10 Things to Do in ‘Gorges’ County

Home to Cornell University, Tompkins County offers a wide array of entertainment options

By Sandra Scott

Located at the tip of Cayuga Lake, Tompkins County is truly ‘gorge’ous.’

The many gorges are home to a variety of stunning waterfalls. The county seat, Ithaca, is a bustling college town, with many art galleries, museums, theaters and cultural attractions. The county is home to four New York state parks that offer a plethora of activities for the outdoor enthusiast.

1. Get an education: Wherever there are institutions of higher learning there are bound to be cultural activities along with educational opportunities. Ithaca is home to both Cornell and Ithaca College. The Martin Y. Tang Welcome Center at Cornell is the best place for visitors to start their exploration of the campus. Take one of their walking tours. Ithaca College also offers campus tours. Tompkins Cortland Community College is a two-year college that has an open house in the spring. All institutions of higher learning offer classes for non-matriculated learners.

2. Historical: The Tompkins Center for History and Culture has moved to 10 N. Tioga St. in Ithaca. One display features the “Tommy” plane, a Thomas-Morse S-4B Scout which was manufactured in Ithaca during WW I. The Hanger Theater also has images of “Tommy.” In nearby Newfield there is the 115-foot long covered bridge built in 1851 across a branch of the Cayuga inlet for a total cost of $800. It is the oldest covered bridge in New York that continues to carry motor vehicle traffic. The 1890 House Museum located on Tompkins Street in Cortland was built in 1890 for industrialist Chester F. Wickwire, who lived in the home from 1890 until his death in 1910.

3. Art: The building that houses the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art on the Cornell campus is in itself a work of art. It was designed by I. M. Pei so as to not block a view of Cayuga Lake while offering a panoramic view of the area. The museum’s collections represent of all genres of art. The visible-storage gallery provides visitors with an appreciation of the scope of the museum’s outstanding permanent collection. The installation of more than 1,100 objects provides an opportunity to study a large number of related works of art up close. Ithaca’s State of the Art Gallery is a cooperative exhibiting new works of art as does Handwork and the John Hartell Galley. The North Star Art Gallery features primarily contemporary realism in a variety of media as does the Corners Gallery. There is no shortage of live performances to enjoy. The Hangar Theater is a nonprofit, regional theater with a variety of presentations, including Broadway productions. The State Theater, of Ithaca, an historic, 1600-seat theater hosts various events from bands, to plays, to comedy acts, to silent films, and more. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Cornell University and Ithaca College also have great live productions. The Kitchen Theater Company is an intimate 99-seat venue showcasing new and familiar plays.

4. Waterfalls: Aficionados of waterfalls will be in seventh heaven as the county is home to many beautiful waterfalls including the 215-foot Taughannock Falls, the highest single-drop waterfall east of the Rockies. Popular Buttermilk Falls has a natural swimming pool at the bottom of the falls where, during the summer, swimming is allowed. There are many more falls including Lucifer Falls, Triphammer Falls and Ithaca Falls.

5. For the birds: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a world leader in the study, appreciation and conservation of birds. It is housed in the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity in Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary. The visitors’ center observatory features a 30-foot wall of windows with spotting scopes. The Bartels Theater shows high-definition movies about birds and nature. A sound studio and kiosks educate visitors about bird and animal sounds. Two huge murals can also be found on observatory walls. There are four miles of walking trails where more than 230 species of birds have been recorded.

6. Libations: Tompkins County is in the Finger Lakes region where the conditions are perfect for wineries. There are several, including Six Mile Creek Vineyard, Ithaca’s oldest and housed in a 19th century Dutch colonial barn. They also produce vodka, gin and a full line of Italian-inspired products. Ithaca Beer Company has grown from a small brew house to a major brewery. South Hill Cider ferments traditional heirloom cider apples along with wild apples collected locally. Most wineries are part of the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail.

7. Lake fun: If you don’t have your own boat, kayak, or canoe (you can rent a kayak or canoe from Puddledockers) then a boat tour is a must. MV Teal offers a variety of interpretive lake tours and the fare goes to support lake access and education for children. Ithaca Boat Tours offers a wide variety of narrated boat tours including a sunset cruise. Myers Park has a large boat marina and three paved launching ramps.

8. Nature: With several parks and wilderness areas there are ample places to commune with nature. The Cascadilla Gorge trail follows the Cascadilla Creek as it drops 400 feet from the campus to downtown Ithaca where sedimentary rock from 400 million years ago is exposed. The Cornell Botanic Gardens consist of 25 acres of botanical gardens and 150 acres in the F.R. Newman Arboretum. Ithaca Children’s Garden is an award-winning three-acre public children’s garden designed for kids.

9. Events: No matter the season, there is always a reason for a special event. The Apple Harvest Festival is one of the biggest followed by the Ice Festival, Chowder Cook-off, Summer Concert Series, and Gallery nights. Welcome Students Weekend is another occasion for an event. Visitors can expect food and music. There are several farmers’ markets.

10. Atlas Obscura: Explore earth and its prehistoric past at The Museum of the Earth. The Wilder Brain Collection has more than 600 human brains collected years ago with some on display. The Sagan Planet Walk, named after Cornell professor Carl Sagan, is a 1:5 billion scale model of our solar system. Visitors can stroll through Gourdlandia and learn about the art and science of gourd cultivation.