Park Hopping in Ithaca

Robert H. Treman State Park. Photo by Nigel Kent
06/24/2019
by Kelly Makosch

Thousands of hikers visit Ithaca, Cayuga Lake and the surrounding Finger Lakes each year to walk alongside (and up!) the gorges, take waterfall selfies, and otherwise bike, paddle, and hike. In fact, outdoor recreation and adventure is a topmost reason people visit Ithaca. If you find yourself in this category, here are a few ways to get
into the woods, leaving plenty of time to grab drinks and dinner after.

First, Fuel Up

If you are going out for a long day on the trails, head over to Carriage House Café right before it opens to get a seat at this popular breakfast spot. Alternatively, you can skip the lengthy breakfast and grab a bagel at Ithaca Bakery or coffee and snack at Gimme! Coffee. Then swing by Greenstar Co-op to stock up on snacks to enjoy while out on the trail. Now, it’s time to decide what adventure is right for you:

If you want to go BIG

The Finger Lakes Trail (FLT) system runs the length of New York State, and a spectacular stretch connects Buttermilk Falls State Park through the Finger Lakes Land Trust’s Lick Brook Gorge preserves onward to Robert H. Treman State Park and beyond. Here, hikers can trek 13 or more miles up, down, and alongside the region’s iconic gorges and waterfalls.

Plan to leave one car at Treman, and then park the other at lower Buttermilk to start the big-version of this journey (alternatively, drop a car and take an Uber or Lyft to the start). 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 will quickly see why. Across the lawn is a spectacular waterfall with a deep pool and swimming area below. 

The base of the falls is often full of visitors, but hikers should be comforted that the crowds dwindle as you climb the elaborate stonework stairs. What lies ahead is a seemingly endless supply of stunning waterscapes.

The park’s namesake waterfall, Buttermilk Falls, tumbles down for nearly 90 feet beside the trail that ascends quickly away from the swimming area. Hike up the stone staircase to the top, walking along the gorge the entire way. Across West King Road, at the end of the Gorge Trail, is the Bear Trail that connects to the upper section of the park and features picnic areas, modern facilities, and Lake Treman.

On the loop trail around Lake Treman, pick up the orange-blazed Finger Lakes Trail. Follow the orange blazes of the FLT, passing behind houses for a stretch of the trail that runs on private property. Soon it dives back into the woods and into the Finger Lakes Land Trust’s Thayer and Sweedler Preserves (white blazes).

Continue on the FLT through Thayer, crossing Town Line Road to continue through Sweedler along the rim of Lick Brook gorge.  Either choose the steeply descending Blue Trail that skirts the edge of the gorge or mosey down the hill on the slightly longer, but more gently graded White Trail. The trails reconnect at the bottom where hikers will see a smaller waterfall and will continue on the white trail.

As the trail levels out, hikers will pass though the Finger Lakes Land Trust’s Tapan Mitra Preserve, a Cornell Botanic Garden natural area, and through an underpass before entering Robert H. Treman State Park. 

At Treman, visitors will experience another magnificent gorge and Lucifer Falls. First, hike the single-track FLT until it connects with the Rim Trail near the Old Mill where it descends, steeply at times, via the Gorge Trail. Steep is actually an understatement; if you don’t have good balance or healthy knees, avoid this route!

Like other gorge state parks, Treman has a swimming area, campgrounds, handsome stonework and stunning waterfalls. Once you reach the swimming area, kick back, relax, and celebrate the end of the day’s journey! 

Or, scale it back

You can shorten this hike in a variety of ways. Each of the main sections: Buttermilk Falls, Sweedler and Thayer Preserves, and Treman, are perfectly good hikes in their own right – with challenging accents, waterfalls, and dramatic gorges. Another longer, but not quite as long (!), version is to leave a car at Upper Treman and start hiking at Upper Buttermilk, this will remove the first long climb from the parking area at Lower Buttermilk and the final descent into Lower Treman.

Post Hike Refuel

After an exhilarating day on the trails, stop by Ithaca Beer Company or Liquid State Brewing Company for local beers and cider. Or grab a few slices at Franco’s and head to the Westy for a game of cornhole. Top it all off with ice cream at Purity. Or, if you’ve left the trail grime behind and want to end the night on a fancier note, check out The Rook or Just a Taste for a delicious post-hike meal.

Where to stay

There is great rustic camping at both state parks, with new cabins and designated spaces to pitch a tent.  LaTourelle Hotel & Spa or Firelight Camps both afford easy access to the trails at Buttermilk and beyond, whereas the Grayhaven Motel will give you nearby access to Treman.

For more area adventures, of which there are many, visit gofingerlakes.org.