New York State boasts some of the most scenic and thrilling natural landscapes in the country. One such example is Ausable Chasm, located about 270 miles north of central Westchester County. As an attraction, Ausable Chasm has been in continuous operation since 1873, making it one of the oldest nature parks in the U.S. It’s sometimes called the Grand Canyon of the East, so you know it’s worth the four-hour car drive and a great choice for a summer trip.
The Chasm is a 2-mile long sandstone gorge on the Ausable River that plunges as much as 110 feet below the primeval Adirondack forest floor. This attraction is a self-guided site with several trails that increase in difficulty. My family easily navigated the Inner Sanctum, Rim Walk and Dry Chasm Trails. The Cave and Fall trail is a bit more ambitious, definitely not for inexperienced hikers. We hopped back and forth between the moderate to easy trails and we were treated to spectacular views at nearly every turn.
The Secret is Sandstone
While the Potsdam sandstone that makes up the chasm dates back to the Paleozoic epoch (roughly 500 million years ago), the chasm itself is actually a product of more recent glacial activity. Of course, the last glacier in these parts was around 22,000 years ago, but to a geologist, that was practically yesterday. Sandstone is a sedimentary rock, and is relatively soft. As the last glaciers melted, the rushing waters eroded fissures in the sandstone created by moving glaciers. Over millennia, the river cut the chasm into the native rock.
The fine sediments that make up sandstone can preserve details left on the ancient landscape. As we approached the entrance to the park we were greeted with several displays of some of the fossilized treasures that the local sandstone can contain. My kids marveled at trails left by ancient arthropods as they went about their business 500 million years before we arrived. We also saw sandstone fragments that held the imprint of waves left in the sandy bottom of a shallow sea that trilobites swam through. We’re all familiar with ancient shellfish and even dinosaurs preserved in sedimentary rock.
We began our adventure at the visitors’ center where we purchased our tickets. This also houses the well-stocked gift shop where souvenirs and refreshments can be purchased. Although my wife and kids were ready to start shopping, I reminded them that we still had a bit of trekking to do, so it would probably be wiser to shop after we saw the chasm.
We started by touring both sides of the chasm rim. The tours are self-guided so we roamed at will, basically following whatever path looked interesting. There are many wonderful sites that are best seen from the higher vantage point of the chasm rim. One such site was the fabulous Elephant’s Head, which is a huge fracture in the canyon wall that faintly resembles a pachyderm’s face seen head on. While we really loved the fantasy feel of the forest portion of the tour, the spectacle of the chasm kept calling us as we glimpsed views of it through the trees.
Down into History
The descent into the chasm can be made at various stairs throughout its 2-mile course. We descended at about the 1-mile mark and were treated with incredible views all around. High above us were gravity-defying rock formations that hung over our heads. Pine trees spouted out of the rock at unexpected places. The chasm walls sometimes have a regularity that almost looks intentional, like some kind of prehistoric LEGO® blocks were used in its construction. An observation not lost on my LEGO® fanatic 12-year-old.
All This and Rafting Too
Below us the churning river rushed past, beckoning us to our ultimate goal … a raft ride! Ausable Chasm offers a guided raft ride or tubing for those who like getting wet. At the end of our journey, a trolley was waiting to return us to the visitor’s center. If you are looking for a dose of nature’s beauty, this site delivers.
Bob Berry is a freelance writer and illustrator.
When You Go…
2144 Rte. 9, Ausable Chasm, N.Y.
9 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 1 - June 26th;
9 a.m to 5 p.m. June 27th - Sept. 1.
Trails only: $16.95 adults, $9.95 ages 5-12, under 5 free. Add raft or tube tour $12 adults, $10 ages 5-12, $5 under 5. Other packages available online. Camping and lodging is available nearby.