Within 10 miles of Ithaca, New York, there are over 150 waterfalls that people can see and experience. Depending on who is doing the calculating, the minimum heights of these spectacles must drop between 5-15 feet to be considered “real deal,” so for the purposes of this book, we’ll go with the 10-foot measurement that I often hear discussed. While this may exclude certain tiny falls, which are still beautiful, and cascades, which do more to slide than drop, it still leaves us with a good basis of waterfalls to travel to and discuss.
In order to create all of these waterfalls, we need mountains and hills, and with that being said, there’s a lot of serious elevation going on above this town, which sits at the foot of Cayuga Lake. In addition, it’s also nice to have enough ice to create some serious glacier action, and that’s just what the Finger Lakes had when the glaciers receded some 15,000 years ago. Now, this area gets to boast some serious beauty to the hordes of tourists that come to visit and the myriad of transplants who come to take up permanent residence amongst the wineries, breweries, random outdoor activities, colleges, and raceways that make up this region.
And who’s to blame them? If it weren’t for the extended periods of freezing cold, I’d be willing to move up there, too! If I did move there, I’d also need a snowmobile to live out in the woods around this town, but I’m sure that I could make that a possibility. Nevertheless, for as nice as my Cabelas ECWS base layers are for handling the occasional day in the freezing cold, I’m still not ready to submit to the brutal cold of winter full time. However, if it weren’t for the biting wind that creates these natural paradises, which I long to see every winter (and in the seasons between), I could be swayed rather easily to give in to temptation and move to the Empire State… provided I could still wear a Red Sox hat.
All the same, while I don’t want to live there permanently, I do want to visit there as often as I can in all 4 seasons, and so it is that because of these extended periods of deep freeze that I offer up my gas, hotel, and restaurant money to Ithaca, New York. To me, this trade is well worth the 4 hours that it takes to drive there, even if it’s only for the opportunity to see Taughannock Falls, Lucifer Falls, and Ludlowville Falls.
That being said, there are many other waterfalls than just these 3 must-see destinations (and their half dozen or so surrounding falls) that I can and do visit, but I could be content with just seeing these 3 waterfalls and the parks that they are located in.For this, it is important to mention that other than just these three headlining acts, it is true that there are some other sweet waterfalls that carve out the gorges that run through the town. At the base of one of these is the rather impressive Ithaca Falls. At 150 feet tall, it is still 25 feet wider than it is high.
However, most of those gorges have been transformed by the fences that keep Type-A college students from succumbing to the pressures of Cornell and Ithaca Universities… or so the more well-meaning politicians and bleeding hearts of the town would have us believe. Thus, the views of waterfalls like Triphammer are obscured by chain link fences.
However, the walk or drive up to Croton Dam is definitely a worthwhile experience to have. For this, whether they are viewed from regular bridges or a suspension bridge, the waterfalls all provide some serious torrential flows of water down through the town in order to drop and push through Cascadilla Creek and Fall Creek. This natural water action creates some serious art with the forces of erosion. Outside of the town, the upper creek at Buttermilk Falls State Park is really beautiful, but that’s more about the erosion, which is also true of Watkins Glen State Park, which is less than 30 miles to the west.
But it wasn’t those other waterfalls that we were really there to see on that Sunday morning in late January of 2015. The day before, we had been to Robert Treman State Park for Lucifer Falls, and we also drove up to Taughannock State Park, which features a waterfall that is 3 stories higher and 5 million times better than Niagara Falls. Of course, this is my personal prejudice against the tourism that has created a serious blemish on the panoramic view of this once proud series of waterfalls. I’ve seen this falls before. In fact, I’ve seen it 3 different times in the white snow and ice of winter and the deep green leaves of summer. I don’t need to go back unless Will Gad1 plans to climb it again.
While we would look to take in Cascadilla and Falls Creek after our morning’s activities, the real goal was to get to see the hoar frost icicles on the ceiling behind Ludlowville’s Falls. To access this 35 foot raised cliff, we would drive north out of town on Route 34 and 34B until we hit Ludlowville Road, which is not far from where we quickly would find Ludlowville Park in the tiny town of Lansing. Upon arrival, this park would offer its guests a fenced off view of the waterfall below, and it would offer us a path with just enough boot prints to lead us down to the base of the river.
Before descending, we strapped our Kahtoola Microspikes to our boots. These easy on / easy off crampon “substitutes” offer 3/8 of an inch ice cutting power without the front kick climbing spikes. However, it should be clear that they only have a half to a third of the size of the ice bite. Nevertheless, in most conditions, they work just as well for half the price, but it should be clear that, as my friend Janis states, they are not equivalent to the protection and durability that you get out of crampons.
My wife Julia and I sat at the picnic bench in the park, looking for a spot without snow to rest as we put them on and wandered down through the rocks and over the snow and ice cover through the icicle formations that lined the trail as we found our way to the creek side.
The Salmon Creek was all but frozen over, and the sheet of ice that forced the waters into hiding looked beautiful beside the snow and ice formations that shrouded the rocks and brush and logs lying beside the path. Ahead of us, I could see the cathedral of hoarfrost stalactites, which is why we had saved this for last.
We knew it would be beautiful and a fitting end to our weekend, but I also knew that it wasn’t as beautiful as the grand spectacle of Taughannock, which I emphatically proclaimed as my favorite waterfall ever just one day early. However, despite what it wasn’t, we still knew that it was going to be fantastic.
For the uninitiated, the best way to define hoarfrost is to imagine the products of a freezing fog, which allows very cold water vapor to quickly condense into solid crystals as they hop on board whatever solid, very cold object that they can find. When they do, they form amazing sculptures that have to be seen to be believed.2
Apparently, Ludlowville Falls allows for this to happen on an annual basis since it was in the pictures that I saw the year before. I hadn’t ever remembered seeing anything like that before, so it was with that drive to experience that I headed out for unique discoveries.
As I moved across the side of the creek, I was walking firmly on solid ice into a no-man’s land of ice. This path would lead me back into the cave. Walking was easy with the Microspikes. I was confident in their ability to hold and my ability to walk. I took my steps and moved over along the edge of the rock wall for balance, confident that I didn’t need my trekking poles.
From here, I could see the ice columns coated in hoarfrost. I could see the hanging icicles with their fuzzy coating. I could still hear the water rushing through the liquid center of the iced over waterfall face. I could see the spouting horn of water rushing out from the right side of the falls. I could see the tapestry of ice on the back wall and the big thick stalactites of solid ice, the regular variant, hanging from the ceiling until they touched the ground.
It was magnificent.
I looked back at my wife, and I saw her watching me to see what I did and how I did it. I was calm and at peace with all things. The cave area was more beautiful than I had imagined it, but not even close to as deep into the frost as it was the year before. Perhaps in another few weeks, it would be. Nevertheless, I was starting to reassess my view of Taughannock as the best waterfall in the other 3 seasons, but just really dang good in winter. In winter, Ludlowville was now starting to compete with the area above the Shawnee and the area beside the Seneca Waterfall (both at Ricketts Glen) as the best winter waterfall ever. The more I gazed in and the closer I got, it was starting to dominate. There wasn’t even a question.
It was hard to believe because this waterfall was fairly similar to many cliff drops in its wet season. In fact, I felt it reminded me a lot of Blackwater Falls in West Virginia. As I thought about this, I made myself a mental note that it was time to take Julia back to West Virginia to relive our honeymoon, but not today. We were too far away, and well, there just wasn’t enough time.
But there would be soon. Oh, yes, there would be time.
But now was about Ludlowville and Ithaca and experiencing this moment, and so as I moved forward and away from the wall to enter under the top of the cliff and into the cave area behind the waterfall, my right leg rapidly vanished into the snowpack. I felt it going all the way down until I was in to the top of my knee and still sliding in.
Sounds of Metallica3 filled my head as I knew that I was going into the freezing waters below! I was only a tenth of a mile from the warmth and safety of the car, and I was to be turned into a Popsicle right in from of my wife. I wasn’t even 100 yards from the top of the cliff, and I was about to find out the hard way that Mother Nature doesn’t give second chances.