Ithaca, New York, is a wonderful destination. It sits at the southern end of lake Cayuga, in the heart of the Finger Lakes region of the state. There are many reasons to visit. Cornell University and Ithaca College bring many cultural events to town, and some really good restaurants. However, in this summer of COVID, I came for some to Ithaca’s outdoor activities.
The Finger Lakes were created during the Pleistocene Galciation, a series of glacial and inter-glacial periods that began around 2.5 million years ago. As the glaciers moved back and forth across the state, they gouged out the beds of streams that flowed north from the Allegheny Plateau. When the ice sheets finally retreated, they left behind eleven long thin lakes, several of them extremely deep, aligned in a basically north-south axis.
The drop from the Allegheny Plateau to the lakes below is significant. Leading in to Lake Cayuga, it ranges from a little over 200 feet to a drop of over 1000 feet, often in the space for only a couple of miles. The streams have created beautiful gorges and waterfalls. Ithaca is in the center of several of these. One of the prettiest is Buttermilk Falls, just south of town. Buttermilk is a cascade of ten waterfalls, formed as the water descends six hundred feet over 0.75 miles (1.3 km). Over the millennia, the streams have carved out the walls of the gorge, and left behind several pools and platforms between the cascades.
Hiking Buttermilk is not easy. It is rated as a moderate trail. As I said, you have to climb up 600 feet in a short distance. That being said, it is worth the effort. This summer, the park officials have imposed specific rules, in an effort to help combat COVID. The Rim Trail has been designated for ascending the gorge. This trail follows the ridge line above Buttermilk Creek. It is a beautiful wooded walk, but the first half a mile is very steep. The down-side is that this trail is not next to the gorge, so you can’t really see the creek below. The up-side is that it is well shaded, and walking up the paths is a lot easier than trying to climb stairs.
Once you get to the top of the trail, near Lake Treman, just cross the bridge, and begin you descent along the Gorge Trail, which has been designated for descending the gorge. This trail follows along the side of Buttermilk Creek, and this is where you will have the great views of the falls and pools. Since it along the creek, there are many spots where you can get into the water and cool off on a hot day. The Gorge Trail has stairs carved into the path, but these are not “standard” height, and can be difficult to navigate in a few places. Climbing the Gorge trail can be very hard on the knees and hips.
Buttermilk Falls is surrounded by a state park. The park covers 811 acres and provides cabins, campsites, picnic sites and pavilions, and a beach at the bottom pool of the cascade. There are several other trails in the park, including the relatively flat Larch Trial, which circles a marsh at the bottom of the escarpment. The Ridge and Gorge Trails connect to Robert Treman State Park at the top of the gorge, where there are more waterfalls, picnic area and even another swimming area.
So put on your hiking boots, and your swimming trunks, and head to Buttermilk Falls State Park. You will get a great workout hiking the falls, and have a wonderful time swimming in the creek.
Nuts and Bolts:
Buttermilk Falls is 2.5 miles south of the center of Ithaca, along routes NY-13/34/96 (Elmira Road).
The daily parking fee is $8/car from April 1 through Nov. 30. Please be aware that there are crowd restrictions of 50% due to the COVID crisis.