Ithaca Bike Rental worker smiling with bicycles hanging in the background

One of the first things I look for when traveling is a good bike trail. I have pretty specific criteria in mind, some that are deal breakers and some that just make the experience more pleasurable. Not interested in mountain biking, I look for trails that are relatively flat with a smooth surface. If there are scenic views and wildlife along the way, all the better. I don’t really want to dodge in and out of traffic, but city trails with dedicated bike paths are fine, especially if they go through parks or lead to neighborhood eateries that offer a chance to rest and refuel. Easy parking near trail access points is important; looping trails that get me back to my car without too much backtracking are especially nice.

I’m frequently surprised by how hard it can be to find trails that meet all, or even most, of my requirements. In areas that are unfamiliar, I do Google searches, peruse guide books, and call local bike shops. Where are the trails? It finally dawned on me that I am spoiled by the wealth of trail options back at home in Ithaca.

Here, I can throw my bike on the rack and head into town on a whim. Pulling into Stewart Park, I am sure to find plenty of parking facing the sparkling waters of Cayuga Lake. This section of the Waterfront Trail begins just feet from my car—easy, peasy. [No worries if you don’t happen to have a bike—Ithaca Bike Rentals is conveniently located in the Youth Bureau building at the entrance to the park!).

The trail is paved and almost entirely flat, making for a relaxed pedal. However, the gorgeous lake views, landscaping and variety of human activity make the ride anything but boring! There is something new and interesting going on around every twist and turn.

family riding bikes on the Cayuga Waterfront Trail

On any given day, you might see a multi-generational Tae Kwon Do class going through their forms on the grass or a Cornell Outdoor Education class dangling from the trees. Families with small children have picnics and play on the handicapped-accessible playground, while birders enjoy the Fuertes Bird Sanctuary. On the other side of the footbridge, people fishing line the banks of Fall Creek during fishing season, while golfers enjoy a different type of serenity at Neuman public golf course.

If it’s a weekend, the Ithaca Farmers Market will be open. [Tip for locals and tourists—to avoid the congested parking area on Market days, come by bike!] I highly recommend locking up your bike and taking a stroll through the pavilion to see local art, crafts and foodstuffs or do some wine and cider tasting. If you’re hungry, it will be hard to choose between the wide variety of food options (Chocolate croissants or breakfast burritos? Cider donuts or savory samosas?). Whatever you choose can be enjoyed while listening to live music near the dock. You could even take a boat tour of Cayuga Lake on the MV Teal with Discover Cayuga Lake and return to continue your bike ride in an hour or so.

On the other side of the Farmers Market, the Cayuga Waterfront Trail hugs the Inlet. If it happens to be a regatta day, the Ithaca College and Cornell boathouses will be hives of activity. Rowers and their families will congregate along the shore to watch the races and cheer for their teams. You’ll have to be careful to avoid the long shells being moved to and from the staging area, but it is back to smooth pedaling once past that obstacle.

 A short, two-block stretch of sidewalk links the two sections of the Cayuga Waterfront Trail and crosses to the other side of the Inlet. If your ride doesn’t correspond with a Farmers Market open day, this is your chance to grab a bite. Keep it simple by stopping at the bright orange On the Street Pita food truck visible from the trail behind Micky Roof Jewelers (the building with the giant dragonfly sculpture on the roof!) or explore a little further afield for waterfront dining at Boatyard Grill.

Once over the bridge, the Cayuga Waterfront Trail heads into Cass Park. Some savvy locals watch regattas from this less-crowded vantage point, while the ball fields are often full of young baseball, softball or soccer players.

You’ll pedal past the public boat launch and kayak racks, past the dog parks and the Hangar Theater. You may choose to explore the newest section of the trail beyond Treman Marina. Picnic tables and benches offer a view of sailboats on the lake and the ospreys overhead.

The original Cass Park section of the trail is a two-mile loop. The rear part of the path takes you past the ice rink, where you’ll cross Route 89. Be sure to check out the Ithaca Children’s Garden with its huge sculpture of Gaia the turtle before pedaling up the brief incline to the sidewalk and back toward Stewart Park.

Meet Gaia the Turtle

In all, I usually spend a few hours on the trail and go about 12 miles with many stops to enjoy all the sights and sounds along the way.

One of the things I appreciate most is how many different kinds of people enjoy the multi-use waterfront trail and its surrounding spaces. From dog walkers to sports enthusiasts, boaters and fisherman to golfers and young families, tourists and nature lovers to foodies and musicians—there is something along the trail for all of them! And this is only one of the many trail options in and around Ithaca.

If I had wanted to extend my ride, I could’ve tackled the Black Diamond Trail which connects Cass Park with Taughannock Falls State Park (another 8.5 miles or so in one direction). The Black Diamond Trail is a crushed gravel surface with a slight incline, barely noticeable for most of its distance. The steepest grade is at the bottom, heading out of Cass Park.

I prefer to access the Black Diamond Trail from one of its mid-point parking areas along Glenwood Heights Road or Perry City Road and ride to Taughannock and back. From the northern trailhead, it is a short jaunt to the Taughannock Falls Overlook, definitely worth the detour! There is also a Visitor’s Center there, offering lots of information, maps and souvenirs (and a public restroom!).

If you have two vehicles, another option would be to leave one at Cass Park and pedal the entire Black Diamond Trail from north to south. Of course, you can always tackle the entire 17-mile round trip if you’re up for it!

Whichever option you choose, reward yourself at the end of your pedal with a burger and Bloody Mary at the Glenwood Pines Restaurant on Route 89. Or, if you prefer, stop at Bet The Farm Winery on Krums Corners Road for a glass of wine, some local cheese and a beautiful view. It’s just a short distance off the trail up Perry City Road. (Full disclosure—if you come on a weekend, it might be me pouring your Pinot Gris! Come say hello!)

There are other trails in the area to explore as well. Check out the Dryden Rail Trail or the South Hill Recreation Way. Both are great options and offer their own highlights.         

No wonder I have such high expectations when traveling! I’m bound to be disappointed when I can’t find trails that compare with what is freely available in my own backyard.

Cayuga Waterfront Trail Sign

Guest contributor
Cathy Shipos grew up in the Ithaca area and never left! She loves introducing newcomers to some of her favorite places and sharing little-known tips and tidbits along the way. For more local insights, check out her 'Food for Thought' column in Tompkins Weekly.