August 22, 2000

Cornell's Backyard

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“Ithaca Is Gorges” may be a corny pun for a bumper sticker, but it does describe the Ithaca-Tompkins County region, with its numerous streams tumbling their way down to Cayuga Lake.

Natives boast that the nearly 100 miles of shoreline surrounding Cayuga Lake are an unbroken green stretch, comprising mostly parks and private lakefront homes.

And yes, swimming is allowed, along with canoeing, fishing, boating and everything else you can think of doing in nature’s playground, which also happens to be Cornell’s backyard.

But nestled behind the 435 foot deep pool are several natural treasures perfect for camping, swimming, hikes and picnics. That is, until the weather gets cold.

If you don’t have access to a motor vehicle, getting to these rustic retreats may prove a little tricky. Although some Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit buses do visit the parks, hours are limited. Additionally, the buses often begin their routes in downtown Ithaca, a good 25 minute walk from campus.

Fall Creek and Cascadilla gorges, which border Cornell central campus on its Northern and Southern edges, provide short but moderately strenuous hikes along trails at the creeks’ bottom. They afford some spectacular views.

Beebe Lake however, now a temporary mud pit, might not be the most inspiring place to soak up nature’s vibes. A swamp until 1987, the lake must be drained and dredged every 10 to 15 years to clean out the sediment clogging up the narrow inlet to the lake.

The University will also be laying cooling pipes in the lake bed to serve the new North Campus dormitories.

A more pleasant sight lies just a little farther down Fall Creek, right below the Stewart street bridge. There flows one of the more dramatic stretches of the falls.

The creek drops some 250 feet, crashing into a pool large enough for swimming and jumping into from nearby stone ledges. It’s some exhilarating entertainment, though public safety officials advise against jumping.

Flowers blossom and greenery flourishes year round at the Cornell Plantations, just east of central campus. The Plantations come stocked with its own tranquil scenery and winding paths.

However, in the surrounding Tompkins County area, about 75 miles of the Finger Lakes Trail system add rich variety to the more familiar Cornell trails.

Robert H. Treman Park, located about a mile south of the City of Ithaca on Route 327, contains one of the most picturesque hikes in the area. The main hike is moderately strenuous as one climbs from the lower to upper levels of the park, but the views of cascades and shimmering pools near the top, at Lucifer Falls, are well worth the effort.

Treman Park is also memorable for its arrays of fall foliage and its changing colors.

Buttermilk Falls is located on route 13 just past the City of Ithaca limits and rows of strip malls, but its atmosphere is surprisingly pristine. Buttermilk Falls is a short walk from Kmart and Wegman’s and can be reached by bike. The hard part is biking back up to Cornell.

Buttermilk Falls, named after its resemblance to churning buttermilk, as water glides down softly sloping rocks is, in fact, two parks: Lower Buttermilk and Upper Buttermilk. They are connected by hiking trails that weave through the forest to the sides of the creek. But you’ll probably have to take a breather before making it to the top. It’s quite a climb.

The park is also equipped with swimming and picnic areas.

Taughannock Falls are located a good 20 minute drive from Cornell, up Route 89 near Trumansburg, at the edge of Tompkins County. The park features a large grassy recreation and swim area on the shores of Cayuga Lake, but also has a more hidden entrance at the trail leading to the falls.

Taughannock Falls, at 215 feet, is New York State’s tallest waterfall, taller even than the more famous Niagara Falls. Admittedly, Taughannock does not spill the same deluge of water as Niagara. In fact, it may not even look as high, since Park Police and physical barriers prevent the curious visitor from coming too close to the falls.

However, a one-mile flat path along the creek and another three-mile rim trail loop more than make up for the restrictions.

For the wildlife seekers, the Cayuga Nature Center is home to many upstate creatures, birds and mammals. The 135-acre sanctuary is located six miles north of Ithaca. Its network of trails are open to the public and free of charge, seven days a week.

For more information about parks in the Tompkins County area, contact the New York State Parks Department at 273-5671.

Now may be the best time to explore Ithaca’s wilderness, as Lake water temperatures reach their yearly high, (still a cool 70 degrees fahrenheit) and outdoor temperatures mellow with the approaching fall.

Archived article by Yoni Levine