Nestled at the bottom of Cayuga Lake, Ithaca is a city of water. Without leaving the boundaries of the city, you can sightsee along Cascadilla and Fall Creeks as they rush between the steep walls of gorges, explore the milder grade of the trails along Six Mile Creek, or amble along the wide flow of the Cayuga Inlet.
Cascadilla Creek runs through the flats between concrete retaining walls, but the real attraction of this creek is the Cascadilla Gorge Trail, a Natural Areas trail of Cornell Plantations open from mid-April to mid-November. The lower entrance is just a few blocks from the Ithaca Commons and its upper entrance is situated on the south side of the Cornell University campus. The trail follows close to the creek bed, up stone staircases and over a stone bridge, while the steep walls create a surround-sound experience of rushing water.
The gorge trail appeals to commuters like Megan French, a Ph.D. student at Cornell’s communications department who recently moved to the Fall Creek neighborhood. “It’s always such a great way to start the day. It relaxes you and primes you to work,” she said. When the trail closes this winter she plans to take the bus up the hill.
Newcomers might not realize that the gorge was closed for extensive repairs and reconstruction in 2008, only reopening last summer. The original construction was completed in 1931, but freeze-thaw cycles and spring (and post-tropical storm) floods took a heavy toll. New trail improvements now merge seamlessly with the old construction and the ancient rock walls. These rocks were formed over 360 million years ago and the gorge was carved by the creek thousands of years ago after glaciers retreated from the area.
Even with the renovations, Todd Bittner, Director of Natural Areas at Cornell Plantations, said the gorge trail would always be a high maintenance trail by virtue of its location at the bottom of a gorge. Plants, including trees, cling to the walls precariously, illustrated by the huge tree presently stuck at the base of one of the small cascades. Winter ice weakens rocks in the gorge walls, which wash away along with bedrock and debris during spring floods. It’s not just Mother Nature that threatens the trail—there’s human nature too. Bittner said that since last summer they’ve dealt with both vandalism and graffiti.
While up at Cornell, visitors can also check out Fall Creek, the largest watercourse flowing into Cayuga Lake. Four trailheads all have new signage with maps showing the entire network of Plantations trails. Most of the Fall Creek trails run along the rim, but a few spur trails dive down into the gorge itself and end at scenic locations that also sport new signage. Recent work on this trail has rebuilt old stairs and has added new benches and a stone picnic table.
“You can’t believe that you’re in a major university campus in town,” said Bittner about the scenic locations. Twenty-five years ago, 1.8 miles of Fall Creek from the Triphammer Falls footbridge to the lake was designated a Recreational River, which preserves its free-flowing nature and protects it from development. The Fall Creek Gorge and Ithaca Falls area are further protected by being Natural Areas of Cornell Plantations and of the City of Ithaca, respectively.
But the protection cannot keep out the hemlock woolly adelgid, an invasive insect that threatens eastern hemlock trees throughout the Finger Lakes. Bittner said that insecticide treatments applied to individual trees almost six years ago appear to be keeping hemlocks healthy, although they will need to be re-treated in a couple years.
The gorges and waterfalls add beauty but also danger, with their loose rocks, wet trails, and alluring pools. A new sign at Horseshoe Falls warns that four people have drowned at the site due to a cavern, obscured by the churning water at the bottom of the falls, 30 to 50 feet deep. Even the professional divers that go in to retrieve the bodies of drowning victims find navigating the currents and debris a harrowing experience despite being tethered to the surface.
Six Mile Creek and its surrounding natural area, although less impressively dangerous, does pose a risk to illegal swimmers, as evidenced by a drowning death at Second Dam this July. Being a natural area so close to the city, both humans and dogs illegally off-leash have a heavy presence. Dogs can scare animals, trample plants, and even dig up plants in pursuit of a chipmunk. Joe McMahon, chair of Ithaca’s Natural Areas Commission, wrote a stark summary of human impacts: “Ground cover has decreased, which increases erosion; trees have been damaged and killed by the actions of people going to swim and party, graffiti has become widespread, noise is unbearable at times, and animals have fled.” McMahon recently blazed official trails to keep people from making their own.
“We try to encourage engagement with the natural area in a positive way,” said Anna Stalter, the vice chair and secretary of the Natural Areas Commission, speaking before the fatality. The Friends of Six Mile Creek, with which Stalter is also involved, runs two annual series for the public: Nature Journaling for Kids and Explore Your Watershed. One workshop takes visitors up the creek to the reservoir that provides the city with drinking water. (The treatment facility is in the process of being upgraded.) Look for next year’s events beginning in February.
Although the area was designated a city natural area only about 20 years ago, it has interested naturalists for longer. As a biologist and curator at Cornell, Stalter has seen plant specimens collected at Six Mile Creek by Cornell botany students in the 1880s.
Unfortunately, Statler said that Mullholland Flower Preserve, a subset of the natural area, is not the native species hotspot it used to be. Why? “Deer. That’s the suspect for a lot of the decline of native species,” said Stalter. There is also garlic mustard, an invasive plant that crowds out spring ephemeral flowers in particular, and Statler noted that the areas where the Friends of Six Mile Creek prioritize their efforts, such as garlic mustard pulls, are where wildflowers are most abundant. She can still find a dozen or more species of spring ephemerals at the preserve in early May.
If you’re looking for a more urban creek experience, Cayuga Inlet has recreation, dining, and shopping opportunities. Visitors can walk, bike, and skating the recently expanded, six-mile long Cayuga Waterfront Trail from Cass Park on one side of the inlet to the Ithaca Farmers Market and beyond on the other. Or enjoy a view of the inlet from the Ithaca Children’s Garden or a waterfront restaurant such as Corks and More, Kelly’s, or the Boatyard. Almost eight miles along the inlet have Public Fishing Rights, where anglers can have a go at the trout, salmon, bass, and a handful of other species. Along with human fishermen, ospreys visit from nearby nests to dive into the water.
Both Bittner and Kristy Mitchell, integrated marketing manager for the Ithaca Conventions and Visitor Bureau, recommended Puddledockers, located on the inlet, as a source for renting canoes or kayaks for people who don’t have their own watercraft. But there are threats to boating on the inlet. Dredging, last done in 1982 and delayed in 2011 due to financial and logistical issues, is long overdue. When tributaries come down the hills and hit the flatter area of the inlet, sediment is deposited and builds up over time. Dredging is currently planned for 2017.
Large populations of hydrilla, an invasive aquatic plant that grows into dense mats that choke waterways, were discovered in the inlet in 2011. Since herbicide treatments began, “the populations of hydrilla in the inlet have been drastically reduced,” said James Balyszak, the Hydrilla Program Manager, with the plant hard to find this year. Treatments will continue this year and beyond since even a small population can grow explosively.
Hydrilla can spread by fragments, complicating any activity that disturbs the sediment. Balyszak said that there were some areas of concern when the Cayuga Waterfront Trail was built, such as at the Buffalo Street Bridge and near the Cornell Boathouse. In these areas developers used protocols to limit hydrilla spread and worked quickly during the time of the year when hydrilla was dormant.
You can find maps of the natural areas and the Cayuga Waterfront Trail online. Google Maps even has Street Views available for the Cascadilla Gorge Trail and Fall Creek trails. §