Did you know that there are hundreds of waterfalls in Central New York State? That doesn’t even begin to take into consideration cataracts, rapids, and cascades that are found near many of them. Among the richest landscapes for waterfall are the 13 Finger Lakes of upstate New York — Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye, Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, Skaneateles, Otisco, Onondaga, and Oneida — names given by the Iroquois tribe. Here the remnants of the ice age have riddled the area with deep, dramatic gorges. And the ones not to miss are located around the town of Ithaca, on the south shore of Lake Cayuga.
Four hours north of New York City and home to Cornell University, Ithaca is a spectacular place to visit, especially in the fall when the surrounding countryside is turned into a canvas of fall colors; mounds of pumpkins and apples appear at roadside stands, and the air is filled with the smell of burning logs. The local slogan “Ithaca is Gorges,” says it all.
You don’t have to go far to see the waterfalls. Right in the middle of town is Cascadilla Falls (50 ft high), dropping from the University at the top of the hill, down into the center. The falls are in a deep, stony gorge, amidst layers of shale and sandstone, surrounded by roads and buildings. The easiest way to see them is to start at the top and walk down the stone path near the Cornell Center for Theater Arts, exiting on East Court and Linn Streets. A wicked winter storm severely damaged the path which was in the process of being repaired when we visited.
On the other side of town, Ithaca Falls (150 feet tall and 175 feet wide), flows into Cayuga Lake. You can hike a few hundred feet from the road to the base where a large pool of water is a favorite fishing spot. In the winter, the falls freeze to form a magnificent white mass of crystals. Buttermilk Falls are on Rt 13 southwest of Ithaca in Buttermilk Falls State Park. The frothy white water drops over 80 feet, easily accessible from the car park. But if you are in the mood to hike, there are beautiful trails leading up to another series of falls. Cascades and rapids rush down the gorge. Sandstone pools at the base are ideal for swimming in the heat of summer.
Taughannock Falls (Taughannock Falls State Park on the western shore of Lake Cayuga) is 31 feet taller than Niagara and is the tallest free-falling cascade east of the Mississippi. There are many ways to see this natural wonder. Hike along the river through the woods to the base of the trails where you can get close enough to hear the roar of the water and feel the spray. View it from an overlook on the rim of the gorge. The water plummets down a sheer cliff face through a small opening in the rocks, crashing into a pool below.
The water flow varies with the seasons. In spring, the melting snows cause them to become raging torrents; in summer and fall, the water is reduced, sometimes to a trickle, depending on the amount of rain. In winter, the waterfalls become spectacular worlds of ice where you expect to see the Ice Queen and enchanted creatures reflected in the shiny spires.
In addition to these wonderful, natural spectacles, there is much to see in Ithaca. Drive along the scenic west side of Lake Cayuga with its breathtaking views and sample the wine from the hundred plus wineries that dot the countryside. Visit the quaint stores and restaurants in Trumansburg; climb the 161 steps to the top of Cornell’s McGraw Tower where the Cornell Chimes, played by a student, resonate across the town; visit the Cornell Plantation with its extensive Botanical Garden and Arboretum or stop by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where you can hike through a 220 acre sanctuary full of birds and other wildlife. If you are planning to hike, stop at the Ithaca Farmers Market to stock up on local produce and baked goods for an autumn picnic.
IF YOU GO
The Ithaca/Tompkins County Convention and Visitors Bureau is at 904 East Shore Drive, Ithaca, New York Tel 607-272-1313; they can provide you with the most up to date information on what is going on.