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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.