November 3, 2010

Wedding Crasher Waterfall

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I had been itching to take advantage of the momentary good weather several weekends ago, so when my friend had texted me asking if I wanted to go to check out Taughannock Falls, I was all for it.  We decided to leave at two p.m. Copious amounts of homework be damned, so I dropped the books at a quarter-of and headed over to her house.

Taughannock Falls, pronounced tah-GAH-nick (rhymes with mechanic) is the highest waterfall in western NY, with a 215 foot sheer drop.  The falls are in fact 33 feet taller than Niagara Falls and one of the largest single-drop waterfalls east of the Rockies.  It is amazing that this attraction is only 10 miles by car from central Ithaca, a little over a 15 minute drive.

After my friend and I drove through Ithaca and up the west side of Cayuga Lake on NY-96, we only had to take a slight right onto Jacksonville Road, then turn right again on Taughannock Park Road to enter the park.  We parked at the main overlook of the falls, where a short stairway led about 20 feet down the cliff opposite the waterfall, so you could see the full spectacle of Taughannock unimpeded by trees.

The Taughannock River flows northeast towards Cayuga Lake, where it spectacularly flows over a cliff into a huge long gorge, whose steep sides get up to 400 feet high.  It has created a huge notch in the top of the cliff face, over which it flows, so that a triangle of foliage can be seen above the falls from the overlook.  After the water hits the pool at the bottom of the falls, it winds its way through the gorge and flows a little over a mile until it reaches Cayuga, where the gorge ends and the river has formed a little delta peninsula out into the lake.

Unfortunately, we were not able to take in this view, but could only see the magnificent waterfall through a gap in the trees.  A wedding or vow renewal, or whatever is in style these days, had a little procession going down the steps to the overlook.

Deciding that we did not what to interrupt the ceremonies, my friend and I took the path along the edge of the gorge away from the falls and towards the lake.  The path was blanketed with fallen leaves, and the trees glowed with yellow and orange in the rare sunshine. We stopped at the three overlooks that were along the trail and admired the bright fall scenery around the gorge. The dark blue lake in the distance, speckled with whitecaps.

The path kept sloping gradually downward.  At the end was a long set of steep steps that led down to a stone bridge, which let NY-89 cross the Taughannock.  As we crossed the bridge, we could see we were at the end of the gorge, by a park that took up the little peninsula that protruded into the lake.  There was a parking lot there, for those that want less of a walk, and a trail that lead back up the gorge on the opposite side, but this time along the river at the bottom.

Along the trail were a series of little waterfalls, the biggest of which was visible from the bridge and parking lot.  We walked over and saw that above the falls the river ran shallow over flat rocks, which you could walk out onto,  allowing you to be above the falls.  The flat rock was full of numerous strange pits caused by the acid from rainwater sitting in pools on the rock for thousands of years.  You could also make out the wavy pattern of an ancient lake/ocean bottom on some of the rocks, which reminded me of sand at the beach.

After skipping some stones, we continued up the path towards the main falls.  As we walked, the gorge rim got higher  and steeper.  High above, some vultures alighted on a dead tree hanging out over the edge of the cliff, barely distinguishable because of the distance. The columns of sunlight through the trees and the fall colors made the path along the river a beautiful walk.

After a bend in the gorge, the trail reached a footbridge that crossed over the river and gave us our first up-close view of Taughannock Falls.  The falls towered before us, sending up a huge cloud of spray where it smashed into the pool at the bottom.  The path led along the other side of the river up until a few hundred feet from the base of the falls, where it finally ended.  It was impossible to walk to the end of the path without getting soaked by the spray blowing off the pool, but I went anyway to take some closer pictures.

The waterfall was so tall that I could not fit it all in one shot, and the even taller cliffs around it were just as impressive.  I found it strange that this huge gorge randomly started at the base of the falls with a 400 foot cliff, and did not start more gradually.  It was also incredible that the little Taughannock River could have over time carved such a gigantic gorge.

My friend told me that she had been there once before, but the falls had been merely a trickle down the cliff.  All the rain over the past few weeks had made the cascade of water quite large.  I had to retreat back to the bridge after a few minutes, because the spray was getting me (and more importantly my camera) pretty wet.

After we had had our fill of Taughannock Falls, we headed back down the trail towards the lake.  On our way back, we passed another wedding party taking pictures.  I guess if you are taking wedding photographs, a 215 foot waterfall surrounded by fall foliage is about as good a backdrop as you are going to get!

Original Author: Zac Peterson