Gorge-ous Ithaca: A Change of Plan

A wise man once said “You can’t always get what you want…but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”

For my last day in Ithaca last summer, what I wanted was to go to Buttermilk Falls, one of those MUST-SEE places people were talking about. What I got was a balky knee that wouldn’t handle the steps to the second floor without complaint, much less all the climbing to be done at Buttermilk.

Change of plan.

I was disappointed to miss Buttermilk Falls, but knew my knee wasn’t up to it. Now what? Ron to the rescue! My cousin quickly came up with a different hike. One with plenty to see, lots of woods and water, a unique geological attraction. It was an easier hike he thought I might enjoy.

And he was right!

Which is how Ron and I came to the Monkey Run Natural Area, in search of the fabled Cliffs of Varna. Never heard of them? Neither had I.

A short walk from the parking area brought us to the banks of a creek. Fall Creek, to be exact, the same creek where we’d paddled, and admired Ithaca Falls. This time we were a bit upstream from the Fall Creek Gorge.

The trail left the creek and began to climb gently through dark hemlock woods. As it climbed, the drop off toward the creek got steeper.

I spotted a nice basket of Ostrich Ferns.

The view from above Fall Creek.

As I was taking pictures, Ron cautioned me not to get too close, and I quickly saw why. What looks like good ground might not have anything underneath!

Mr. Chipmunk knows enough to stay clear of the edge.

By the time we had followed the path around this bend, we’d descended back to creek level. As is my wont, I made a beeline for the water. No shortage of rocks here.

Looking downstream. Notice how the left bank (where we were walking) has hemlocks and the right bank has deciduous trees.

Pop quiz: Were we on the northern or southern side of the creek?

Across the creek, we began to see the cliffs of legend. Quite an alien landscape! Fall Creek split around a small rocky island. Looking for a better vantage point, I crossed over to the island. Meanwhile Ron walked upstream and disappeared.

After a few minutes I followed, and found him gazing at the cliffs, lost in thought.

The Cliffs of Varna. I’d seen a lot of cliff faces in my travels through the gorges of Ithaca, but these were quite different. Try though I might, I couldn’t find out what rock the cliffs are made of. Clearly there was a lot of erosion going on. One would think rock climbers would be all over this, but Ron said that the rock in the Ithaca area is too soft for that.

Looking at the wavy bluffs, I was reminded of formations I’d seen out West. A single sentinel atop the cliffs reinforced that impression. Like a miniature version of the tent rocks at Kashe-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument near Santa Fe, NM. Unlike Kashe-Katuwe, the Cliffs of Varna are not volcanic in origin. But both are the result of differential erosion, where the surrounding rock eroded, but left behind this cone. Sometimes these are call “hoodoos”.

After a bit, we moved on. The woods were full of small treats. Mushrooms. Parasitic plants. Two tiny toads.

Now class, do you have your answers to our pop quiz ready?

Answer: Hemlocks grow on the southern side of Fall Creek where it’s shady and damp.

On the way home, we made the briefest of stops at Sapsucker Woods, home of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Too brief. I will have to add that to my growing Finger Lakes bucket list, along with Buttermilk Falls, and Watkins Glen.

We can make plans all we want, but sometimes life has other ideas. Buttermilk Falls, and so much more, will have to wait for next time. On this day, the Cliffs of Varna were just what I needed.

4 thoughts on “Gorge-ous Ithaca: A Change of Plan

  1. Fascinating read, fact and photos! And the names Buttermilk falls, Cliffs of Varna add to the charm.. Gives a fairyland feeling!

  2. Ok, so I live close to Been a and have never heard of seen these cliffs. Thanks for the intro and beautiful pics, I will be sure to visit.

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