We’ve seen some beautiful waterfalls on our little family vacation to Western New York.

Letchworth State Park provided some spectacular scenery — and other lovely family memories — on the front end of our trip.

We finished with a pilgrimage to Niagara Falls before hopping on Interstate Route 90 to zoom back home to northeast Ohio.

But as spectacular as these bookend waterfalls were, I think my favorite experience of Western New York’s waterfalls happened this morning. All by myself, in a hidden valley near the Town of Wales, New York. A map had tipped me off to a few points of interest near the cabin where we were staying. But I couldn’t pique the interest of anyone else in my family to join me. So I got up early, while everyone else was still enjoying the chance to sleep in. And I set out to see two hollows and two waterfalls that were marked on my map.

The hollows had interesting names in line with our “European” vacation: Wales Hollow and Dutch Hollow. But they weren’t actually all that interesting to experience. Just a couple of old churches and old cemeteries that even happened to mark the deaths of those old churches.

The first of the two waterfalls that I visited had the more interesting name: Angel Falls. But the site itself was not all that heavenly. Just a ten-foot drop, spread out over perhaps fifty feet of river running behind an old insurance office in the tiny town of Java Center, New York.

The last of the sites from the map that I visited, however, was spectacular. It was called Johnson Falls. I found a spot to park near the river. Getting out of the car, I walked downstream just a bit towards the sound of falling water. Perhaps a hundred meters from my parking spot, the riverbed suddenly dropped away to reveal a beautiful waterfall tumbling down the mossy slate.

It was peaceful, more than awe-inspiring. So I sat down to read the Bible where I could just watch and listen to the river falling. After a few minutes, though, two other men approached the falls. They had a toddler with them (presumably a son of one of the men). But they walked up to the edge of the waterfall, grabbed a rope, and started rappelling down through the waterfall to the bottom of the falls.

While the first man started dropping down through the waterfall, I struck up a conversation with the other man. It turned out that his family owned land in the area, and he grew up visiting this waterfall. He had installed the rope himself, a couple of years previously. And he said that I was welcome to use the rope myself, if I wanted to. He said, “A lot of people don’t even realize that the bigger waterfall is downstream.”

I had noticed the rope when I first got to the falls. Still, I never would have used it if it hadn’t been for that interaction: (1) Notifying me that the real site to see was just a bit further downriver, and (2) Assuring me that it was safe and legal to use the rope for further exploration.

I got to the bottom of the first set of falls and let go of the rope. Then I splashed downstream for just another 50 meters or so. And indeed, there was an even deeper gorge with an even taller waterfall.

It was magnificent. And what was best about it was its “secrecy.” Really just a serendipitous reading of the map, a coincidental encounter with strangers, and a quiet Saturday morning in which to explore.

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