Ithaca, NY, nestled in the heart of the Finger Lakes region, is a geographical masterpiece shaped by millennia of geological activity. Carved by ancient glaciers, this area boasts a breathtaking landscape marked by deep gorges, rolling hills, and an abundance of natural waterfalls that have become the city’s hallmark. The history of Ithaca is as rich and varied as its geography, with roots tracing back to the Cayuga Tribe of the Iroquois Confederation. White settlers began arriving in small numbers as early as 1790, and the population accelerated upon the realization of the abundant water power in the area, combined with the 28-mile-long Cayuga Lake serving as a shipping route. Over the centuries, the city has evolved into a vibrant hub of culture, education, and natural beauty. Its waterfalls, in particular, are not just scenic marvels but also narrate the story of Earth’s natural history and the transformative power of nature. As we explore the must-visit waterfall locations in and around Ithaca, we delve into a world where nature’s artistry and historical significance converge, offering visitors a unique glimpse into the past and present of this enchanting city of waterfalls.
10 Must-Visit Waterfalls in Ithaca, NY
1. Ithaca Falls
The 150 ft tall Ithaca Falls, located in the heart of Ithaca, is one of the city’s most iconic waterfalls. Known for its impressive width and accessibility, the falls are a short walk from downtown, making them a popular spot for a quick nature escape. A short walk from the hiking area, past a few remnants of Ithaca’s industrial past, leads to creekside views of the massive cascading waterfall. Its flow can vary greatly throughout the year, with gushing torrents in early spring that cover its face in frothy white, to a low, but still impressive, light shower by fall, revealing the details of the mossy rock that forms it. The waterfall’s easy accessibility and grandeur make it a must-visit for anyone in Ithaca, from first-time tourists to long-time residents. Complete Guide to Ithaca Falls
Time: Plan for 30 minutes.
2. Fall Creek Gorge (above Ithaca Falls)
While Ithaca Falls garners much of the attention, the gorge above it is home to several breathtaking waterfalls across a half-mile stretch parallel to Cornell University’s campus. From the Stewart Avenue bridge, you can look downstream to see the top of Ithaca Falls or upstream to the spectacular Forest Falls. The Fall Creek Gorge Natural Area’s trail takes you along the south edge of the gorge, with branches leading to the best views of each waterfall along the way. On the east end, University Avenue leads to the Thurston Avenue bridge, offering a view of Triphammer Falls and the Beebe Dam. This location is ideal for those who enjoy casual hiking and exploring, within close proximity to civilization. Complete Guide to Fall Creek Gorge
Time: Plan for 2 hours.
3. Buttermilk Falls State Park
Located at the south end of the city, the 811-acre park encompasses a 2-mile stretch of Buttermilk Creek. While the park is named after its cascading main attraction, the 160-foot-high Buttermilk Falls, there are approximately nine other sizable waterfalls to discover along the remarkable Gorge Trail that runs parallel to the creek. Be prepared for a workout to see them, though; the trail begins with sets of stone steps that ascend alongside Buttermilk Falls. Fortunately, if you work up a sweat hiking the trails in the park, the plunge pool below the falls serves as a public swimming area. Complete Guide to Buttermilk Falls State Park
Time: Plan for 3-4 hours.
4. Robert H. Treman State Park & Lucifer Falls
Robert H. Treman State Park, located a few miles southwest of Ithaca, is a haven for those seeking both natural beauty and historical intrigue. The park’s main feature, Lucifer Falls, is a spectacular 115-foot waterfall that pours down a twist in the deep gorge into a lush basin. Besides Lucifer Falls, the park encompasses several smaller cascades and offers extensive hiking trails. Similar to nearby Buttermilk Falls State Park, the creek is dammed below a beautiful waterfall, creating a refreshing swimming hole for guests. The old Enfield Falls Mill serves as a museum to learn about Ithaca’s early industrial history, adding a touch of historical flavor to the visit. Complete Guide to Robert H. Treman State Park
Time: Plan for 3-5 hours.
5. Cascadilla Gorge
The Cascadilla Gorge Trail, nestled in the heart of Ithaca, NY, offers a scenic three-quarters-of-a-mile path from downtown Ithaca to the Cornell campus, featuring eight waterfalls that range in height from 8 to 80 feet. Cascadilla Creek, the heart of the gorge, descends nearly 400 feet, creating a dramatic landscape of waterfalls and gorges formed from ancient seabed layers of shale, limestone, and sandstone. The trail, recently refurbished, is adorned with beautiful stonework and staircases, offering a captivating journey through the gorge’s wild and exotic setting. Beginning at Treman Triangle Park and ending behind Cornell’s Schwartz Center for Theatre Arts, the trail provides a unique blend of urban and natural beauty. It’s a popular spot for students to commute to campus or to take a relaxing break from the stresses of college life. Complete Guide to Cascadilla Gorge
Time: Plan for 2 hours.
6. Taughannock Falls State Park
Located about 10 miles north of Ithaca, along the west side of Cayuga Lake, Taughannock Falls State Park is a centerpiece of natural beauty in the region. The park is most famous for Taughannock Falls, the tallest single-drop waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains, which plunges dramatically from a height of 215 feet. Above this is another significant drop, the Upper Falls, at 100 feet tall. The Lower Falls, a mere 15 feet in height, is easily visible from the roadside. While the hike to see all three can take a few hours, the overlook off of Taughannock Park Road offers a quick and easy way to see the best view of them all.
The park is not just about the falls, and it’s highly recommended to take your time exploring. It offers a variety of hiking trails, camping, picnicking, and access to Cayuga Lake for views and swimming. It’s a perfect spot for both adventure and relaxation, with trails that cater to all levels of hikers. The adjacent Inn at Taughannock Falls provides fine dining, a lively bar serving local wines and spirits, and some of the best accommodations in the Finger Lakes. Complete Guide to Taughannock Falls State Park
Time: Plan for 3-5 hours.
7. Wells Falls & Van Natta’s Dam
Wells Falls, also known as Businessman’s Lunch Falls, is a hidden gem located a few miles from Ithaca. This waterfall is unique, with an old and decaying municipal water pumping station adding a touch of historical charm to its natural setting. The falls are a bit off the beaten path relative to the other waterfalls in the area, but pretty easy to get to from the parking area. The adjacent Mulholland Wildflower Preserve follows the creek upstream to more falls, both man-made and natural. It’s worth exploring if you have the time. Complete Guide to Wells Falls
Time: Plan for 30 minutes to see the falls, and hours to hike upstream.
8. Lick Brook Falls at Sweedler & Thayer Preserves
For those seeking more isolation and a challenging hike, Sweedler and Thayer Preserves, a short drive southwest of the city, offer a peaceful hiking experience leading to towering waterfalls in a moss-covered glen. This area is less developed and less crowded but, unfortunately, features far less water. Therefore, it’s best to plan a visit in early spring or after several days of moderate to heavy rain. The preserve’s trails wind through diverse landscapes, providing scenic beauty and a sense of solitude. A hike along the rim of the gorge from one end to the other involves a steep 1,000-foot elevation change, presenting a challenge for the average hiker. For those who want to see just the first of the waterfalls, and arguably the most beautiful, a moderate hike is all that’s needed. Complete Guide to Lick Brook Falls
Time: Plan for 3 hours or more.
9. Emilie Jonas Falls
The Emilie Jonas Nature Trail is a short but steep wooded path that leads down into Gulf Creek, an area that was inaccessible to the public for decades. At the trail’s end, a single 65-foot cascade awaits, and it’s a stunning one. Located in Lansing, just a short drive northeast of Ithaca, this trail leads to a lesser-known waterfall set in a virtually undeveloped environment that is still relatively quick and easy to access. It’s an excellent choice for those looking to add one more waterfall visit to their Ithaca itinerary. Complete Guide to Emilie Jonas Falls
Time: Plan for 30 minutes to an hour. Take your time, the trail is steep.
10. Ludlowville Falls
Not too far from Emilie Jonas Falls in the town of Lansing is the village of Ludlowville, with its unique waterfall and grotto. The falls are part of a small community park, making them an ideal spot for a quick stop or a picnic. Standing at 35 feet high, the falls can be seen from the back of the park, or you can take a short trail that winds around to the crest. Another trail leads down to the base of the falls for a closer view of the cave beneath its massive overhang. Swimmers can often be seen enjoying the waters and entering the cave on hot summer days, although this is technically against the rules. Like other waterfalls in the region, this one will change drastically throughout the year as the flow of the creek changes. I always make it a point to stop here and check it out when in the Ithaca area. Complete Guide to Ludlowville Falls
Time: Plan for 30 minutes.