Hardcore hikers won’t find much of a challenge at the Cayuga Nature Center. The center’s role is more as a gateway into the natural world for families and young kids — and in that role it excels. Open dawn to dusk year round, visitors can explore more than 3 miles of easy trails with various loops that cross open fields, wooded glens, and stream beds on the 120 acre property.
The loops are fairly short and transition from one habitat to another fairly quickly so hikers will have plenty of new things to focus on throughout. Trails leading to and near the TreeTops tree house and Denison Falls are the shortest and most popular while trips along the outskirts, the Wilderness Loop and those in the open fields, are the longest and offer more solitude.
Built by the Ithaca High School Class of 2000, TreeTops is six stories tall and features numerous cubby holes, cargo nets, stairs, and ladders for kids to climb, crawl through, and explore. The structure is fully enclosed utilizing natural forms, such as planks with natural edges, logs, and forked branches that blend in with the forest and mask the necessary safety features — e.g., wire mesh to prevent objects and children from falling out. Explorers both young and old can climb the tree house, but for those who just want to relax and watch there are nearby benches to pause while the explorers romp about. The tree house is a short distance north of the nature center, just past the Butterfly Garden, and is perched above Denison Falls. The falls and its gorge add the quintessential Ithaca stamp on the experience, but the stream feeding it is seasonal so spring and periods following heavy rain are best times to see the falls.
The main building, known as The Lodge, is the central hub and part information center, part day camp, part zoo, and part wildlife rehabilitation center. Several natural history and taxidermy exhibits as well as a small collection of live animals are on display inside. Three enclosures just outside the lodge house animals that cannot be released back into the wild. Educational programs are offered throughout the year and cover a variety of topics including survival, geology, ecology, maple sugaring, and apple cider to name a few.
Day camps focus on hands-on experiences and are open for ten weeks in the summer with shorter week-long “school’s out” camps offered during the winter and spring. A team challenge course is also located within the property but is accessible only to scheduled groups of six or more. The course features a wide variety of challenges that adhere to a “Challenge by Choice” philosophy and can be booked by any type of group — e.g., school, youth organization, college or corporate.