Potter’s Falls & the Ithaca Reservoir Dams
Location: Within the Six Mile Creek Natural Area; south of the city of Ithaca; town of Ithaca; Tompkins County; New York.
GPS: First dam: (N 42.42608 / W 76.47535)
Second dam: (N 42.42510 / W 76.47477)
Potter’s Falls: (N 42.41885 / W 76.46279)
Last dam: (N 42.41744 / W 76.46054)
Directions: Potter’s Falls is located near, and shares the same parking as, Wells Falls.
From East Green St in Downtown Ithaca, head east on Rt 79 for about a mile.
Make a right onto Water St (across from the cemetery).
At the end of Giles St, make another right and look for the Mullholland Wildflower Preserve entrance on your left.
The parking lot is about 500 feet into that entrance.
Or use Google Directions.
Parking: The lot at the wildlife preserve has room for about 20 cars. If this lot is full, you may be able to park at the trailhead on the west side of the Giles St Bridge.
Information / Accessibility / Accommodations
Number of falls: 2 man-made dams and 1 natural waterfall on Six Mile Creek. You may see 1 additional small natural waterfall in Six Mile Creek.
If you are hiking in spring, you may encounter some seasonal tributary falls along the trail.
Size/Types: The dams are 8, and 30 ft high. Potter’s Falls is a 25 ft high cascade with a slighlty bulbous and irregular face. It’s flanked by a 100 ft sheer cliff.
Best time to visit: Year-round.
Flow: Moderate to strong.
Waterway: Six Mile Creek, which is a pretty short waterway on paper. It starts in the town of Caroline to the east, passes through Brooktondale and then heads through the valley here toward Ithaca. It has some sizable tributaries draining down from South and Snyder Hills, giving it a decent amount of flow. It hooks around the south side of the city of Ithaca, and then merges with the Cayuga Inlet just before emptying into Cayuga Lake.
Time: 2-3 hours.
Seasons/Hours: Open daylight hours, year-round.
Handicap Accessibility: None.
Pets: Pets are allowed, on a leash. Since this creek is used as a water source, please don’t let your pet swim in it.
Accommodations: Trails—too many trails. Folks are always getting lost here.
Anything else you need will be in the city.
AKA: Green Tree Falls
Six Mile Creek is one of many Ithaca-area gorges that sport several waterfalls. In the late 1800s, the city’s waterworks began constructing dams on the creek to ensure a more consistent water supply for the city. The two reservoirs here are a result of that. The flooding of those sections of the creek most likely covered some gorgeous water features of the gorge, including at least one waterfall. Today, Potter’s and Wells Falls are all that remain.
While Wells Falls is the more accessible and family friendly waterfall, Potter’s takes a bit of work to get to. Perhaps its isolation is why it’s popular with nudists, partiers, and cliff-divers. But don’t let that scare you away. Those questionable activities are far and few, and if you get up early, or visit when the weather is a little nippy, it’s almost guaranteed to be a calm and secluded hike.
Along the way, with Six Mile Creek as your companion, you will cross seasonal gullies, unnamed waterfalls, towering cliffs, darting wildlife, and some pleasant scenery. Your reward for making it halfway is a series of 2 dams that seem to have been built to be photographed. Make it all the way and the 25 ft Potter’s Falls awaits, poking out of a narrow bend in the gorge.
Above Potter’s Falls is supposedly off-limits, but many do make it up there. What will you find? A mossy narrow glen with emerald pools and a 60ft Potter’s Falls Dam.
Hiking / Walking Trails
Difficulty: Moderate due to trail confusion, some steep and muddy conditions.
Markings: Blue blazes for the first half of the trail to the dams. Beyond that, the trail is unmarked and not well-maintained.
Distance: About 2.2 miles one way. Due to the variety of branches that can create different sized loops, a round-trip could be upwards of 5 miles.
Description: Wells Falls is located right near the start of this trail. I listed it separately, because on its own, it’s a pretty easy falls to get to. If you want to stop and see that waterfall as well, read the guide here. On the other hand, this trek is much more of a time investment. Getting to it can be pretty confusing.
The trick is to stick to the right, keep the creek on your right (with one exception) and allow yourself enough daylight to get back on trail and back to your car if you happen to get a little lost. Luckily the trails all either loop or lead back to a road.
From the Mulholland Wildflower Preserve parking area off of Giles St, there are two footbridges over a small stream to the south. Cross over either one, as they both end up at the same trail.
Continue south on the blue-marked, mulch trail with the creek on your right.
At the 0.45 mile mark, the trail will branch. Stay on the right.
At the 0.56 mile mark, check the other side of Six Mile Creek. There’s a nice tributary waterfall that will flow over the cliff in the wetter months.
At about 0.66 mile, ignore the branching trail, but remember this location, you will backtrack to here in a moment. Continue to the right. The trail will lead down into the creek where there’s a rusty water pipe leading from a 8 ft tall curved dam. Head upstream and the larger 30 ft dam will come into view.
Backtrack up into the woods to the junction you last passed. Take the right trail, which will head up and back. At the 0.8 mile mark you will come to another junction, make a sharp right, which will get the creek back on your right side. You are heading back upstream toward the top of the larger dam. At the 1 mile mark, you will reach the dam.
Here the trail loses markings. You are technically off the Natural Area property. Continue past the dams and into the open area, crossing it, and heading back into the tree line. Continue to follow the trail with the creek down and to your right.
You will reach a swampy area about 1.5 miles in. Keep going. The trail will start to go downhill. At about 1.7 miles you will cross a gully. If it rained recently, a waterfall may be flowing along it.
After the gully you will descend further toward the creek. You will come to a branch near the falls. Take a left to see the falls from the hill above it. Go right to get into the creek below the falls’ pool.
Some have made it to the top of Potter’s Falls, and others have gone as far as the third dam (a 60-footer) holding back the large Ithaca Reservoir. Hiking further up the trail leading to the upper view of the falls and then down the next tributary gully may just get you there if you are careful.
Reports I have received say the dam is off limits. Another report (unconfirmed) shows that a side-trail from the South Hill Recreation way, leads to an alternate view of the falls.
Potters Falls & Ithaca Reservoir Dam Interactive Map
The two dams that you pass on this hike were constructed in 1902 to control silt in the city’s water supply. The 60 ft dam upstream from Potter’s Falls (known as Potter’s Falls Dam) was constructed in 1911 to store more water and reduce pumping costs. Silt is regularly dredged from the larger reservoir and moved to the opposite end by Burns Rd.
I could not find a precise source for the name “Potter.” The Potter family, of which, Harvey Potter seemed to have arrived in the village of Ithaca first in 1807.
Potter’s Falls Media
Who to Contact
City of Ithaca – Parks & Forestry Division