Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Buttermilk Falls State Park (Blog Hike #434)

Trails: Gorge and Rim Trails
Hike Location: Buttermilk Falls State Park
Geographic Location: south side of Ithaca, NY
Length: 1.1 miles
Difficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: July 2013
Overview: A steep loop hike with many stairs around a large cascading waterfall.

Directions to the trailhead: The entrance to Buttermilk Falls State Park is located on SR 13 2.5 miles south of Ithaca.  Pay the park entrance fee, and park in the large blacktop parking lot just past the entrance station near the base of the falls.

The hike: The name Robert H. Treman appears on only one of the state parks on the south side of Ithaca, but in fact he had much to do with both of them.  Treman’s family owned many businesses near Ithaca, one of which was the Ithaca Water Works.  They bought land around Buttermilk Creek and several other nearby creeks in case they needed the additional water supply for their water works.
            In 1891, Treman became a trustee of Cornell University in Ithaca.  By 1923, the conservation/preservation movement had become mainstream, and Treman donated 154 acres along Buttermilk Creek to form Buttermilk Falls State Park.  The park that bears his name, Robert H. Treman State Park located less than 2 miles from here, is also comprised of land he donated.
            Today Buttermilk Falls State Park boasts a 60-site campground, some picnic areas, some ball fields, a swimming area at the base of Buttermilk Falls, and 5 hiking trails totaling nearly 5 miles.  Several routes are possible through the trail system, but the route described here provides the shortest hike that gives the falls the full treatment they deserve.  Note that even though this hike is short, it is not easy: the vertical rise is nearly 400 feet, so most of the 1.1 miles either climbs or descends steeply.  I took nearly an hour to complete this hike.
Swimming area at base of falls
            Start by walking back past the park entrance station to the swimming area at the base of Buttermilk Falls.  The swimming area actually gives the best view of the waterfall, which is framed on the right by a rock outcrop and on either side by lush greenery.  The cascade-type waterfall drops over innumerable layers of siltstone rock.  This rock’s unusual dark yellow color gives this falls and creek its name.
            Cross Buttermilk Creek on a wooden bridge below the swimming area to intersect the Gorge Trail.  Turn left to head up the gorge.  Almost immediately the trail starts climbing some steep stone steps with the cascading waterfall to your left.  At the top of these steps, you reach an overlook perched at the top of the lowest cascade.  This overlook gives views of more cascades upstream and of the swimming area downstream.
View downstream from first overlook
            Above this overlook, the water keeps falling and the trail keeps climbing, now over some concrete waterbars that pose as much challenge as stairs.  I noticed some yellow birch along the trail, an unusual sight this far south.  Occasionally the trail switchbacks away from the cascade, but usually it stays near the creek.  Some of the upper cascades have plunge pools that invite a dip as much as the official swimming area at the very bottom.
Climbing over concrete waterbars
            Just when you think this waterfall climb may never end, at 0.4 miles you top the last cascade and pass a wooden lean-to shelter.  After another 0.1 nearly flat miles, the trail forks with the left fork crossing a trail bridge over Buttermilk Creek.  This hike will continue by crossing the bridge, but before doing so, walk a short distance upstream to see one final cascade and the interesting Pinnacle Rock.
Upper cascade in Buttermilk Creek
            After crossing the creek, a final short, moderate climb brings you to the Rim Trail and the highest point on this hike.  Take a soft left to begin the return route along the Rim Trail.  The Rim Trail descends gently with the precipice out of view through the greenery on your left.  Tulip poplar trees grow well in the dry rim soil.
            At 0.7 miles, the grade steepens as the trail very closely parallels a gravel park maintenance road on the right.  This section of trail is quite eroded, so you will find it easier to walk on the maintenance road here provided you do not miss where the trail curves left to head back to the rim.  An overlook at the rim gives a very limited view of the upper cascades in Buttermilk Creek.
Descending on the Rim Trail
            The steep descent continues on a couple of wide switchbacks as the trail leaves the gorge area for good.  The paved park campground road comes into view on the right as you make the last switchback.  A short distance further, the trail returns to the parking area, thus completing the hike.  If you have some extra time, consider hiking one of the park’s other trails, two of which stand out above the rest.  The Larch Meadow Trail departs from the ball field area to take you on a 1 mile tour of meadow, wetland, and woodland habitat, while the 1.5 mile Lake Treman Trail leaves from the upper parking area and circumnavigates its namesake lake.


  1. Anyone know how many stairs there are on the gorge trail?

    1. I didn't count them, but my guess is 300-400. There are enough to be painful but not as many as some of the other parks in the area (like Watkins Glen or Tremain).