge. The center is open from May 15 to November 30.
For some extra fun, plan your trip around the Art in the Park Showcase on Oct. 14. In addition to viewing the falls, you can enjoy a variety of world music, sculpture, murals and more. The event features People of Earth, Reg. E. Gains and Vincent Toro, Inner City Ensemble, Paterson Music Project, Barbara Wallace and Halls that Inspire.
And, if Paterson Great Falls whets your family’s appetite for waterfalls, maybe it’s time to start planning a trip to Niagara Falls.
Photos by the author