Lower Falls cave cover

Geologic History of the Rochester Area

These day trips into Rochester’s geologic history—filled with drumlins, eskers, kames, kettles, fossils, house-sized boulders, and a few meromictic lakes—will remind you just how amazing our corner of the Earth is.

City of Rochester

  1. Lower Falls
  2. Pinnacle Range
  3. Mount Hope Cemetery

Monroe County

  1. Mendon Ponds

Greater Rochester

  1. Chimney Bluffs
  2. Grimes Glen
  3. Letchworth
  4. MacKay Wildlife Preserve
  5. Finger Lakes Region
  6. Bergen Swamp
  7. Fall Brook Gorge

Surrounding Area

  1. Watkins Glen
  2. Green Lakes
  3. Niagara Falls
  4. Eternal Flame
  5. Museum of the Earth
  6. Panama Rocks
  7. Little Rock City
  8. Penn Dixie Fossil Park
  9. Howe Caverns

City of Rochester

Lower Falls Maplewood
Lower Falls in Maplewood Park

1. Lower Falls Gorge

City of Rochester

In the Lower Falls section of the Genesee River gorge, the material at the bottom was deposited 430 million years ago; at the top, 410 million years ago. You are looking at 20 million years of geological deposition in a gorge that was carved in the last 10,000 years

Seth Green Fishing Access Lower Falls Rochester
Seth Green Drive Fishing Access Road

While Maplewood Park on the west side of the Genesee is the most logical starting point, you can explore the east side as well. The best way to do that is to park at the Seth Green GRT parking lot and walk down toward the fishing access.

Learn more: lowerfalls.org, Thomas X. Grasso’s Geology and Industrial History of the Rochester Gorge Part One, Lower Falls Foundation, NYSGA

Cobbs Hill Pinnacle Hill summer
View of Pinnacle Hill from Cobb’s Hill

2. Pinnacle Range

City of Rochester

The Five Pinnacle Hills are Cobb’s, Pinnacle, Highland, Mount Hope, and Oak, which is now the University of Rochester campus. Yes, Oak Hill Country Club was located there next to the river from 1901-1921 before moving to Pittsford.

Because of the Pinnacle Range, all major infrastructure, like the Erie Canal, subway, and express way, were routed around the area leaving this beautiful area untouched by development.

Mount Hope Cemetery kettle
Mount Hope Cemetery kettle

3. Mount Hope Cemetery

City of Rochester

While Mount Hope is part of the Pinnacle Range mentioned previously, I find it unique in its own right.

Take a Geology Tour and you’ll learn about ice age land-forms (kames, moraines, kettles), the type of stones that make up gravestones, mausoleums and the ground you’re standing on, and residents who influenced the sciences during their time above ground.

You’ll learn to look for every minute detail as evidence in our big history!

Monroe County

Rochester's Geologic History: Mendon Ponds Park Devils Bathtub

4. Mendon Ponds


The Devil’s Bathtub is one of New York’s rare meromictic lakes. It’s so deep, and so protected by the geologic features around it, that the layers in the water do not mix, or “turn over”. 

It’s been challenging to find an exact depth documented for Devil’s Bathtub, but two local geologists have recently stated its depth to be roughly 47 feet at its deepest point. If you are aware of more concrete evidence, please contact me!

In 1969, Mendon Ponds Park was named to the National Registry of Natural Landmarks due to its geologic history and presence of significant kames, eskers, and kettles.

Learn more: Glacial Geology of Mendon Ponds Park, Glacial Geology

Greater Rochester Region

Geologic History: Chimney Bluffs State Park

5. Chimney Bluffs


The bluffs, rising 175 feet above Lake Ontario, are fragile drumlins, like all of the truncated drumlins along this section of shoreline.

This area of New York State “contains one of the largest drumlin fields (12,000 km2) on the North America continent consisting of some 10,000 drumlins located between Lake Ontario in the north and the Finger Lakes.”

Wayne County Drumlins cover
Clyde, NY

Take a drive on the back roads through Wayne County and enjoy the scenic view the drumlins create in the landscape. Not as alienesque as Chimney Bluffs but beautiful nonetheless.

Learn more: Drumlins in Wayne CountyNew York State Geological Association 2000 Guidebook page 116

Grimes Glen Second Fall
Grimes Glen, 2nd Fall

6. Grimes Glen


The Glen is known for its waterfalls. However, it is best remembered as the source of the oldest fossilized tree in New York.

The so-called Naples Devonian Tree was discovered in the glen by D. Dana Luther in 1882. A Naples native who served as President of the village, was a descendent of pioneers who first settled the town. Born in 1840, Dana Luther became interested in geology and spent many years assisting the research of his nephew, Dr. John M. Clarke, State Geologist and State Paleontologist for many years.

Mr. Luther served on Clarke’s staff at the State Museum from 1891 to 1916. The fossilized tree that Luther discovered in Grimes Glen was removed by paleontologists in 1887 and put on display in the State Museum in Albany.

Learn more: Ontario County

Things to do around Rochester NY: Letchworth State Park NY
Letchworth State Park NY

7. Letchworth


400 million years of geologic history can be seen in the walls of the gorge at Letchworth State Park and are from the Devonian Age.

The rocks in the gorge are sedimentary. Sedimentary rocks are formed from particles of sand, shells, pebbles, and other fragments of material. Gradually, the sediments accumulate and over time and harden into rock. Sedimentary rocks are, in general, are fairly soft and can crumble easily.

The rock in the gorge is mostly shales with some limestone and sandstone. Some layers of rock have a red color to them. This red coloring is due to iron oxide in the rocks from being deposited during a high oxidizing environment.

Learn more: Geocaching Letchworth

MacKay Wildlife Preserve
MacKay Wildlife Preserve

8. MacKay Wildlife Preserve


The incredible rocks found within the preserve’s 26 acres have been studied by geologists, and some were determined to be 380 million years old. They contain fossils from our tropical-sea days. There is a sea of moss-covered boulders toward the field wall.

Cal-Mum science teachers take classes here to explore the geology and biodiversity.

Learn more: History of MacKay Wildlife Preserve

Honeoye Lake from Harriet Hollister
Honeoye Lake from Harriet Hollister

9. Finger Lakes Region

The Finger Lakes consist of 11 long, narrow, roughly parallel lakes, oriented north-south as fingers of a pair of outstretched hands. The southern ends have high walls, cut by steep gorges. Seneca and Cayuga Lakes are among the deepest in North America and have bottoms below sea level.

These lakes all formed over the last two million years by glacial carving of old stream valleys. The actual depth of carved rock is well over twice as deep, but it has been filled with sediments; there may be as much as 1000 feet of glacial sediment in the deep rock trough below the lake-bed.

Learn more: Paleontological Research Institute

Bergen Swamp
Bergen Swamp

10. Bergen Swamp


The Bergen Swamp is a 10,000 year old natural ecological succession following the retreat of the glaciers. The lichens were the first organisms to grow on the barren rock left by the retreating glaciers.

It is the first ever private environmental land trust in the United States chartered as a New York State living museum, and the first such site to be designated a National Natural Landmark.

Fall Brook Fossil

11. Fall Brook Gorge


Fall Brook Gorge in Geneseo represents one of the nation’s finest exposures of Upper and Middle Devonian Age strata with significant fossil remains and a cap-rock waterfall. It’s also a National Natural Landmark.

Though private property, Trail Otter offers exclusive two-hour, one-mile guided hikes in the gorge. From their website, “Hike to a beautiful sixty foot waterfall via its stream, walking through a steep gorge.

“This is rated moderately difficult – requiring balance and appropriate footwear to traverse. There may be water in the gorge, so waterproof footwear is highly recommended. Ankle-twisting rocks, slippery creek banks and large rocks to navigate.”

Surrounding Area

Watkins Glen Rainbow Falls
Rainbow Falls

12. Watkins Glen

Watkins Glen

Though the park features a well-maintained walking path, it’s not an easy stroll, nor is it accessible. The gorge trail can be wet with spray (wear good walking shoes/boots and bring a pair to change into), and the majority of the walk is up 800 rock stairs if you go the entire length. The elevation rise from the Main Entrance to the Upper Entrance is 520 feet.

That said, it’s also one of the most transcending, awe-inspiring, and wondrous displays of nature’s beauty on Earth!

Green Lakes State Park red
Green Lake

13. Green Lakes


Both Round and Green Lakes are meromictic lakes, which means that there is no fall and spring mixing of surface and bottom waters. Such lakes have a high potential for evidence of ancient plant and animal life.

Learn more: NYSGA

Best New York Attractions - Niagara Falls American Falls
Niagara Falls American Falls from the Crows Nest

14. Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

Approximately 12,000 years ago water found a single low pathway through the “Niagara Escarpment“, and began to carve out a channel—the Niagara River. At that time, however, “Niagara Falls” was about seven miles downstream—Lewiston, NY and Queenston, Ontario.

Over the last 12,000 years erosion of the resistant rocks that cap Niagara has allowed the Falls to migrate about 7 miles upstream, and form the high-walled Niagara Gorge along its former path.

Learn More: New York State Museum – Niagara Gorge Geology

Eternal Flame Trail Chestnut Ridge Park Buffalo
Eternal Flame

15. Eternal Flame

Orchard Park

It seems that there’s only one waterfall in the world with a flame burning beneath it. This is the Eternal Flame Waterfall, on Shale Creek, in Chestnut Ridge Park, near Buffalo, New York.

A pocket of natural methane gas in an alcove below the waterfall seeps out through a fracture in the rocks. The flame goes out from time to time (it’s not really eternal) but is easy to relight. We’ll probably never know who the first person to light it was.

Learn more: EPOD USRA Eternal Flame

Paleontological Research Institution and its Museum of the Earth in Ithaca NY
Museum of the Earth in Ithaca

16. Museum of the Earth


Museum of the Earth focuses on life beginning in the Cambrian Period, though it delves a little into our 4.5 billion year history.

We’re basically learning about the entire Phanerozoic Eon, including the Paleozoic (era of plants), Mesozoic (era of dinosaurs, birds and the breakup of Pangaea), Cenozoic (era of mammals), and our current Quaternary period (Ice Age and humans).

Panama Rocks scenic
Panama Rocks

17. Panama Rocks Scenic Park


Panama Rocks is reputed to be the most extensive formations of glacier-cut, ocean-quartz conglomerate in the world, forming a ridge half a mile long. The history of the rock formations date back about 400 to 350 million years ago (Ma), during the Devonian period.

To provide perspective on the age of these formations, it is believed that the first animals classified in the genus Homo appeared only 2Ma. Modern humans (Homo sapiens) are believed to have originated about 200,000 years ago.

Learn more: Panama Rocks Scenic Park, 4 Rock Cities Near Rochester, Tour Chautauqua

Western New York's Geographic History: Little Rock City in Rock City New York State Forest
Little Rock City in Rock City State Forest

18. Little Rock City

Little Valley

Little Rock City was not formed by glaciers, but through mountain building events known as orogenies. As sediment from surrounding areas was deposited over Rock City State Forest, the base for Little Rock City was formed.

As hundreds of years passed, gravity erosion of the landscape began to separate non-resistant rock layers from those which were highly resistant, leaving us with the large boulders that are present today.

Learn more: 4 Rock Cities Near Rochester, Cattaraugus County Geology Trail

Western New York's Geographic History: Penn Dixie Fossil Park Nature Reserve
Penn Dixie Fossil Park and Nature Reserve

19. Penn Dixie Fossil Park and Nature Reserve


Visitors can find and collect 380 million year-old animal and plant fossils that once flourished in an ancient tropical sea that covered Western New York.

In 2011, The Geological Society of America ranked Penn Dixie as the No. 1 fossil park in the country.

Learn more: Penn Dixie Field Guide, They’ll never run out of fossils at Penn Dixie

Howe Caverns
Inside Howe Caverns

20. Howe Caverns

Howe Caves

Howe Caverns is roughly 3.5 hours from Rochester so it is one of the furthest day trips from Rochester but must be included in this guide. I have made the trip there and back again within a day, but only because the tour is relatively short and we weren’t stopping to explore along the way.

Scientists believe nature began to slowly craft Howe Caverns some six million years ago; long before even the ancient, extinct animal known as the woolly mammoth appeared on Earth. The caves are one of a very small number of mineral caves (living limestone cave) in the world.

Because the limestone beds laid down by the ancient sea creatures were softer than many rock formations (such as marble or granite), the rain water trickling down from the ground above soon began to erode the top layers. Small cracks opened up to the layers below, and the rain water dissolved its way through them, too.

In time, the small cracks grew to be large cracks through which underground streams flowed. And that is how the great cave formations and winding passageways of Howe Caverns were formed: over the course of millions of years, underground brooks and streams gently carved them out of the solid limestone deposits left behind by sea creatures eons before.

Learn more: Science & Geology of Howe Caverns

Book Roadside Geology

Learn more about our geologic history and geoscience

Library Book: Roadside Geology of Western New York

Library Books: Various publications by Herman Fairchild

Rochester Museum & Science Center

Buffalo Museum of Science

Rochester Academy of Science

Buffalo Geological Society

New York State Geological Association + Field Trip Guidebooks

The Geological Society of America

American Geosciences Institute

Glacial Geology of Western New York

Geology of New York State

Geologic units in Monroe County, New York

Geological History and Glacial Formations of the Finger Lakes

Paleontology and Stratigraphy of the Rochester, New York, Area

Genesee Valley Glacial and Postglacial Geology from 50,000 Years Ago to the Present: A Selective Annotated Review

Western NY Geology: The Land Before Time

1902 Bulletin of this United States Geological Survey

Geology of the Erie Canal, Rochester Gorge, and Eastern Monroe County, New York State – In the Footsteps of Amos Eaton and James Hall

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Mount Hope Cemetery fossil close
Barrier wall in Mount Hope Cemetery

Where are your favorite spots to explore Rochester’s geologic history?

Please share your thoughts and stories with us in the comments. Your insight and experience are invaluable!

Debi Bower, Day Trips Around Rochester NY

Author Debi Bower is the Founder and Chief Day Tripper for Day Trips Around Rochester, NY. Happy trails!


1 thought on “Geologic History of the Rochester Area”

  1. This website was well worth my time exploring and reading. I shall save it for future reference and will send its link to my children and grandchildren. Thank you.

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