Ithaca is Gorges, Cornell & More

It’s amazing how much there is to see and do in Ithaca, New York, and how relatively little I saw and did as a Cornell student, busy as I was with my studies and fraternity parties. Last week, while back in Ithaca with my husband (also a Cornell grad) and daughters (future Cornell grads?) for our 25th reunion, I tried to make up for lost time, exploring as many of Ithaca’s multitude of recreational, cultural and culinary offerings as possible. Here are five of the highlights from our five days in Ithaca.

1. Climbing the Cornell McGraw Clock Tower: When I think about Cornell, one of the first images that comes to mind is the McGraw Clock Tower, a 173-foot, stately stone symbol of the university that has presided over the Arts Quad since 1891. And I cannot think of the Clock Tower without recalling the sound of the chimes ringing out from it on crisp fall mornings, as I made my way to Uris Library with a backpack full of new books. Yet in the four years I spent at Cornell, I never got around to climbing the 161 stairs to the top of the Clock Tower, where I would have found Cornell chimemasters playing the beautiful music that along with late ’80’s songs like “Funky Cold Medina” and “Push it” were to become the soundtrack of my college days.

On the third day of our reunion, after a late night in the beer tents, at long last I dragged myself up the tower for a chimes concert. As one of our friends observed, the top of the tower, where the clanging of the bells was nothing short of deafening, was not the best place to nurse a hangover. However, expansive views of the Cornell Campus, downtown Ithaca, Lake Cayuga and the green hills beyond, were worth the amplified headache. One floor down, where the noise level was more bearable, we stopped to watch a team of chimemasters play “Under the Sea” from the Little Mermaid, moving deftly from one side of the large chimes console to the other to press on the wooden paddles and pedals that sound the bells. Another floor or two down, we breezed through a small museum on all things tower and chimes-related before heading out; I’ll need to go back another time to take a closer look at the wealth of information provided there.


2. Kayaking on Lake Cayuga: Lake Cayuga, the largest of New York’s eleven glacier-formed Finger Lakes, is one of Ithaca’s most prominent geographical features; cue Cornell’s beloved alma mater, “Far above Cayuga’s Waters.” While Cayuga’s waters were indeed a part of the scenery at Cornell, I did not spend much time in or on the lake as a student, apart from a semester-long sailing course and a handful of house parties during senior week. Most of the school year, the weather unfortunately wasn’t conducive to water sports.

On our recent trip to Ithaca, which took place during a summer heat wave with temperatures reaching the mid-90’s, we rented a lakeside Airbnb with some friends for three nights following the reunion weekend. Despite its quirks, including a large collection of dolls as decor and a rickety deathtrap of a spiral staircase leading from the deck to the dock, the house turned out to be a great choice for our two families. I will not soon forget the beauty of Lake Cayuga at dusk as the kids paddled around in the rental’s kayaks, the Cornell skyline in view to the west. When they finally tired of it, I took a turn myself, surveying the real estate along the north eastern side of the lake near our house and imagining how it would be to live here year-round.

3. Eating Icecream at the Cornell Dairy: Cornell is one of the larger Ivy League schools in terms of both its student body and campus size, and offers an impressively broad range of studies. This was the intention of Cornell’s founding father, Ezra Cornell, whose words serve as the university’s motto: “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” As a result, Cornell has many interesting features you will not find on other college campuses, such as a student-run hotel (part of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration) and a dairy (part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences).

While I never went to the Cornell Dairy while at Cornell, and had only a vague sense for where the Ag School was located, we visited the dairy not once, but twice, while back at Cornell last week. From an observational balcony built above the dairy plant in the newly renovated Stocking Hall, we were able to see and learn about the various stainless steel tanks and other equipment used to process, pasteurize and package the icecream, milk, pudding and yogurt products that are made there.  The icecream sold in the Cornell Dairy Bar, in the same building, was the perfect answer to the sweltering heat outside. Offering a long list of flavors such as Chocolate Gorges, Big Red Bear Tracks and Ezra’s Morning Cup, it was some of the most delicious icecream I have tasted anywhere. After all, as they say, it is “made by the world’s smartest cows.”

4. Bird Watching at the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Sapsucker Woods: I didn’t know that Cornell had a world famous ornithology program until my husband took me to the university’s beautiful Sapsucker Woods when we were in Ithaca for our 20th reunion. We returned last week, on the look-out for the 200-plus species of birds currently in residence in its leafy, green trees. Wooden boardwalks led us to a pond from which unseen bull frogs bellowed dolefully to each other among the lily pads, while dragonflies buzzed low over the still water, their iridescent wings flashing in the sunlight.

After our walk, we poked around for a bit in the delightfully air-conditioned visitor center, with its interactive exhibits, films and art. It was hard to say no to our daughters’ requests to purchase Wild Republic Audubon plush birds from the gift shop, when we learned that the authentic bird sounds made by these stuffies — sold in toy stores and nature centers around the country — were recorded by none other than the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

5. Swimming & Hiking in the Gorges at Robert H. Treman State Park: There is, to my knowledge, no town motto as clever or as fitting as “Ithaca is Gorges.” Two of Ithaca’s numerous gorges, Cascadilla and Fall Creek, run through the Cornell campus, where students are privileged to enjoy their stunning beauty on a daily basis. But there are many other gorges, as well as some 150 waterfalls in Ithaca, most of which I never explored while attending Cornell.

One of the best places to see Ithaca’s gorges and waterfalls is Robert H. Treman State Park, which we visited twice last week. First, on the hottest day of the heat wave, we went to the lower part of the park for a dip in the wide, natural swimming hole at the base of Enfield Falls. The water, while warmer than the lake, was refreshingly cool and well over our heads in the deepest parts. I swam with the kids to the far side of the pool, where dainty forget-me-nots, buttercups and ferns grew out from the rock wall rising straight up from the water.


The next day, we went to the upper part of the park, located about three miles up the road from the lower park entrance, to hike the gorge and rim trail loop around Lucifer Falls (shown in the featured photo for this post). While this was a short, one-mile hike, it felt much longer due to all the rock stairs on the return trip up from the gorge and, again, the extreme heat. The scenery in the gorge, however, with its intricately layered shale and sandstone rock walls, rushing Enfield Creek and cascading Lucifer falls, was spectacular.


So, there you have five of the highlights from our five days in Ithaca. While we did and saw a lot of things that I missed out on while at Cornell, the truth is that much, much more remains to be discovered. It’s a good thing I’ve got many more Cornell reunions (and who knows, maybe some parents’ weekends?) in my future to take advantage of all that Ithaca and Cornell have to offer.

  • Wow, looks amazing! I used to visit a friend in Ithaca during high school/college summers, but we must have been no where near this part of Ithica. We were in farm land but i loved going there. Will have to look at a map to see where we were now. Sounds like a great tip!

    • Thanks for reading, Victoria, and for the comments! Ithaca really is a very beautiful and special part of the country. I think I didn’t quite appreciate just how lucky I was while I was living there!

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