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.
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.
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.
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.