Weekend in the Finger Lakes, day 2 • Watkins Glen, Taughannock Falls, Buttermilk Falls, and Robert Treman State Parks • February 11, 2017
When Curtis told his colleagues we were going to the Finger Lakes region for the weekend, their replies were “Why? It’s the off season, there’s nothing to do!” Well, little do they realize that this was precisely why we chose February to visit this area. Lodging was dirt cheap, we avoided all the tourists that come in the summer months, all the state parks in the area were free in the winter — that’s all we need for an enjoyable weekend away! But the biggest draw I felt to the area can be summed up in two words: Frozen Waterfalls! All 4 parks that we visited had one thing in common, and that was they all boasted of deep gorges and tall, dramatic waterfalls. The geology of the Finger Lakes region is such that each lake is surrounded by steep cliffs cut by streams making it the haven of a plethora of waterfalls.
Of course, there are some downsides to visiting in the off season — you never know what the weather is going to do, and every park we visited had at least one trail that was closed for the season. The first full day in the area, we seriously lucked out and had a day over 40º! However, the next day was colder and rainy, and then on our last day we ended up driving home through a snowstorm. We knew that our first day was the best (and perhaps only) day to enjoy the area, so we packed it completely full with driving around and checking out as many outdoor attractions as we could!
Our first stop that morning was Watkins Glen State Park off Seneca Lake. This park features the famous Gorge Trail that takes you through a deep and narrow gorge past 7 waterfalls. Unfortunately, the gorge was closed for the season. When I say closed, I mean that there’s a big iron gate closing off the trail, and a sign saying trespassers will be prosecuted. Do people still jump the fence and hike it? Of course, I’ve seen lots of beautiful pictures of this place in the winter! However, we also learned that dogs aren’t allowed, so we decided to forgo this trail. We were bummed, especially as we were able to walk across a bridge over the gorge and were completely blown away by how deep and beautiful it looked. In the winter, both of the rim trails are opened, so we could have still hiked several miles around the gorge, but we decided to focus our energy on the other parks where we could hike. Maybe someday we’ll return!
The one thing that really bugged us about Watkins Glen was the lack of maps at the parking lot/ main trailhead. There are multiple entrances during the summer, but during the winter there seemed to be only one, and it was completely lacking in trail maps or signs. We started wandering on the few marked trails with names we didn’t recognize (they weren’t obvious trail names like “South Rim Trail”) until we finally came across a sign about a quarter mile in after crossing the bridge. I know we’re getting into the park for free and all, but couldn’t they do something to make it easier and safer for those who come to hike in the winter?? Just a heads up — make sure you do some research on the trails before arriving to avoid our dilemma. Our phones didn’t have reception so we weren’t able to find maps online.
Our next park was Taughannock Falls State Park, East of Watkins Glen on Cayuga Lake. We first stopped at the overlook and were completely blown away by how tall the falls were. Waterfalls almost always look so much bigger in person than they do in pictures! The snow and ice surrounding the falls also made them look bigger, and we knew that it was totally worth visiting in this season. The rain from the night before followed by the warmer temperatures today likely contributed to the falls being fuller as well. After admiring them from above, we looked at the map and informational boards (conveniently right there next to the parking lot…hear that, Watkins Glen??) and learned that the trail situation was the exact opposite of that in Watkins Glen. Here, the rim trails were closed for the winter, but the gorge trail was open — and puppy friendly!
We drove down to the trailhead for the gorge trail and hiked the 1.5 mile round-trip hike to the falls and back. It wasn’t too busy when we hiked around noon, and the trail was completely flat and a lovely walk through the deep gorge. It kind of reminded us of Calf Creek Falls in Utah — a long, pleasant walk through a canyon leading to a tall, beautiful waterfall. Taughannock Falls looked even more impressive from below, and we got to experience the loud crashing sound of the falls and feel the spray of the water hit our faces. We took as many pictures as we could, while having to constantly clean the mist off the camera lens. After having the falls to ourself for a few minutes, two other older couples showed up and we exchanged pictures with them. They fell in love with Charlotte right away and asked too have her in their picture with them. So if you ever see a picture of 2 older couples in front of snowy Taughannock Falls with an adorable basset hound, you’ll know it’s our Charlie. 🙂
Next, we drove South through Ithaca to visit Buttermilk Falls State Park. Here, the Gorge Trail was closed for the season, but the falls were right at the front of the park so we just parked and strolled right over. Again, they were so much bigger and more impressive than I had seen in pictures. We started walking up a side trail (or what looked to be one from all the tracks in the snow) and wandered around to a higher lookout, then decided to move on. Not a lot to say about this stop, but I’m sure there’s much more to see in the summer and it was worth the few minutes we spent here.
For our last state park of the day, we drove to Robert Treman State Park, West of Ithaca. We visited mostly because there was a letterbox that was easy to get, and stopped to admire the Old Mill and a small waterfall behind it. Here, the Gorge Trail was closed for the winter, but there was a rim trail that we could have hiked and gotten a good view of Lucifer Falls. However, we were growing hungry (it was after 2) so we decided to just have lunch and head towards our hotel (we did stop for a couple view points but we’ll share more on that later).
Had all the trails been open (and dog friendly) we could have probably spent half a day at any one of these parks, but we were just as happy to see so many just briefly today. Each of the parks are all within convenient driving distance of one another and have plenty of trails to hike. We could always return, but at the end of the day, we also felt like we had gotten a good taste of what the region has to offer.
Come back soon to read part 2 of our weekend in the Finger Lakes!