Buttermilk Falls


As you head south out of Ithaca, NY, there’s a stretch of highway that’s one of the main commercial drags in that little city.  It combines routes 96, 13, and 34 for a few miles, and it’s fairly hectic – – lots of banks, car dealerships, fast food, grocery stores, motels, etc.

And then you hit the city limits, and all that commercial stuff pretty much stops.  The Green Party – Socialist State of Ithaca is behind you — the Asian and vegan restaurants, peace signs and rainbow flags are gone, and the pro-NRA banners begin.  You’re now in the Southern Tier, and it’s shotgun racks, dollar stores, and Don’t Step On Me flags all the way to the Pennsylvania line.

But there’s a sweet spot, a DMZ between the two worlds, just as you leave Ithaca, and that’s two nice state parks — Buttermilk and Treman.


The same falls as the first shot, but much reduced flow of water.


Buttermilk is the first, named for the whitewater of a big falls (165′ tall), very close to the highway.

It’s impressive in the spring, or after periods of heavy rain, but I think it’s more interesting than beautiful. Instead of a vertical drop off a rock ledge, it’s a tiered cascade, pouring into a swimming area.

The curved slope of siltstone and shale is shaped a bit like a section of a domed roof, or maybe a big hoop skirt, and the creek just comes down it in a pretty uninventive way.

The water doesn’t really leap from the rock, and go for it, take the big plunge, it just slides over it.  Dutifully following the law of gravity, falling without any particular style, just like the rest of us.

If you or I were on that slope, we’d be sure to slide down it too, and we wouldn’t expect anyone to think that was very clever, would we.



It’s right off the highway, with picnic tables, a swimming area at the base of the falls, and playing fields close by, so it’s a bit busy.

I mean, it’s perfectly nice and has that pleasant bustle of people picnicking, dogs barking, kids happily hitting each other with sticks and rocks, etc. but combined with the rumble of motorcycles and trucks on the highway, the noise drowns out the water sounds.


Did I mention the stairs? There’s a lot of stairs.





So, why the heck am I talking about a spot that I’m not entirely keen on?  Because if you cross the creek, on a little iron bridge built in 1881, and follow the steep trail up the south side of the gorge, it’s fantastic.

There’s a whole series of smaller but wonderful falls.

The water is having a wonderful time, whizzing through high-spirited chutes, swirling in circular pools, dividing and rushing back together in playful angles, and you’re right next to it all, you can stick out a hand and feel the spray.




This is the view at the beginning of the glen.




The trail is rough and often slippery, but totally worth it.  Once you’re in the glen, ferns decorate every crack and ledge, overhead are maples, beeches, and hemlocks.   The highway noise disappears, and there’s just the sound of rushing water.









Get there early in the morning, or early evening, especially on a day when rain is threatening, and you’ll probably have the place pretty much to yourself, and can just soak up the quiet musical reverberations, and watch the acrobatics of the barn swallows, swooping and streaking through tight turns just above the water.








One rainy afternoon, I played with this shot on Photoshop, with a watercolor effect, and kind of liked it. What do you think? OK or annoying



per Steve’s suggestion, here’s a more heavily-edited version



Finger Lakes, FLX, NY, Upstate New York

Walks Around the Finger Lakes. May, Buttermilk Falls.


55 thoughts on “Walks Around the Finger Lakes. May, Buttermilk Falls.

  1. What a beautiful place Robert, I’m so glad you shared these photos and I enjoyed them all. The first immediately made me think of an old-fashioned washboard and then, more romantically, of a wedding gown train. I liked that fall very much. But I see what you mean about the next falls, they’re wonderful! And man, all those stairs!

    • Thank you, Anne. I don’t do a lot of doctoring of photos, just cropping and removing glare, etc. but on a rainy or snowy day, it’s kind of fun to play around with the special effects.

  2. Does this imply that we’ll see scenes from Treman State Park next time? That’s the one we visited two years ago, and Buttermilk looks pretty similar to it, based on the pictures you’ve included here.

    We drove along the stretch of road you mentioned, 96-13-34 (and just imagine someone with those top-heavy, wasp-waisted measurements), both to and from Treman and separately another day to and from Corning for the famous glass museum.

    You’re funny with “The Green Party – Socialist State of Ithaca.” That makes Ithaca sound a tad less crazy than the People’s Republic of Berkeley.

    • Thanks, Steve, so you’ve toured a bit of the Southern Tier, going down 13 to Corning. There’s some nice places to hike in the state forests along that route.
      I’ve actually walked at Treman a lot more frequently, but usually on the Finger Lakes Trail, which runs along the edge of the park. Usually just wading in the creek there, not photographing though, it’s a great place to cool off during the summer. And I need to visit the Corning museum next time I’m “back east,” it’s always interesting.

      • We spent much of the day at the museum in Corning—definitely worth it the next time you’re in the area. As for Treman, we entered at the western end (near the old mill) and walked in as far as the base of the descent past Lucifer Falls before climbing all the way back up and out to the parking lot. (I just checked and found we discussed this when I posted some pictures from Treman.)

  3. Regarding your question at the end: I’d go with the actual take rather than the watercolor effect, or else I’d crank up the watercolor to the point that no one could confuse the result with a photograph.

    • Thank you. I tried it a bit more heavy-handed but the rocks looked too much like big random daubs of paint, but maybe I’ll take another crack at it. Photoshop is fun to play around with but wow it can suck up a lot of time. I’ve seen some folks who add a canvas texture, even craquelure, and gotten pretty convincing effects. Although I’m sure painters hate this kind of phoniness.

  4. A walk through the woods away from the highway noise surrounded by the pleasant sound of rushing waters brings joy to my heart. I like your photo essay very much and the creative language you use, Robert.

  5. pinklightsabre says:

    Love that name Buttermilk! So satisfying, just the sound of that name. And I love the look of those steps. Don’t tread on me Parker!

  6. I love the sound of rushing water, and when it comes with scenery like this, I’d be in heaven. The only time we get such sounds around here is when it’s flooding and the water’s pouring off the freeways onto the out-of-commission cars down below. In the hill country, there’s a better chance, but we specialize in silently rising bayous. We do have the swallows, though, and their behavior above the bayous is pretty much the same.

    I really like the stairs, and how neatly they fit into the overall scene. Have you posted any photos of the place in winter? I’ll bet it’s just as appealing then, and probably less beset with tourists and picnickers.

    • Thank you, Linda, I like the stairs, and all the old stonework – little dams, bridges, walls, etc. – that was done by the CCC back in the ’30’s. Most of the trails in the glens are closed every winter, too icy and sometimes falling rocks, and you can only get onto the rim trails, so I’ve only walked around the woods in the upper end of this park, during the winter. But boy I’d love to see these falls during the really cold days of the winter when everything ices up.

  7. Fine photos of a beautiful place. One of my sons went to
    Ithaca College, my favorite waterfall stop was Treman State Park and the cascades leading to Lucifer Falls. We never explored the Southern tier, we’d cut across from 88, driving through Greene and Whitney Point on the way to Ithaca.

    • Thank you, Tom. My mother worked at that college in the ’90’s, great views from up on that hill. We used to drive through Whitney Point pretty frequently, going downstate to visit relatives, but I’ve only been to Greene once, as I remember, it was a picturesque little downtown, it seemed like a real Victorian time capsule.

      • I think Greene was the town that had neat banners up. I don’t think we stopped there. I loved visiting Ithaca: the town, the restaurants, the countryside, the great used bookstores.

  8. George says:

    Beautifully described and the photos are stunning—the Photoshop edits really work. I love the idea that a bit of effort (climbing a million stairs) allows you to escape the underwhelming prettiness of the tourist trap to where nature reveals its wilder riches with untrammelled splendour.

    • Hi Dave, definitely a steady traffic through there, and there’s more parking and a popular picnic grounds farther upstream, it’s so close to town it’s pretty busy every weekend.

  9. Just looking at your photos lowers my blood pressure. The one of the stairs is amazing. The stairs themselves a bit terrifying, but captured beautifully.

  10. Darts and Letters says:

    Hi Robert. I like that seventh frame down, it’s my favorite. It jumps out at me from the rest. I’d sure like to come here someday. Ithaca in general, too. Though I’m typically repelled by crowded waterfalls. Lakes and waterfalls that are fairly easy to walk to, they’re always sure to draw a mob scene. Does anyone do ice climbing in there, in the wintertime? You wrote about winter here once, I liked that essay. Winter is when I’d like to go if I had any real choice in the matter. Mind you, not on a completely frozen day when everything’s slippery and treacherous because I’d like to actually get down into some of the nooks and crannies. I can’t remember if you said they restrict access in any way, in wintertime. “…kids happily hitting each other with sticks and rocks….” It’s all fun and games until someone gets in the shins or god forbid, the side of the head. We prefer seed cones, mushy berries, dried animal scat on the end of a stick or stealth farts.

    That’s going to be a pretty nice trip you and your sis are going on. Plenty of time for good conversation along the way. Blocks of time for some of those special roadtrip mix tapes, though I suppose no one calls them that anymore. Mix playlists? One of my brother in laws used to make me really good mix tapes/cds for the road. I’ve never been to the Smokies. It seems like there are some good exploratory loops you could make, going down that way.

    • Hi Jason,
      Thanks! I too try to avoid crowds, and there are definitely some days that are quite packed, often that’s when I take the trails that aren’t the big draws, but often have their own little falls and can be just as pleasant.
      I haven’t seen too much ice-climbing, I think it probably isn’t allowed due to the liability, I think I have only ever seen it once.
      Some of the parks around here close off sections or even entire trails in the winter, they tend to have many stairs that get coated in ice and each year the trails seem to erode away a bit more, we have increasingly narrow parks.

      I’m excited for this trip, I think there will be a lot of good memories. While actual tapes are a thing of the past, the term has stuck around thankfully, Mix Playlists doesn’t have the same appeal.

  11. What a pretty place – I do love seeing those ledges and tiers – waterfalls out here are completely different. I love the way the steps next to the falls blend right in. That’s some admirable stonework. It’s good to know the water has a wonderful time – I think you did, too!

  12. What a lovely, refreshing post! It’s 94 degrees right now as I write this, and the high will be 111 before the day is through–so pictures and stories of cool, watery hikes are most welcome. Cheers!

  13. I think I may have to re-read your posts about the finger lakes again, Robert. The way our travel plans for this summer look, we may be passing through that region on our way from Burlington/VT to Wellsboro/NY.

    • Oh I hope you do, Pit, I’m sorry I won’t have a chance to meet up, I’m still in Milwaukee and will be starting a new job soon, so probably not visiting NY this summer except a weekend to see my parents. But I hope you’ll email me any questions, I’d be delighted to help with any questions!

      • Thanks for the offer, Robert. We’ll be passing through only, though, but I hope to find a few lovely vistas.
        As to Milwaukee: Wisconsin is still on our to-do list for our 10+ miles on the bicycle in each state. Maybe next year.

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