Hike the Finger Lakes Gorges Grand Slam
The Finger Lakes Gorges should not be missed. Don’t let their popularity dissuade you from hiking and exploring these gems because like Yosemite or the slot canyons of Utah, these gorges are held in high regard for a reason. It was by complete luck that we found ourselves in the Finger Lakes of New York. We decided to take a few extra days hiking and grabbed the “Five Star Trails of the Finger Lakes & Central New York” by Timothy Starmer while passing through Ithaca, New York. The book although enthusiastic about these gorges, didn’t even begin to do them justice. Each of these four canyons is stunning in its own individual way. After a quick scan through the book, we hit upon our pick of the four best gorges to hike in two days — our “Finger Lakes Gorges Grand Slam.”
The Finger Lakes Gorges Grand Slam
These four Finger Lakes Gorges are tightly grouped together. All four are no more than 30 minutes apart from each other, some less than 10 minutes apart. Each has its own special character and highlights so do them all if you can.
Photos* by Alan Dixon & Alison Simon
* iPhones R Us: We had no idea we were taking this trip. As such, our big cameras, tripods, polarizing and neutral density filters, etc. were all at home. We shot all of these photos handheld on our iPhones. You make due with what you have! Learn more about iPhone trail photography in our 10 hacks and accessories for better smartphone hiking photography
General Info on the Finger Lakes Gorges
All four gorges are run by the New York State Parks system. Entrance to these New York State Parks is $8/day, which means you can pay once to get in as many parks as you can that day. There seems to be ample parking at all trailheads — we were able to find parking mid-day Saturday on Labor Day weekend. Parking lots are close to trailheads and we found the trails to be in very good condition. Note that the Watkins Glen gorge trail is wet and somewhat slippery its entire length and the Buttermilk gorge trail similarly has damp sections. While we took two days, a fit hiker could easily do all four gorges in a summer day.
Great hikes attract many hikers. These gorges are no exception. That said, we actually enjoyed sharing these canyons with other travelers. Our fellow hikers were a delightful mix of cultures, ethnicities and ages from 8 months to 80+ years. The level of trail etiquette and courtesy was exceptionally high making it pleasant to share the experience. We wish we could say the same about visitors to some of our National Parks.
What Hiking Gear to Take
We actually did all four Finger Lakes Gorges in our Bedrock Sandals which were great, especially in the wetter gorges. For more great info on what to take on a hike checkout our top ranked 3 lb Ultralight Day Hiking Gear Checklist | stay safe, be light, have fun! Your legs and back will thank you.
Watkins Glen Gorge Trail | 3.0 miles round trip
Watkins Glen, likely our favorite, is intimate, deep and narrow with seeps, hanging gardens and nonstop cascades top to bottom. You even walk under a few waterfalls. Accessing the length of this gorge would not be possible without the beautifully constructed stone walkways, stairways and bridges built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). These man made structures, far from detracting from your experience, are in harmony with the canyon and seem to enhance it. Not to be missed.
Buttermilk Falls Gorge Trail | 1.5 or 4.7 miles round trip
Buttermilk Falls starts with a bang. The named Buttermilk Falls are at the entrance of the hike and go up farther than the eye can see. The cascades are varied and constant, each one with its individual character and charm. What’s distinctive to Buttermilk are its emerald plunge pools. This includes the first plunge pool at the entrance to Buttermilk falls that’s open for public swimming in the summer.
We recommend an optional loop hike at the end of the gorge which adds 3.2 miles. This goes around Truman “lake,” now more of a wetlands than lake, with excellent habitat for birding and wildlife observation.
Taughannock Falls | 1.5 miles or 4.3 miles round trip
Taughannock Falls is higher than Niagara Falls. In fact, at 215 vertical feet its the tallest free-standing waterfall east of the Rockies. It’s not to be missed. This is the easiest of the Gland Slam, as the bluestone road to the falls is wheelchair and stroller accessible. What makes the falls even more grand is its setting in a 400 feet canyon. Make sure to spend some time at the base of the falls mesmerized by the water falling from the cliffs towering above you.
Taughannock has the best rim trail and is as stunning as the gorge trail, highly recommended. Its independent of the gorge trail and is 2.8 miles. You get many views down into the canyon 400 feet below including some great fall viewpoints as well as views across the Finger Lakes. The beautiful upper falls are only accessed via the rim trail.
Unlike the other gorges, this glen starts small and builds big. The trail starts with a pleasant walk through the woods with a moderate climb. After you drop down to the gorge bottom, the cascades get larger as you move up stream culminating with the 115 ft Lucifer Falls. A stone staircase clings to the cliff wall adjacent to the falls giving you spectacular views all the way to the top. Continuing past Lucifer Falls, you enter a narrower and more intimate gorge with some beautiful smaller falls and pools. Eventually you arrive at the upper parking area which houses a good museum of an old mill house, worth a brief visit.
From the mill, take the Rim Trail back to lower parking that will take you past an excellent viewpoint for Lucifer Falls — selfie nirvana! At the bottom of the rim trail, is one of the best swimming holes we’ve ever seen. This natural swimming hole has a huge waterfall rushing into it complete with full facilities including lifeguard and bath houses. You are in luck if you have a swim suit and a towel!
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