Thursday, October 27, 2011

Taughannock Falls

Mist spraying from the base of Taughannock Falls accents the footbridge near the end of the lower gorge trail - © Donna Mason-Spier
The highest waterfall in New York State is easily accessible off Rt. 89 northwest of Ithaca in Tompkins County. Taughannock Creek flows east and descends the valley slope to end in Cayuga Lake. Since the end of the last Ice Age, the creek, by utilizing two significant waterfalls, has cut an impressive gorge into the plateau. I suggest starting at the overlook on the north rim of the gorge about a half mile uphill from Rt. 89. Through a break in the forest, you gain an overview of the lower gorge below the main falls, plus a glimpse into the upper gorge above this falls.

Drive downhill and turn right (south) on Rt. 89, cross the creek and pull into the lower parking lot on your right. (If this lot is full, there are larger lots on the east side of Rt. 89, toward Taughannock Point, a delta created by the creek from sediments washed out of the hillside.) A three-quarter mile walking trail leads up the gorge through a mature forest to the base of 215' high Taughannock Falls. Yes, it's higher than Niagara, but of course it lacks the width and volume of water. (After all, Niagara drains the four upper Great Lakes on their way to Lake Ontario and then the St. Lawrence.)

The lower falls capped by Tully limestone - © Donna Mason-Spier
Even from the parking area, you can see the lowest falls, created by the resistant Tully limestone caprock. The weak Hamilton shales at the base of this falls are easily eroded with the result that blocks of limestone break off.  Both are members of the Catskill Delta created during the Devonian period.
Joints (tension cracks) crossing Tully limestone above lower falls - © Donna Mason-Spier
Above the lower falls, the creek has washed off the relatively flat surface of the Tully upstream to a wide "step" falls created by another layer of the limestone. Above that another flat surface continues upstream until you reach the black Geneseo shale.

Solution pits and minor joints in the surface of the Tully - © Donna Mason-Spier

Solution pits and a major joint in the surface of the Tully - © Donna Mason-Spier

The "step" falls formed by an upper stratum of Tully limestone - © Donna Mason-Spier

Black Geneseo shale beside the gorge trail - © Donna Mason-Spier
Further up the gorge you'll see the beige cliffs formed by more resistant Sherburne siltstone, a slightly younger rock overlying the Geneseo formation. Both are in the Genesee group.

When you reach the wide amphitheater surrounding the falls, the highest portion of the cliffs are Ithaca shale which begins about 25' above the crest of the falls. At this point the gorge is about 400' deep.

The amphitheater cut into Sherburne siltstone overlying dark Geneseo shale, both formations in the Genesee group - © Donna Mason-Spier

Collapsed pinnacle of Sherburne siltstone, the lighter strata above the dark Geneseo shale - © Donna Mason-Spier

Autumn foliage in the lower gorge, October 23, 2011 - © Donna Mason-Spier

Reflection of autumn foliage on Taughannock Creek, October 23, 2011 - © Donna Mason-Spier

Tree-lined Lower Gorge Trail - © Donna Mason-Spier
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