Taughannock Falls State Park: A User's Guide

WATERFALL COUSINS: The signature falls are 33 feet taller than Niagra. (Photo: Falling Heavens/Flickr.

Niagara Falls makes more noise, but it is Taughannock Falls in the Finger Lakes region near Ithaca, N.Y., that stands taller. The fall — the main attraction at Taughannock Falls State Park — is 33 feet taller than the more famous falls to the north and is the highest single-drop waterfall in the northeastern United States. Trails at Taughannock (pronounced "tuh-GAN-uck," according to the locals) offer views from the base of the falls and from the rim of the gorge above it.

But, wait, there's more. The water of Taughannock Creek flows into Cayuga Lake, a forest-rimmed water refuge for swimming, fishing and boating.

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Legend tells us the falls were named for the chief of an invading Delaware tribe. Taughannock, the story goes, was killed by the resident Cayuga Indians and his body tossed over the falls.

The state park was created in 1925 and the Civilian Conservation Corps built much of the infrastructure in the 1930s.

Things to do

The base of Taughannock Falls — and the cooling mist filling the gorge — is an easy walk along a wide, flat trail just three-fourths of a mile long. The North Rim Trail and South Rim Trail combine for a loop of about 2.5 miles. Before hitting either trail, pick up a brochure that explains a bit of the geology and ecology of the falls, the gorge and Cayuga Lake.

Summer means swimming at the Cayuga Lake beach, fishing off the park’s pier or launching a boat to explore the longest of central New York's Finger Lakes. Winter means slipping and sliding and gliding on one of two skating ponds, cross-country skiing on a 2-mile loop trail or booming down the sledding hill.

Oh, and many of the 16 wineries that comprise the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail just north of Taughannock Falls State Park.

Why you’ll want to come back

waterfall in autumn at Taughannock

Geology isn’t static and there is a chance the 400-foot-deep gorge will look different than it did during your last visit. Rock falls — the product of erosion, freezing and thawing — aren’t uncommon, sending chucks of limestone to the floor of the gorge. A visitor photographed a rock fall in November 2010.

Flora and fauna

You would expect to see an assortment of geese, ducks and even gulls at Taughannock Falls State Park because of its location on Cayuga Lake. But turkey vultures? You’ll spot a group of them along the shore most mornings, drying their wings.

You’re also likely to spot deer, rabbits, squirrels, red fox and the occasional black bear tromping through the forests of oak, ash, maple, dogwoods and red buds.

By the numbers:

  • Website: Taughannock Falls State Park
  • Park size: 783 acres or 1.2 square miles
  • 2010 visitation: 427,352
  • Funky fact: The state park is the site of the Cayuga Lake Triathlon, a USA Triathlon sanctioned event organized by the Ithaca Triathlon Club.

This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States.

Inset photo of the park in autumn: solarnu/Flickr; Daniel Peckham/Flickr