After visiting the Catskills, we drove out to find the Empire State’s best waterfalls. In our expedition to boldly ignore the famous advice TLC gave us in their 1994 smash hit, we headed towards the Finger Lakes.
But first – Agloe, New York: an unreal town (literally) devised by 1930’s mapmakers Otto G. Lindberg and assistant Ernest Alpers of the General Drafting Company. The two marked their maps with the fictional city as a way of catching mapmaking copycats. Their plan backfired, however, when a general store was built on the exact intersection where Agloe was marked and took the name Agloe General Store.
When the city appeared on a Rand McNally map, a lawsuit was threatened, but the mapmaker fought it by pointing out that the town had actually become real. With the sole general store long out of business, Agloe is not much to see today -- but a trip through the imaginary city gives you solid road trip bragging rights!
From Agloe, we traveled a quick two hours to our first real destination of the day: Ithaca Falls. These secluded falls are also some of the most impressive; a 175 ft. wide, 150-ft. tall column of hydraulic power! Just a short walk away from the parking area, it’s a perfect spot for those who want to catch a glimpse of waterfall country without panting and puffing through strenuous hiking trails.
We didn’t mind the rain, cruising along Cayuga Lake and then headed towards Ithaca, New York, the hilly city home to Cornell University.
Ithaca is well known for being the home of Cornell and Ithaca College, but there is so much to do outside the college campuses. Ithaca Commons, a downtown area of just four blocks from campus has a hundred shops, galleries and restaurants. So you’re into bagels? Collegetown Bagels has the best bagels outside of Manhattan, in our humble opinion, or if you’re looking to remedy a grumbling stomach with pub food and a microbrew at a sidewalk table, hit the Ithaca Ale House.
We followed the booklovers and music enthusiasts into Autumn Leaves Used Books, home to over 60,000 books. Here, you can browse hard-to-find vinyls downstairs at Angry Mom Records, get a glimpse at rare book finds in a register case (Sir Francis Bacon essays from the 17th century, anyone?) and order a cup of joe at The Crows Nest, a pirate-themed cafe decorated with a rotating collection of local artwork, also inside the bookshop.
Cornell’s Uris Library is another mandatory Ithaca stop for bibliophiles roadtrippin’ the Finger Lakes: deemed the “Harry Potter Library” by many students, sunlight pours into Uris through stained glass windows. An open center overlooks three tiers of stacks set off by wrought iron rails.
There were more falls to see along the shores of the Cayuga -- Ludlowville Falls just north of Ithaca is a local’s favorite. But with our eye set on Seneca Lake, we dropped our bags at Firelight Camps, and zipped out of the city on Route 13 to hunt down some more epic falls.
We saved some time and shot just across the lake to visit Taughannock Falls, whose 215-foot plunge makes it taller than even Niagara Falls. A tourist spot since the 1870’s, Victorian hotels were built all around the region for the sole purpose of housing visitors to the tallest falls east of the Rocky Mountains.
It’s debatable where the name of the falls came from. Some say it’s derived from Iroquois and Algonquin terms and means “great falls in the woods.” Others say it was named after a Lenni Lenape chief who died in battle not fall from the falls.
Twilight Zone fans know the Taughannock Falls as the subject of Norma’s painting in an episode where two women are left to survive on a freezing earth that’s moving further and further away from the sun. The oil painting of the falls becomes an eerie representation of darkness in the cult classic TV show.
Outside the tall falls is Trumansburg, a village where shops and eateries line a small but charming downtown. Our favorite: Atlas Bowl, where you can practice nailing that 7-10 split with a $5 Gin Rickey in hand and celebrate your strikes with totchos (tater tot nachos, duh).
Just because we had made it to the tallest fall, that didn’t mean our hunt was over. We headed towards Fillmore Glen State Park which packs bang for the buck in terms of waterfalls: five of them can be hiked to in this densely wooded park.
A long stretch of Fingers Lake Country road brought us west to Watkins Glen State Park. This state park gives even Fillmore Glen a run for its money with 19 (19!) waterfalls over two miles of stream that flow through a 400-foot deep gorge. The three-mile trail loop will bring you past each and every one of the parks’ falls and sometimes under or over them. One stretch spans right across the spray of Cavern Cascade and another winds around the gorge for unforgettable overlooks. Wear some comfortable shoes: you’ll hike up over 800 well-worth-it steps in pursuit of waterfall views.
We were dog-tired and totally satisfied with the day as we packed the troops and camera equipment into the FIAT 500X (which has a pretty spacious cabin for all our gear) and headed back to our “glamping” site for the night. Firelight Camps looked absolutely enchanting when we pulled in that night with old-fashioned lanterns illuminating our luxury tents. We kicked back in their glow around a warm fire, fighting to keep our eyes open in rustic Adirondack chairs.
Time was of the essence -- but if we had more of it, we would have spent it channeling our zen in campground-wide yoga classes or getting to know our neighbors at happy hour in the lounge tent. But as it is, we were thrilled to have unheard of camping luxuries like a freshly made bed, plush towels and a shower whose temperature knob we could control.
Between our downtown explorations and waterfall vistas, we called it an early night after watching the sunset over trees and wildflowers. It was the perfect place to lay our heads after spending the day in one of the Finger Lakes’s best known cities. We’d heard the locals say it, but now we believed it: Ithaca truly is gorge-ous.
Photos by Erik Fuller