During several of our recent drives to NJ to go hiking, we passed signs for a national park that neither my husband nor I even knew existed: Paterson Great Falls. Located not even 15 miles from NYC, this lovely little park sits on the site of America’s first manufacturing center known as Paterson, NJ. And on the 4th of July, we decided to head on over to check it out!
History of Paterson Great Falls
You may recall that the 4th of July weekend was when Disney+ launched the Hamilton movie, which we (and many, many other people) proceeded to watch during the holiday. What you may not know, though, is that Hamilton is actually the founder of American manufacturing. (If you don’t believe me, you can read this really, really long report he gave on the subject to Congress back in 1791.)
After the Revolutionary War, the U.S. was still heavily reliant on the British and others for supplying manufactured goods. The U.S. did not have its own manufacturing processes in place since it had not actually been permitted for us to do so while under British rule. Once a free and independent country, though, the U.S. needed to begin to manufacture our own goods.
As such, Hamilton selected the area above and around the Great Falls to be the site of America’s first planned industrial city, Paterson, NJ. The city was named for a Hamilton supporter, Governor William Paterson of New Jersey, who is also known as a former senator, Supreme Court justice, and signer of the U.S. Constitution.
This location in particular was selected because the hydropower created by the falls was essential for getting a manufacturing center up and running. And so, American manufacturing began, with Paterson being home to the production of textiles, firearms, and even locomotives. At one point, Paterson also produced so much silk that it became known as “Silk City”. The falls powered local Paterson mills for more than 100 years before Paterson eventually went the way of most other former manufacturing cities in the U.S.
Located on the Passaic River, the Paterson Great Falls are 77 feet tall and stretch 300 feet wide, and the park’s literature describes them as the second most powerful falls east of the Mississippi. The area around Paterson Great Falls is officially designated a National Historical Park, having just only been deemed as such in 2011. (Thanks, Obama!)
Visiting Paterson Great Falls
It was a beautiful day on the 4th of July when we visited, but it was also very sunny, muggy, and hot. The park wasn’t particularly crowded, and we weren’t sure if that was due to the fact that it was a holiday and people were otherwise engaged or if, like us, people really just don’t know this park even exists. We got the last spot in the little parking lot and were immediately treated with our first glimpse of the falls.
The museum and welcome center (and bathrooms!) were closed due to COVID, and though there were park rangers on-site, there weren’t any tours being offered at the time we visited. Prior to our visit, though, we printed out the map and brochure for the park’s self-guided walking tour called the “Mill Mile” (there’s also an app), and we used that as we worked our way through the park.
Below the parking lot, there is a large lawn area where you can get up close to the Passaic River. Here you can catch glimpses of the falls off in the distance and admire one of the historical buildings that has been preserved and maintained on the park property (and is even still in use!)
From the lawn, you’ll need to climb back up to street level and circle around to the right in order to reach the falls viewing area. As you get closer, you’ll see where the river travels through the town and over toward the ledge of the falls. You’ll also get a wonderful overhead view of the lower section of the Passaic River.
Before you get above the falls themselves, you’ll encounter this massive pipe that is presumably still used for something, though we were surprised that you could basically just walk right up to it, and on it, and over it if you so chose. I hope it’s not anything too terribly important because it really is just out there all unsecured like.
And finally, we crossed the bridge to take in the close-up views of the falls! You’re about eight stories up at this point, so if you’re not super fond of heights, you’re probably not going to love this part of the tour. (It also gets a bit crowded on the bridge since this is obviously quite the view.)
If you’d be more comfortable with solid ground beneath your feet, continue across the bridge into Mary Ellen Kramer Park, where you can take in the falls from several different vantage points. You may even find yourself sitting in the very spot where Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and the Marquis de Lafayette sat in the late 1700s when they came to scope out the falls and enjoy a picnic in the park.
Once you’ve had your fill of the falls, there is more to explore in the Mill Mile! You’ll need to head back near your starting point and then cross the street into Upper Raceway Park. A raceway is essentially a canal, and there was a system of raceways in Paterson on the upper level of the falls that were used to help push water down into the mills that were all located on the lower section of the falls.
Today, the raceways are all dry, but there is a path that runs alongside a stretch that will help you get a sense of what it might have looked like back in the day.
As we neared the end of the park, we knew that we needed to turn left to continue with the Mill Mile walking tour. However, a couple came by and asked us if we knew where the hiking trail was and if the trail across the bridge led to it. We did not know, nor did we realize there was a trail across the bridge but we decided we’d go and see where that trail did go.
If you cross the bridge at the far end of Upper Raceway Park, you’ll head uphill and find yourself outside a public pool on your right. Walk past it and you’ll see a tree with a blue trail marker which will lead you on a nice shaded stroll through the “wilds” of Paterson, NJ.
We had no idea where the trail would lead or how long it could possibly be since it was in the middle of the city, but we’ve been enjoying hiking lately so we figured we’d walk along it for a little while and see where we ended up. At one point, the trail opened up and we got a wonderful view of the historic buildings of Paterson. As it turns out, we were walking the Stony Ridge Trail, which is only .6 miles long and puts you back out on the street right around the corner from the falls.
By the time we finished our little jaunt, it was getting pretty roasty toasty out and we decided to forgo the remaining stops on the Mill Mile tour. We hope to go back post-COVID when it’s safe to join a tour and visit the museum and welcome center so that we can catch up on all the fun facts and tidbits we missed this time around.
If you’re just looking for an outdoor activity close to the city, though, Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park is a great place to kill a couple hours. And the fact that it’s not terribly crowded makes it easy for you to social distance, which is not the case at many national parks!
Have you ever visited Paterson Great Falls? Let me know how you enjoyed your visit!
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- Paterson Great Falls: 72 McBride Avenue Extension, Paterson, NJ 07501
- If the first lot is full, continue down the street about 50 yards to an overflow lot on the left.
When to Go
- Paterson Great Falls is open daily year-round.
- Check the park’s alerts page in advance of your visit for any updates to hours or access, as this may vary during COVID and inclement weather.
Tips for Visiting
- Download the Mill Mile self-guided walking tour or the Mill Mile app so that you know where to go within the park and can learn a bit about what you’re seeing.
- Due to COVID, the museum, welcome center, and bathrooms all were closed to the public. You can still visit the falls, park, and grounds, but if you wish to have a more comprehensive visit, you may want to visit at a later time when restrictions have been lifted.
- The best part about Paterson Great Falls is that it’s free to visit! The museum, when open, is also free but has a $2.00 suggested donation.
- If you visit in the summer, bring some sunscreen and a water bottle because there isn’t really any shade throughout the park.
- Since the falls are basically right within the town, you’re free to bring your pup on your visit as long as it’s leashed.
- And if you can’t visit the Paterson Great Falls in person, you can still check them out via webcam!