A scenic, autumn view of the Taughannock Falls at Taughannock Falls State Park near Ithaca, New York

Taughannock Falls, New York

The Taughannock Falls is the tallest freestanding plunge waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains. Compared to Niagara Falls, which is only 2.5 hours northwest, Taughannock Falls is higher by three stories or, more precisely, 33 feet. With a photo-worthy gorge set in the Finger Lakes of the US, hoards of visitors are drawn to its grand stature and scenic hikes. Located in the “heart of cottage country” of Upstate New York, Taughannock Falls is the biggest attraction of Southern Cayuga Lake.

Geography Of Taughannock Falls

A close view of the Taughannock Falls in the Taughannock Falls State Park
A close view of the Taughannock Falls in the Taughannock Falls State Park. 

The Taughannock Falls is located in Trumansburg of northern New York - an area that boasts a plethora of outdoor recreation from fishing, boating, hiking, hunting, and camping. Among locals, it is considered cottage country, serving as an escape from the big cities such as Buffalo, Albany, Rochester, and Syracuse. The waterfall can be found in Tompkins County, in Taughannock State Park, just northwest of Ithaca. Water pours down a 215-foot drop into a 400-foot gorge below, thus, flowing into the Taughannock Creek. With all the spectacles that Taughannock Creek showcases, the waterway ends its journey at the vast body of water called Cayuga Lake. Here, many visitors congregate at the popular trailhead for the Taughannock Falls Gorge Trail. Speaking of trails, many trails throughout the state park offer views of the staggering Taughannock Falls and the impressive gorge. There might be some fossils to discover along the way.

Geology Of Taughannock Falls

Upper Taughannock Falls in Taughannock Falls State Park
Upper Taughannock Falls in Taughannock Falls State Park. 

Although noted for its grand stature, the Taughannock Falls is an example of a plunge waterfall, where the main cataract cascades straight down. It is also a representation of a hanging valley in which a tributary valley hangs over the valley floor. As for the Taughannock Falls, the tributary is the mouth of the falls that spills into the gorge or valley floor below. This was formed over millions of years of erosion that saw the Taughannock Creek recede from the deeper glacier-covered Cayuga Lake. The shale-laden base of the gorge continues to break away westward as the Taughannock Creek disintegrates it. Sandstone and siltstone, which are abrasion resistant, are abundant on the upper side of the gorge’s cliffs. As a whole, the waterfall and gorge were slowly chipped away and formed over millennia of freezing and thawing weather cycles familiar to the Northern United States.

Taughannock Falls Hiking

Lower Taughannock Falls in Taughannock Falls State Park
Lower Taughannock Falls in Taughannock Falls State Park. 

To access the view of this plunge waterfall, it's an easy hike along the 1.80 miles of the Taughannock Falls Gorge Trail. Thus, on the most popular trail in this state park, visitors will be welcomed by a wide variety of bird species and endangered flora. Don't miss out on the little-known spectacle of the Little or Lower Falls. Although only 20 feet in height, this much smaller waterfall is still of note to visitors for gawking and photo opportunities before heading to the main falls. A Word of caution for those with mobility challenges, this trail has a minimum grade of 5% over gravel, and extra assistance may be needed. Other visitors may opt to trek the North or South Rim Trail Loop, which traces both sides of the Taughannock Creek. At just under 3.0 miles in length, this moderately challenging hike should be considered for those who want to escape the crowds. There is a visitor's center and parking located along the North Rim Trail that contains the Taughannock Falls Overlook, which offers views of Cayuga Lake. Regarding all trails located at Taughannock Falls State Park, dogs are permitted as long as they remain leashed at all times.

Brief History Of Taughannock Falls

View from the Overlook at Taughannock Falls State Park
View from the Overlook at Taughannock Falls State Park. 

The first people to settle around Taughannock Falls were the Cayuga People, before being removed as part of the Clinton – Sullivan campaign after the event of the American Revolutionary War. By the 19th century, Taughannock Creek became the source of power for a gun factory, which was the catalyst for a growing economy. Tourism, and transportation, bloomed as part of the success of the railroad and steamboats. However, this was short lived as tourism began to decline by 1925, and plans for a park were drawn up to lure back visitors. As a result, a parcel of 64 acres was set aside and designated as Taughannock Falls State Park, which quickly proved to be a popular destination among the Finger Lakes, with many hotels springing up by the mid-century. As of today, the visitor’s center and parking lot are the former sites of the Cataract Hotel.


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