I spent 3 amazing days in Ithaca, NY in December 2022 to explore the beauty of the area.
First, let’s discuss what makes it such a beautiful location – it’s interesting geology. Ithaca is located at the southern end of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes Region of NY. The Finger Lakes were created by the receding of glaciers in the area about 10,000 years ago. When the ice sheets receded north, they left gravel deposits which dammed up streams, and giant gouges in the earth which filled up to turn into long, narrow lakes. This same concept created many of the gorges in the Ithaca area, where erosion helped many waterfalls to form.
With so many gorges and waterfalls to see, it’s no surprise that Ithaca would be the hub of a waterfall wonderland! My favorite thing about Ithaca is that the set-up of the area feels so intentionally outdoorsy – as if the city was planned around having accessible outdoors spaces scattered around in convenient ways.
The most popular time to visit Ithaca is summer and fall, so I purposely planned a trip during the off-season to avoid crowds to give me more time and space to experience everything the way I wanted to. December was a great time to go because the city itself is full of holiday cheer with lights and festivals happening at Ithaca Commons. The weather in December can be a mixed bag and is still considered “shoulder season” so it’s important to come prepared for any weather. While I was there, it was pouring rain, but since I came prepared it was still delightful to hike in the rain, plus the waterfalls were full and in all their glory!
Here is my itinerary during my visit to Ithaca which includes all of the best waterfalls to see, along with other cool places that are both outdoorsy and educational, with great food planned along the way.
- Evening Arrival
- Check into the Grayhaven Motel (read my hotel review)
- Dinner in downtown Ithaca, at a unique pub called Red’s Place
- Walk around downtown at Ithaca Commons
- Breakfast to start the day at Monks on the Commons
- Hike Cascadilla Gorge Trail
- Just a few blocks from the middle of the city, this trail goes through a gorge leading to Cornell University. It is maintained by the Cornell Botanic Gardens and closes for the winter. I lucked out – I was able to hike this trail on a Wednesday but it was closed by Friday that week!
- Hike Ithaca Falls
- Another great and easy waterfall trail very close to downtown Ithaca. Check out this blog post for a more detailed review!
- Explore Stewart Park
- The stream that feeds Ithaca Falls actually ends a short drive away at Stewart Park where it empties into the Cayuga Lake. Stewart Park is a lakefront park with walking trails, hiking trails, picnic tables, playgrounds, and other recreational opportunities.
- Have lunch and coffee at the Ithaca Bakery
- Head over to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The main building has a Visitor’s Center with a shop, science exhibits, artwork, an observatory, and a 230 acre sanctuary with hiking trails.
- Stop at Buttermilk Falls State Park
- I stopped at this awesome state park, but was pretty far behind in my day by this point so it was getting dark, and all the rain that day made Buttermilk Falls look more like Chocolate Milk Falls, so I didn’t stay long and opted to come back the next morning.
- Dinner at Viva Taqueria in downtown Ithaca
- Light breakfast at the hotel
- Explore Buttermilk Falls State Park
- The brighter skis and the slowdown of rain helped make the lower falls look even more spectacular, and I even had time to hike the rim trail to the upper falls. The gorge trail was closed for the winter
- Explore Robert Treman State Park
- This was another set of falls just up the street. I went to the lower falls at this park as well, and the gorge trail is also closed here for the winter.
- Discover Lick Brook Falls at the Sweedler Preserve
- This waterfall was not on the original itinerary, but in my mind, the whole reason to have a plan is so that you can deviate from the plan from time to time. I happened to find this location on the map and since it was close to both of the state parks, I decided to check it out.
- Explore the Cayuga Nature Center
- The Nature Center building was closed, but the public can still walk the property which has gardens, hiking trails, rescue animals (including the cutest foxes!) and a giant treehouse! The treehouse was my favorite part of the excursion because it was several stories high and overlooked its own waterfall.
- Visit Taughannock Falls State Park
- This is my favorite state park in this area because the waterfall is so elegant and beautiful. I was able to hike the gorge trail to get close up to the waterfall, and then drove up to the overlook to get a different view. I also hiked this park last spring – check out my trail review post from April 2022.
- Dinner at Atlas Bowl
- This is a restaurant/bar near Taughannock Falls State Park which also has a bowling alley in it!
- Light breakfast at the hotel
- Visit Cornell Botanic Gardens
- Cornell Botanic Gardens is a really big place and worth spending a day to check out on its own. I went to the main Welcome Center – the building was closed because it was still early in the morning, but it was fun to check out the various plants and gardens outdoors. My favorite part was the climate change garden which is testing out different plants in both the current climate and the future projected climate to see how they grow differently.
- Stop at the Ithaca Visitor’s Center in downtown Ithaca
- With the first 8 waterfall challenge spots done, my prize was a Visit Ithaca Waterfalls Challenge Water Bottle, so I stopped into the Visitor’s Center to pick it up on my way home!