By GILLIAN SCOTT, TimesUnion.com, Click here for PHOTOS & original article
Ithaca may be best known as the home of both Cornell University and Ithaca College, but the city offers a cornucopia of attractions for outdoors enthusiasts.
Situated in a valley on the southern tip of Cayuga Lake, about a three-hour drive from Albany, the city’s streets slope steeply toward the water. There are more than 100 waterfalls and gorges within 10 miles of Ithaca, leading to the local slogan, “Ithaca is Gorges.”
Inveterate hikers, my husband, Herb, and I figured gorges and waterfalls meant lots of hiking. We spent a winter weekend there and found plenty to keep us busy, but none of the crowds the summer months would bring.
When we stopped by Robert H. Treman State Park, our only company was a photographer who had set up his camera to take pictures of the
small cascade over the swimming pool.
From June through September, the stream-fed pool at the park is packed with families seeking refuge from the summer heat. Winter is a different story. The dam that raises the water level for the pool was open, and we walked out into the middle of Enfield Creek to admire the view of the nearby poolhouse (built by the Civilian Conservation Corps) and the snow-dusted gorge that rose steeply to either side.
Away from the pool, we had the park’s trails to ourselves. The 2.25-mile Gorge Trail along the northern side of the ravine was closed due to icy conditions, but we were able to hike almost to the end of the Rim Trail on the southern side, catching a glimpse of the magnificent Lucifer Falls from the base of the (closed) Cliff Staircase. We had to go back to the car and drive around to a different park entrance to get a better view of the falls from the top of the staircase.
In addition to Treman, there are three other state parks in close proximity that offer options for outdoor recreation in different seasons, from hiking to swimming to cross-country skiing. There are also wildlife management areas, state forests and preserves. Highlights include:
Taughannock Falls State Park, which boasts hiking trails and a waterfall three stories higher than Niagara Falls (although the width and volume of water is much smaller).
Buttermilk Falls State Park’s features include a waterfall, a small lake and a campground. It’s also home to the gray petaltail dragonfly, a species that has existed since prehistoric times.
Cornell Plantations includes botantical gardens, an arboretum, and trails in the heart of the Cornell University campus.
The 560-mile Finger Lakes Trail, a long-distance hiking trail, cuts through several of the region’s natural areas on its way from the Pennsylvania border to the Catskills.
The family-friendly Cayuga Nature Center offers education programs and exhibits on the region’s natural resources. There are miles of nature trails, a six-story treehouse and a seasonal Butterfly House.
Don’t forget Cayuga Lake, the longest of the Finger Lakes. In warmer months, visitors can swim or rent kayaks to ply the waters.
As many ways as there are to burn calories in Ithaca, there are ways to add them on. We ate dinner two nights in a row at the renowned Moosewood Restaurant. The vegetarian eatery is famous not only because of its interesting culinary creations and focus on local, organic ingredients, but also for the more than a dozen cookbooks it has published. The cozy restaurant is right in downtown Ithaca, with several small, linked dining rooms and efficient service.
Just a block from the Moosewood is Ithaca Commons, a pedestrian mall packed with shops and eateries. We (naturally) liked The Outdoors Store, which sells hiking and cycling equipment, but also drooled over the merchandise at the Finger Lakes Running and Triathlon Co. One morning, we also drooled over breakfast waffles at Waffle Frolic, a waffle bar and coffee house on the mall.
On our way out of town, we stopped by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Enthusiastic but amateur birders, we quickly regretted not having left ourselves more time to explore. Instead of the small public area we were expecting, we found a visitor’s center packed with information, exhibits and activities. A friendly volunteer greeted us as we walked in, provided a quick tour and offered to loan us binoculars.
The lab sits among the 230-acre sanctuary of Sapsucker Woods, which includes forest, ponds and swamps, a nice variety of habitat where
more than 200 different species of birds have been spotted. There are more than 4 miles of well-groomed trails through the sanctuary, but shorter loops mean even reluctant walkers should be able to find an acceptable option.
Inside the visitors center are interactive exhibits, including a surround-sound theater offering short movies on birds and birding. The 10-seat theater operates with a user-activated menu so you can pick which movie to watch and when to start it. There are also several touch-screen kiosks with information on bird sounds and identification, and a sound analysis studio, where you can see a visual representation of what different birds sound like and make your own recordings. For the less technologically inclined, the center also features a viewing area over the lake and a feeding station, permanent and rotating art exhibits and a gift shop.
If you go:
Take A Hike – Family Walks in NY’s Finger Lakes Region
Take Your Bike – Family Rides in NY’s Finger Lakes Region
200 Waterfalls in Central & Western NY
Take A Paddle – Finger Lakes NY Quiet Water for Canoes & Kayaks
Birding in Central & Western NY
Robert Treman State Park
105 Enfield Falls Road, Ithaca
Open year-round; park hours are subject to change.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
159 Sapsucker Woods Road, Ithaca
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturday, 9:30-4 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Admission is free.
215 N. Cayuga Street, Ithaca
Hours: Lunch from 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner from 5:30-8:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
The Moosewood does not accept reservations and the menu changes daily.
146 East State, Ithaca
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
From Feb. 17-26, Ithaca hosts Winter Recess Teachers Week, which celebrates public school teachers and school employees with entertainment, activities, family fun and discounts throughout the community. Outdoors events during the week include:
“Taughannock Falls, Miracle of Ice,” on Saturday, Feb. 25 at 11 a.m. A free 90-minute guided tour of the Taughannock gorge along a flat 1.5-mile trail. Dress for winter weather. Snowshoes or cross-country skis are welcome. Free.
Learn to climb on Saturdays, Feb. 18 and 25, from 1-3 p.m.; and Wednesday, Feb. 22 from 7-9 p.m. Try out rock climbing at Cornell University’s Bartels Hall rock-climbing wall. $25.
Guided bird walks at Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 25-26 at 9 a.m. Beginner bird walks last about an hour. Free.