More Than A Day Trip
Waterfalls, hands-on science and homemade ice cream: the perfect ingredients for a true summer vacation daytrip. And it’s all just about an hour away in Ithaca. For some reason, many Central New Yorkers, me included, don’t head to Ithaca often enough to experience all the child-friendly activities available.
Start the day with the scenic drive south on Interstate 81 to Route 13 South, the main drag into Ithaca, a historic college town with plenty of room for visitors in the summer. The Sciencenter will soon appear on your left. Allow 90 minutes to two hours to explore all the hands-on exhibits. Children as young as 2 can try the water, foam blocks and air station among others in “Curiosity Corner,” for ages up to 4. Even my “big kids” at 11 and 12 enjoyed the water gates damming game, an astronaut exhibit and the Bernoulli blower airstream that can balance a ball, all spread throughout the museum. This summer’s special exhibit is called Roll, Drop, Bounce, which includes 12 colorful, interactive stations that demonstrate the properties of movement and physics.
We were there on a drizzly day but went outside anyway to climb around and investigate the play area, a.k.a. Emerson Science Park. In good weather, you can try Galaxy Golf ($3 per game), which mixes math and science principles at each of the 12 miniature golf holes.
Then, it’s time for lunch. I heartily recommend Ithaca Bakery for bagels, soup, salads, coffee and dessert (of course). Get it to go if you want to picnic at one of the area’s parks located on Cayuga Lake. I like the Taughannock Falls State Park. Picnic tables, a concession stand, playground and public bathrooms are available for a lunch time of boat-, bird- and people-watching along the lake. After lunch, we packed up and walked across the road to the “gorge-ous” side of the park where there’s also another parking lot. Here, three easily walkable trails lead to and around two waterfalls. We tried the South Rim trail, which had plenty of tree cover and ran right along the Taughannock Creek and Taughannock Gorge for 1 mile. (Find a park map here: http://www.visitithaca.com/files/TaughannockFallsStatePark.pdf)
On the way back, we crossed into the gorge to pick up the Gorge Trail, the shortest trail at three-quarters of a mile, which allowed us to walk through some shallow parts of the creek and over lots of rocks and stones in the gorge. In July the water was not deep or running much, so it was very safe for venturing in and we were following others. But always check each day’s conditions.
If you still have energy and not-yet-cranky kids, head back to the city of Ithaca for some bird watching or art viewing.
Follow the signs to Sapsucker Woods, located north of Cornell University’s campus on the other side of Cayuga Lake from the Taughannock Falls. The chirping of birds should draw you to Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology and the visitor center, where more interactive exhibits of sound and video await. Watch through giant windows as the birds frolic in the bird-feeding garden; then borrow some binoculars and venture onto one of the short trails through the Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary. From one-third to three-quarters of a mile, the trails are just the right length for little legs. Take along a checklist of birds and see which ones you can spot. The center also features world-renowned art.
Speaking of art, another nearby stop is the Johnson Museum of Art, perched atop Libe Slope on Cornell University’s campus. Just stopping in the I.M. Pei-designed building for a breath of air conditioning can provide a picturesque break from outdoor hiking and touring. And admission is free. Look up to the 12,000 white LED lights that dance across the ceiling of the Mallin Sculpture Court, check out the extensive views of Cayuga Lake and then head outside into the Morgan Garden, a Japanese-style, dry-landscape garden.
Next to walking near the falls, my favorite stop of the day is at Purity Ice Cream, which is located on the corner of Cascadilla Street and Route 13, not far from the Sciencenter. This old-fashioned ice cream parlor features a dozen homemade flavors and some baked goods, such as cupcakes and muffins. Ideally the sugar rush will fade just in time for the kids to sleep for most of the way home.
OK, so a second trip might be needed next month. This time, start with the Museum of the Earth and its new exhibit on glaciers. Kids can crawl through an “ice cave” (yes, it’s fake; we build our own here in winter) as they learn how glaciers are formed and move. That should help keep the whole family cool in August. As part of the Paleontological Research Institution, most of the museum is filled with the exhibit A Journey Through Time, which displays a variety of objects, from microfossils to giant Ice Age animals. You can’t miss the Hyde Park mastodon skeleton, which was just excavated and displayed in this century, or the skeleton of the now-extinct right whale. Inspired children can also search for fossils in the fossil lab.
After examining the Earth, it’s time for laughs at The Hangar Theatre, located at 801 Taughannock Blvd. You probably saw it on the way to Taughannock Falls. Located in a renovated airport hangar, the company’s Kiddstuff matinees offer plays or musicals for children: With Two Wings, a tale about Icarus; A Year with Frog and Toad, which includes tap dancing in the woods by the duo; James and the Giant Peach, in which the book comes to life; and The Wiz, another musical version of The Wizard of Oz adapted for children.
The shows end around lunchtime, so take your picnic lunch to Buttermilk Falls State Park, which is located just south of the city. If driving Route 13 South to Buttermilk Falls, plenty of the usual restaurants may delight children as well: Friendly’s, McDonald’s, etc. Mareike Larsen, who lives 25 minutes outside Ithaca, prefers to take kids to Buttermilk Falls instead of Taughannock. Buttermilk is closer to the city and offers more quick hikes near waterfalls and swimming possibilities, she says. Kids can swim in a small lake or pool, race to the playground or hike through a wetland or gorge. Plan to take your time here and enjoy.
If you have any energy left, the Cornell Plantations offer enough options to fill another half of the day. Oswego parents Jason and Rebecca Zenor pushed the stroller through the Botanical Gardens in May, which he thought was fun. And the kids? “They don’t necessarily appreciate nature’s beauty just yet,” he says. He hopes that will change when their boys are older than 2 and 4. “They liked the Sciencenter better because it’s more hands on.”
Twelve different gardens make up the Botanical Gardens, including the poisonous plants garden, which may intrigue some youngsters and pet lovers. This garden is designed to show visitors and Cornell’s veterinary students some of the plants that are toxic to animals (and sometimes humans as well). The Plantations also include the Arboretum, which provides more nature trails for hiking. Children may also want to check out the looming statues in the Sculpture Garden. With so much to do at the Plantations, a website can help parents plan their visit: http://www.cornellplantations.org/visitor-info/plan-your-visit.
After all this planning, if the kids decide they don’t want to join you in Ithaca, don’t despair. Plenty of shops await the unencumbered parent in downtown Ithaca Commons, several blocks of renovated buildings, artist galleries, restaurants (like the world-famous natural foods Moosewood Restaurant) and more. Perhaps that’s something to look forward to for another day or even when the kids are back in school.
Eileen Gilligan, an award-winning writer and mother of two, lives in Baldwinsville.
Sciencenter. 601 First St., Ithaca. (607) 272-0600. www.sciencenter.org. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, $6 for ages 3 to 17, and free to members and children under 3.
Ithaca Bakery. 400 N. Meadow St., Ithaca. (607) 273-7110. http://ithacabakery.com.
Taughannock Falls State Park. 1740 Taughannock Blvd. (Route 89), Trumansburg. (607) 387-6739.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 159 Sapsucker Woods Road, Ithaca. (800) 843-2473. www.birds.cornell.edu. Free admission.
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. Cornell University, 114 Central Ave., Ithaca. (607) 255-6464. museum.cornell.edu/. Park in the metered lot across from the museum; bring quarters!
Purity Ice Cream. 700 Cascadilla St., Ithaca. (607) 272-1545. purtiyicecream.com.
Museum of the Earth. 1259 Trumansburg Road, Ithaca. (607) 273-6673. www.museumoftheearth.org/. Admission is $8 per adult, $3 for age 4 and older.
Hangar Theatre. 801 Taughannock Blvd., Ithaca. (607) 273-8588. www.hangartheatre.org. Each children's show is held at 10 a.m. and noon, Thursdays through Saturdays. Tickets cost about $7 each. Check the website for more details and to purchase tickets online.
Buttermilk Falls State Park. Located off Route 31 South, Ithaca. (607) 273-5761. http://nysparks.com/parks/151/. Car admission is $7 without season pass.
Cornell Plantations/Arboretum/Botanical Gardens. 124 Comstock Knoll Drive, Ithaca. (607) 255-2400. www.cornellplantations.org. Admission is free; some parking fees may apply.
Moosewood Restaurant. 215 N. Cayuga St, Ithaca. (607) 273-9610. http://www.moosewoodcooks.com/restaurant/