I was recently sent to the small, idyllic town of Ithaca, New York for work. Before I left, I didn’t know anything much about this small community, except that it was home to Cornell University. Scanning some maps, I figured it looked like a nice place to hike in the early morning before work. So I hoped to balance the stress of our upcoming report with some fresh, outdoor air. Turns out, there are also many waterfalls in Ithaca, and it has some of the most amazing cascades that I have seen.
There are two ways to get to Ithaca, by car or by plane… sometimes a mix of both is necessary.
For me, traveling to Ithaca was something of an adventure. Ithaca is sort of in the middle of New York state, at the tip of a finger lake. The airport there is tiny, basically consisting of one large room where you can pick up rental cars, check in for flights, go through security, and wait at your gate. The planes that fly there are fittingly small, and the number of flights to the area is limited.
So, when my flight from Philadelphia to Ithaca got cancelled in the afternoon, I waited on stand-by for the night flight. Then I had to spend the night in Philly so that I could be squeezed onto another plane in the morning. Experienced travelers opted for a rental car as soon as they heard that the flight had been cancelled. They made the drive out there in the time that I was waiting to see if I would fit onto the night flight.
Despite my exhaustion upon arrival, Ithaca won my heart right away. Perched on the edge of the Cayuga finger lake, and surrounded by wooded hills, the place has a peaceful air. Many of the houses are of the beautiful Victorian style (although there are actually a lot of different styles- check out this site for more info if you are interested), and coming from cookie-cutter Phoenix, I always appreciate the unique style and character of homes like these. I was lucky enough to stay in one myself, a lovely little Airbnb just a ten minute walk from Ithaca’s pint-sized downtown.
There, I found all sorts of delicious restaurants and unique shops. Most importantly, there was a very good NY bagel shop in the area, which sated my addiction for tasty bagels. There are also a huge variety of places that will help out your lazy side by delivering straight to your accommodations. And if you are in Ithaca over the weekend, a stop by their beautiful farmer’s market in the morning is a must. They had a lovely, wooden structure built for the weekly event right on the lake edge. I’ve never seen a more beautiful farmer’s market myself, and the food there was exceptionally fresh and tasty.
So, what about waterfalls! I came here for waterfalls!
Ok, yes, while I would be remiss to let you know how cute Ithaca is, it is time to talk about waterfalls. Ithaca has a lot of them. If you are in town, there are some nice walks near campus that will take you along gorges and waterways with falls. These landscapes have an interesting mix of wildness and the manicured, human touch. But I would like to focus on three state parks close to town, where I saw my favorite waterfalls and do some nice hiking.
Check the NY State Park website to see if you will need to pay a fee or not for any park, and to make sure that the trails you want to explore are open. These things vary throughout the year. Now, without further adieu, waterfalls in Ithaca…
Buttermilk Falls State Park
Buttermilk Falls State Park is the closest of the three parks to Ithaca, and the waterfall for which the park is named is visible from the highway.
If you are looking for a relaxing experience, even a picnic or moment of quiet contemplation, Buttermilk Falls is a great place. You can roll up, get out, and enjoy an amazing view. This waterfall is impressively tall and its stoney backdrop is made up of layers upon layers of stone, which inspired its name.
If you are like me and want to get a bit of hiking in, this is a great park to be. I took the Gorge Trail up to Treman lake, where I looped around the water’s edge and then followed the Gorge Trail back to my car (almost 5 miles of hiking). I had initially planned on walking the Rim Trail on the way back to the parking lot, but I really fell in love with the Gorge Trail. There are smaller waterfalls all the way up to where it crosses the highway and becomes Bear Trail. The track follows the edge of the stream that flows down from the lake, cutting its way through the many layers of rock that will surround you on all sides.
Taughannock Falls State Park
If there is one park that you see while you are in Ithaca, this is the one! Taughannock Falls is an impressive waterfall that plunges off of a huge, stone cliff into a misty basin. This is a popular spot on the weekend, and for good reason.
It’s about a one mile hike (two miles there and back) on a flat, wide trail from the trailhead to the falls. This meanders along the side of a shallow stream, through a deep, tree-lined gorge. If you go in the morning, during the week, this is a perfect place for a peaceful walk. But if it’s a weekend outing, I think this would be a great park for the whole family (as long as everyone is safe near the water and obeys all park warning signs).
For those looking for a more strenuous hike, the Rim Trail will take up from the parking lot to the top of the gorge. Alternatively, if you want to see the falls but can’t make the hike, there is a beautiful overlook with a lovely visitor center that you can drive to and enjoy the falls from above. When your waterfall-filled morning is over, you can then go enjoy the lake, which is accessible from the park.
Robert Treman State Park
Robert Treman State Park was my last stop on my trip, because I really wasn’t expecting all that much from this park. I was in for a big surprise though, because I left thinking that this may have been my favorite of the three, and was definitely the best hike of the week.
There were two main trails that leave from the Lower Park Entrance, the Rim and Gorge Trail. I was hoping to make a loop out of both of them, but sadly, the Gorge Trail was closed when I visited (I am guessing this was due to the time that I visited, right after winter). I took the Rim Trail up to Lucifer Falls and the cliff staircase. On the way there, the track took me up the rim, through a lush forest with a floor that was home to little orange salamanders that resorted to being as still as they could when I came near. When the trail dropped back down to the stream-level, it twisted its way through flower-carpeted stands of trees, before climbing up the cliffs for an exhausted view of the falls.
Alone in the park, in the fresh air, I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful place. In some ways, it doesn’t seem possible that this park could share a state with NYC. Looking down, I couldn’t help but feel sad that the Gorge Trail was off limits while I was there. I could see the trail from the rim and its was absolutely beautiful!
Whatever else you do western New York State, be it work like me, school, or just exploring, I hope that you take the time for chasing waterfalls in Ithaca.