5pm: Hike the Legend of Taughannock Falls

taughannock falls pours over the gorge in the brilliance of autumn

Photograph by Daniel Peckham


Legend has it that the falls are named for a Delaware Indian chief who, upon leading his tribe to invade the local Cayuga people, was thrown from the top of his cliff to his demise in the pools below.

Another possible derivation for the name comes from a native word meaning “great fall in the woods”. Either one is fitting for this spectacular site, picturesque of what most of us think when imagining a true waterfall, a straight and narrow plummet of liquid some 215 feet in direct descent.

My footsteps are heavy as we begin the short, slightly uphill journey from the Cayuga Lake to Taughannock’s burial grounds. A baby hoisted onto my shoulders, I am a human transformer in these woods. He points at the leaves blowing in the wind on the canopying trees. Children play precariously on the cliffs of the lower falls. Teenagers swim in what pools of water are large enough to allow it. The cliffside of a mighty gorge rises up to our left, towering over the trail, its population of hikers ranging from the young and fit to the elderly wielding canes as companions. The riverbed lies below and to the right, carved out from eons of riverflow through the area. Ithaca is Gorges is the local slogan, and it’s a bumpersticker truer than most.

Signs on the trail warn of the dangers of leaving the designated walking path, but kids of all ages pay them no mind exploring the nearly dried up river bed. It’s been a long, dry and incredibly hot summer in Ithaca. Occasionally the treetops give way and let the sun beat back down on our collective foreheads. Sweat begins to drip from the pits of my elbows, my arms bent as acutely as possible to hold my young sons feet, assuring his attempts at grabbing a leaf from a hanging limb won’t relieve him of his position atop my shoulders.

The walk is easier than cake on a conveyor belt and as we approach the wooden bridge that leads to the last short stretch of trail before hitting the falls, it rumbles down over the side of the gorge like a silk cloth falling from space. I dismount the baby from my shoulders and, bare feet on the rocky trail, he bolts toward the closest stick he can find. Little boys are born loving discarded tree fragments, and he wields it like a sword or fork or cane, whichever the current moment and his tiny, ever-increasing in capability brain can imagine.

I take a few photos, he just takes it in. This is one of those things that can’t quite be photographed, even memory likely serves it a plate full of injustice. It’s just beautiful to see falling, forever spilling gallon after gallon of the river above to spray the bottom, passing broken rock cliffside which resembles a bowl of ginger snap cookie dough in color, broken and cut from falling debris in almost perfectly square sheets. Thousands of people hike this trail every year, and I can’t imagine any are disappointed. Even with the falls slowed to a desperate trickle after the long summer drought, it’s a site to see. I imagine ancient Indians doing hatchet battle along the top edge. I can see Chief Taughannock suffering the blow which allows his killer to hoist him over his head and spiral over the water like a highway sign to his final moments.

We begin to cross back over the bridge and I wonder what it would be like to cross such a wooden manmade structure when the water is actually gushing. The baby, back on my shoulders, points back at the falls and waves goodbye.