Top Finger Lakes Waterfalls – Secret Spots and Famous Falls
Waterfalling in the region’s iconic gorges is a quintessential Finger Lakes experience, right up there with wine tasting and lazy summers on the water (see the best paddling spots!). Visitors flock to famous spots like Taughannock Falls, with a vertical drop that beats Niagara Falls, and the breathtaking cascades at Watkins Glen State Park. Our well-traveled staff here at the Finger Lakes Land Trust helped us list our favorite waterfalls including famous spots and lesser-known gems. Put these Finger Lakes waterfalls on your summer to-do list:
During the last ice age, glaciers thousands of feet thick blanketed much of northern North America, sculpting the beautiful topography of the Finger Lakes region. The effects of these glaciers can be seen in the multiple waterfalls that splash down along Lick Brook on its journey to Cayuga Lake, including one that is nearly 140 feet tall. The Finger Lakes Land Trust’s Lick Brook Gorge preserve hosts a popular stretch of the Finger Lakes Trail that runs along the gorge. Ambitious hikers can continue along the trail to Buttermilk Falls State Park to the east and Robert H. Treman State Park to the west.
The universally accessible, quarter-mile path to Tinker Falls is arguably the most popular destination in Labrador Hollow. Tinker Falls is a stunning example of a “hanging” falls. Over time, the crumbly shale beneath the crest of the waterfall and behind it washes away leaving an undercut capstone, a deep crevice behind, and an impressive waterfall. The cavern behind Tinker Falls is 100 feet wide, 30 feet deep and 30 feet high. Walking behind it is possible if you are brave and agile enough to climb the steep, stone staircase set into the crumbly shale.
Located on the southern edge of Ithaca, Buttermilk Falls is a wildly popular spot for tourists and local residents, especially during the height of summer. Upon entering the park, newcomers quickly see why. Across a verdant lawn is a foaming and frothy waterfall with a deep pool and dammed swimming area below. The park’s namesake falls, Buttermilk Falls, tumbles down striated gorge rock in two distinct drops. The first, nearly 90 feet in height, lies beside the trail that ascends quickly away from the swimming area. The second is visible just above the first from a handsomely built stone-lookout.
Ithaca is most certainly a city of gorges, but the gorge at Taughannock Falls, in nearby Trumansburg, is the biggest of them all. It is perhaps more accurately described as a canyon. The waterfall at the end of the lower portion of the gorge is the tallest waterfall in New York State. In fact, it is the tallest, single-drop waterfall east of the Rockies. For comparison, Taughannock Falls is 215 feet high while Niagara Falls is 167 feet high. The mile-long trail within the canyon is nearly level and easily accessed, making it an excellent trip for all members of the family, from toddlers to grandparents and everyone in between.
Within the folds of farmland next to Skaneateles Lake, lies a beautiful forest surrounding Bear Swamp Creek. From the top of the hill, hikers are rewarded with a startling view of Carpenter Falls. Here the water drops nearly 90 feet into a deep ravine. Explore the trail leading further down the Bear Creek Swamp gorge to see several other waterfalls cascading all the way to the lake. In 2008, the Finger Lakes Land Trust gave 36 acres to New York State, creating the Carpenter Falls Unique Area. The remaining conserved acres downstream are open to the public as the Land Trust’s Bahar Nature Preserve.
While other gorge parks hit you with some of their most dramatic views right from the start, at Robert H. Treman, also known as Enfield Glen, you have to work just a little bit harder to get to the wow factor. Mind you it is not much work, as the initial part of the gorge trail is relatively flat and meandering for a mile and three quarters. But as you begin to hear thundering falls and see the route out of the gorge, it’s easy to see why “wow” might not be sufficient to describe the scene. The 115-foot Lucifer Falls is clearly central, and the handsome stonework winding up along the sheer cliff is equally remarkable.
There is no place more iconic of the Finger Lakes waterfall and gorge experience than Watkins Glen State Park. Stunning waterfalls, dramatic flumes, and picturesque potholes combine to make a gorgeous waterscape. The scene is further enhanced by handsome stone staircases, arched bridges, and winding tunnels that weave up and through the scenic gorge. The trail through the gorge is an awe-inspiring confluence of water’s persistent and powerful stone sculpting and a thoughtful merger of human craftsmanship. Simply put, the gorge is a can’t-miss trail for waterfall lovers and anyone seeking a true Finger Lakes experience.
Formed by gushing meltwaters at the end of the last ice age, Grimes Glen is typical of many Finger Lakes gorges that still carry runoff from uplands down into the ice-carved valleys below. Two stunning 60-foot falls are accessible today by wandering upstream about a ½ mile from the parking area. Waterfall sightseers should expect to get their feet wet, since the gorge narrows upstream to a point where there is no bank to speak of, forcing hikers into the rocky streambed. For much of the summer and fall, except after torrential rains, the creekbed is easily navigable, but during spring runoff the flow comes on strong and turbulent. The Finger Lakes Land Trust holds an easement on the property, and so has a responsibility to look out for the future of this remarkable gorge.
The first falls, sometimes called Cowsheds Falls, are universally accessible while the other parts of the gorge are only reached after a brief but steep climb. After the initial climb, the trail through the gorge is relatively flat and easily negotiated. Further along the gorge are several stunning smaller cascades and waterfalls that culminate with the tallest falls, Dalibarda Falls, followed shortly after by Upper and Lower Pinnacle Falls. These last pair of waterfalls lies in a visually striking square-cut section of the gorge near the terminus of the gorge trail. Late spring, early summer, and/or after periods of heavy rain are the best time to see the waterfalls in their most torrential states. However, autumn is also a notably beautiful time to visit, either when the leaves are emblazoned with contrasting colors or just after fallen leaves reveal parts of the gorge previously hidden from view by the dense understory.
The impressive gorge at Letchworth State Park is so broad and deep that it’s heralded by many as the “Grand Canyon of the East.” The mighty Genesee River roars through the gorge descending in three major waterfalls tucked between steep cliffs. With over 60 miles of hiking trails and extraordinary waterfall viewing, this park is a must-see. The adventurous can take it all in from above; hot air balloons frequently fly over the gorge in the summer.
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