Unplug & Connect to Nature
Looking for ways to connect your family with nature in the Ithaca area? We are lucky that the Ithaca area is vibrantly full of ways to engage with the glorious outdoors in a variety of ways with four seasons of outdoor fun. There are many beautiful outdoor spaces in the Finger Lakes where you can introduce your family to nature and spend a day unplugged. Here is a list of some of our favorites to get you started in your outdoor exploring!
Outdoor Activities for Families
Ithaca Children’s Garden (ICG)
A 3-acre public children’s garden driven by a mission to inspire the next generation of environmental stewards. ICG is FREE and open to all dawn to dusk. Located on the beautiful Cayuga Waterfront Trail and walkable to downtown Ithaca, ICG is home to Gaia, larger than life climbable turtle sculpture, with numerous attractions including a kitchen garden with honeybees and hens, a bird garden, straw-bale troll house, recycled bottle greenhouse, blooming bulb labyrinth, wildflower meadow, rice paddy pond, wetlands, and nationally recognized Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone. Here children will be encouraged to experience free play empowering them to explore and connect with nature in ways that are most meaningful to them. These experiences are likely to stay with kids for a long time and stimulate greater respect and love for nature. ICG is wheelchair accessible.
Cayuga Nature Center
Located on 120 hike-able acres of beautiful forests and fields overlooking Cayuga Lake you will find live wild animal education ambassadors to meet both indoors and outdoors or explore Tree Tops, a 6 story tree house to get a bird's-eye view of the canopy. Learn about the unique ecology of the historic Cayuga Lake Basin in the education lodge. The Cayuga Nature Center, a public education venue of the Paleontological Research Institution, provides an opportunity for nature enthusiasts of all ages to learn about environmental and outdoor education in a fun and engaging way.
Cornell Botanic Gardens
Alive with plants this 35-acre site incorporates 12 specialty gardens for you to enjoy. This beautiful arboretum and botanic garden has a diverse network of nature preserves to explore. Go find Newman Overlook, the highest point in the garden, and ring the giant bell at the top, not to mention the beautiful views you will find once you get there. This organization is dedicated to environmental conservation and education helping protect native species and habitats in Cornell Botanic Gardens' natural areas, throughout the region, and beyond. Located on Cornell University’s Campus, there’s a convenient parking lot located in front of the fully accessible Nevin Welcome Center.
New York State Parks
There are so many to choose from, but here are three to get you started:
- Taughannock Falls State Park - The iconic Taughannock Falls overlook is a must-see for visiting the Ithaca area. The falls plunge down past 215 feet of rocky cliffs that tower nearly 400 feet above the gorge. Here you can see the falls, but are also right next to Cayuga Lake with a lifeguard protected swimming area in the summer, large playground, and multiple opportunities for hiking up to the falls and around the rim of the gorge.
- Buttermilk Falls State Park - This beautiful site gets its name from the foaming cascade of water that is front and center when you enter the park. There is a playground adjacent to the park with tons of hiking and a lifeguard protected swimming area in the summer. The upper park has a small lake, hiking trails through woodlands and along the gorge and rim, picnic areas and playing fields. The lower park has a campground, natural pool and playing fields, beyond which is Larch Meadows. Larch Meadows is a wetland area through which a nature trail winds waiting for you to explore.
- Robert H. Treman State Park - This is an area of wild beauty, with the rugged gorge called Enfield Glen as its scenic highlight. Winding trails follow the gorge past 12 waterfalls, including the 115-foot Lucifer Falls, to where visitors can see a mile-and-a-half down the wooded gorge as it winds its way to the lower park, which houses a lifeguard protected swimming area in the summer. Camping is allowed here in either a tent, RV sites, or cabins.
If you are looking to stay closer to downtown Ithaca this falls is for you. An impressive drop of 150 feet this falls is the region’s most powerful. This is an easy trail to access and is open all year round. You can observe the falls from a safe distance with a picnic or just enjoy the beauty. There is no fee associated with visiting this falls, but there is no swimming here.
Cayuga Waterfront Trail
Ithaca’s 5.5-mile paved trail that goes alongside the water connecting all our favorite waterfront areas like the Ithaca Farmer’s Market and Cass Park. Walk, bike, run, or stroll, to enjoy this valuable community asset. This multi-use trail provides an active, non-motorized transportation and recreation way connecting our community's most popular waterfront destinations.
Tip: Ithaca Bike Rental is located in Stewart Park near the East Shore Visitor Center and offers a variety of bike styles for the whole family; helmet and locks are provided at no additional charge with all rentals
Black Diamond Trail
This 8.5-mile stone-dust path along the upland slopes of Cayuga Lake makes for an enjoyable family-oriented walk, bike, or even cross-country skiing opportunity from the city limits of Ithaca to the 215-foot waterfall, Taughannock Falls. You can find the entrance to this trail right next to Ithaca Children’s Garden. This Rail Trail is part of the old line that was once the flagship passenger line of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Known as the Black Diamond Express, this luxury passenger service ran from New York to Buffalo from 1896 until 1959.
About the author: Sophie Trowbridge is the Communications Coordinator for Ithaca Children’s Garden and a native Ithacan. She hopes to support and inspire the next generation of environmental stewards through her passion for educational outreach and wildlife conservation.