Taughannock Falls

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winter view of Taughannock Falls from the overlook on Park Road
© Dave Spier (ref. # 0016EX-24)

Taughannock Falls, NY (USA) — © Dave Spier

photos © Donna Mason-Spier, unless otherwise noted

The highest single-drop waterfalls in New York State is accessible from Rt. 89 northwest of Ithaca in New York’s Finger Lakes region. Taughannock Creek flows east as it descends the west slope of the Cayuga Trough to end in Cayuga Lake where it has created a flat delta. Since the end of the last Ice Age, two significant waterfalls have cut an impressive gorge into the Allegheny Plateau. To get a better overview of the park, I suggest first starting at the falls overlook on the north rim about a half mile uphill from Rt. 89. You’ll see part of the lower gorge below the main falls, the 400′ high amphitheater surrounding the falls, and you can glimpse the upper gorge above this falls. Further uphill (either by driving or by waking the rim trail) you can reach the old railroad bridge over the upper gorge and view the upper falls just below Falls Road.

Drive downhill on Taughannock Park Road and turn right (south) on Rt. 89, cross the creek and pull into the lower parking lot on your right. (In warm weather, if this lot is full, there are larger lots on the east side of Rt. 89, toward Taughannock Point, the delta created from sediments washed out of the hillside.) If you happen to return via Gorge Road on the south side, it would be a left turn at Rt. 89.

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The lower falls capped by Tully limestone – © Donna Mason-Spier (ref. # D075270)

After a short walk from the lower parking area, you can see the first, fairly-low falls created by the resistant Tully limestone caprock.  Weak Hamilton shales at the base of this falls easily erode and allow blocks of the Devonian-age limestone to break off.

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Joints (long cracks) cross the Tully limestone above the lower falls and result in step falls.- © Dave Spier (ref. # D062962)

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Solution pits pock-mark the surface of the Tully limestone. – © Donna Mason-Spier (ref. # D075188)

As you can see in the photos, it’s possible to walk down to the creek bed and examine the solution pits on the limestone surface.

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A “step” falls formed by an upper stratum of Tully limestone – © Donna Mason-Spier (ref. # D075191)

Above the lower falls, the creek has washed off the relatively flat surface of the Tully up to a wide “step” falls created by another layer of the limestone.  Above that, flat surfaces with minor steps continue upstream until they disappear under the dark, almost-black Geneseo shale. Along much of the three-quarter mile walking trail up the lower gorge, you’ll have first-hand access to this weak shale that crumbles and piles into talus slopes at the base of the cliff walls.

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Black Geneseo shale forms talus slopes beside the lower gorge trail.
© Donna Mason-Spier (ref. # D075193)

If you look above the dark shale, you’ll see the beige cliffs formed by more resistant Sherburne siltstone, slightly younger rock overlying the Geneseo formation. Both are members of the upper Devonian Genesee group.

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Beige cliffs of Sherburne siltstone overlie the dark Geneseo shale on the gorge walls. – © Donna Mason-Spier (ref. # D075246)

As you continue upstream to the base of 215′ high Taughannock Falls, the gorge deepens until you reach the wide amphitheater surrounding the main falls. The highest portion of the cliffs are Ithaca shale beginning about 25′ above the crest of the falls.  At that point the gorge is about 400′ deep.

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The amphitheater surrounding the main Taughannock Falls is cut into a 150′ thick layer of Sherburne siltstone sandwiched between Ithaca shale on the rim and underlying dark Geneseo shale. – © Donna Mason-Spier (ref. # D075243)

You can get a good view of the falls from the footbridge over the creek, or you can continue a short distance to the last viewing area, but spray and mist often soak this spot.

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Taughannock Falls: at 215′ the highest in New York State – © Donna Mason-Spier (ref. # D075238)

Yes, Taughannock is higher than Niagara, but of course it lacks the width and volume of water. (After all, Niagara drains the four upper Great Lakes on their way to Lake Ontario.) The highest water volumes are usually in early spring following snow-melt. Heavy summer storms can suddenly raise the water level and, in the past, have washed out portions of the trail.

Corrections, comments, and questions are always welcome at northeastnaturalist@yahoo.com or connect through my Facebook page and photo page. For topics in the northeast, there is a separate community-type page at The Northeast Naturalist. Other northeast nature topics can be found on the parallel blog Northeast Naturalist.

Chippewa Falls, Ontario

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approaching the lower Chippewa Falls

Chippewa Falls (introduction) — © Dave Spier

At the east end of Lake Superior, Highway 17, the Trans-Canada Highway, crosses the Harmony River on the east side of Batchawana Bay near Harmony Beach. (This is the second bay on Lake Superior north of Sault Ste. Marie.) Just upstream from the bridge, a wayside park provides access to Chippewa Falls, which is actually two cascades 150 feet apart. The original bedrock is 2.7 billion-year-old pink granite, but, at the lower falls, it is still covered with a remnant of a 1.1 billion-year-old lava flow called the Keweenawan basalt that was extruded during the Grenville orogeny. The contact between the two rocks types represents 1.6 billion years of erosion that brought the granite to the surface by the time of the volcanic activity. A lateral fault cuts through both layers on the north side of the present-day lower falls (out of sight in the two opening photos).

A remnant of the gray, 1.1 billion-year-old lava flow called the Keweenawan basalt, extruded during the Grenville Orogeny (mountain-building episode), covers the 2.7 billion-year-old pink granite next to the lower Chippewa Falls (hidden right rear).

A remnant of the gray, 1.1 billion-year-old lava flow called the Keweenawan basalt, extruded during the Grenville Orogeny (mountain-building episode), covers the 2.7 billion-year-old pink granite next to the lower Chippewa Falls (hidden right rear).

Potholes in the Keweenawan basalt are geologically-recent erosion features resulting from swirling eddies carrying abrasive sand, gravel and cobbles in a circular motion that grinds them down into the base rock.

Potholes in the Keweenawan basalt are geologically-recent erosion features resulting from swirling eddies carrying abrasive sand, gravel and cobbles in a circular motion that grinds them down into the base rock.

A small remnant of the gray Keweenawan basalt covers the pink granite as we climb toward the lower Chippewa Falls.

A small remnant of the gray Keweenawan basalt covers the pink granite as we climb toward the lower Chippewa Falls.

erosion along several of the many joints in the pink granite provides a partial view of the lower Chippewa Falls

erosion along several of the many joints in the pink granite provides a partial view of the lower Chippewa Falls

the lower Chippewa Falls

the lower Chippewa Falls

several visitors provide scale next to the crest of the lower Chippewa Falls

several visitors provide scale next to the crest of the lower Chippewa Falls

view across the pink granite bedrock toward the upper Chippawa Falls at upper right

view further upstream looking across the pink granite bedrock toward the upper Chippawa Falls at upper right

The upper falls was created by a vertical diabase dike cutting across the granite. Here the fault displaces the dike by 30 feet upstream on the northwest side of the river. The upper falls can be reached by an 800 foot trail from the parking area although we didn’t have time to try it. Apparently the trail continues another 500 feet upstream to a bed of large boulders. If you were able to travel six miles further upstream, you’d reach the confluence with the Chippewa River.

The upper Chippewa Falls was created by a vertical, gray, diabase dike cutting across the pink granite. Here the fault displaces the 65-foot thick dike by 30 feet upstream on the northwest (left) side of the river.

The upper Chippewa Falls was created by a vertical, gray, diabase dike cutting across the pink granite. Here the fault displaces the 65-foot thick dike by 30 feet upstream on the northwest (left) side of the river.

Corrections, questions and suggestions are always welcome at northeastnaturalist@yahoo.com or connect through my Facebook page and photo page. There is a separate community-type page for The Northeast Naturalist. Other nature topics can be found on the parallel blog Northeast Naturalist.

calcite fills veins in the basalt at the contact with the original granite bedrock as we return to the lower level

calcite fills veins in the basalt at the contact with the original granite bedrock as we return to the lower level

Logs become trapped in erosional features that often result from joints and other fractures. Note the dark basalt at the top overlying the granite underneath.

Logs become trapped in erosional features that often result from joints and other fractures. Note the dark basalt at the top overlying the granite underneath.

reference: Roadside Geology of Ontario — North Shore of Lake Superior by E. G. Pye, 1997, pgs. 130-131

“A plaque erected by the Ontario Motor League highlights Batchawana Bay (at Chippewa Falls) as the mid-point in the longest national highway in the world — the Trans-Canada Highway.” (from the Batchawana Bay PP page )