March 18, 2004

The A Spot

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One rarely finds a town so enamored of its own geological properties. Ithaca loves its gorges, falls, and lake, and has practically made a business of identifying itself with these natural, watery amenities. It may be a little offbeat, but I’d much rather live in a town that proudly associates itself with its natural physical surroundings than with, say, a big shopping mall.

Two years ago, my local aunt took a couple of my friends and me out to see one of the Ithaca area’s popular attractions: Taughannock Falls. It was the fall, a little chilly, and a pretty nice day, as far as I can remember. One of my friends was from California and had not yet experienced the Ithaca waterfall phenomenon in full effect, so the short trip (which was actually a detour on the way back from breakfast in Trumansburg) seemed appropriate. As we approached the turn off on Route 89, my aunt excitedly and expertly described the glacial formation of the falls and gorge, noting that Taughannock Falls has the highest vertical drop for a waterfall east of the Mississippi.

We pulled into the small parking lot near the overlook by the top of the falls. My Californian friend looked confused. We gazed out over the railing, across the expanse of the gorge, and straight into a solid, vertical rock wall. It sure was high, it sure was dry. Not a drop fell from the top, or even poetically splashed into the pool at the bottom. “Uhm,” said the Californain. “Well,” said my aunt. “I want to go home,” said my other friend. So we went.

Bad timing on our part. We must have decided to visit Taughannock during a dry spell. Right about now, however, is the perfect time to absorb some waterfall action. The snowmelt of early spring can help showcase Ithaca’s waterfalls in an impressive way, and the avid falls enthusiast has several pleasant viewing options near town. Seeing the various waterfalls at this time of year is obviously a much different experience than swimming near them in the summer. The sheer quantity of water when the creeks are swollen with melted snow, and the force with which that water drops, creates in imposing presence, one that is definitely worth taking in.

The previously mentioned Taughannock Falls is at its peak this time of year, and with all that water, is actually quite remarkable. To see the 215-foot drop, you have two options. First, you could park at the bottom, across from the part of Taughannock State Park that’s on the lake, and walk up the mile-long trail to the base of the waterfalls. It’s a scenic little walk in the summer, complete with 400-foot gorge walls and plenty of wading areas, but, unfortunately, its probably not the best bet for this time of year. The better option is probably the lookout near the top, which you can get to by car. The park is approximately eight miles north of Ithaca on Route 89.

If you’ve got an unhealthy attachment to Ithaca proper and would rather not leave the immediate area, there’s Buttermilk Falls State Park a few miles south of the main drag on Route 13. The falls at Buttermilk are part of Buttermilk Creek. At their base, there’s a sectioned-off swimming area and some grassy spots if you’re more content to watch. Considering it probably won’t get warm enough to swim until after we’re out of school, and the grassy spots are most likely mud pits right now, it’s a good thing the Buttermilk Falls are easily accessible — just turn off Route 13, and they’re right in front of you. You don’t even have to get out of the car.

For those who simply cannot get enough waterfall excitement, Robert H. Treman State Park has 12 of them. The area is especially well regarded for its picturesque gorge, called Enfield Glen. If you’ve ever seen a photo of a waterfall at the Farmer’s Market — there’s a good chance it was taken here. The Treman gorge is deep and winding, with over nine miles of hiking trails around it. It even has its own main attraction, Lucifer Falls, which boasts a 115-foot drop. It may not be able to compete with Taughannock in any height competitions, but it’s probably the more visually alluring of the two. Treman is also easy to find. It’s about five miles south of Ithaca on Route 327, which is right off Route 13. Since the park’s trails are closed for the winter, this might be a safer bet in the early spring.

Granted, the last thing anyone wants to do this time of year is stand outside in the cold and get sprayed by errant waterfall mist. We’re supposed to be thinking of the warm places we’re going for spring break and cursing that application to UC Santa Barbara we never filled out. Still, the next time the temperature hits 50 for a couple days, head out to one of the local falls. They’re impressive sights, and once you’ve participated in some late winter appreciation, you can really wear that Ithaca Is Gorges shirt with pride.

Archived article by Thea Brown