The gorge has Cascadilla Creek’s water winding through it on its way to Cayuga Lake, the longest of the 11 Finger Lakes in New York. The Finger Lakes were initially river lands with streams that ran from south to north. The lakes as we know them today were carved by advancing and receding glaciers over many ice age cycles that started approximately two million years ago when ice moved southward from Canada across the land. The ice was at its thickest approximately 21,000 years ago. The glaciers finally retreated approximately 11,000 years ago when the climate warmed. The Finger Lakes were left behind when the ice from the glaciers melted. These lake levels eventually fell and eroded steps into the landscape, forming waterfalls and the gorges, including Cascadilla Gorge. The sediment in the region had been soft sands, so the rushing water easily carved the steep vertical sides that make up the gorge. Cascadilla Gorge’s trail drops 122 meters (400 feet) from its highest elevation, which is in Collegetown, behind the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.
Cascadilla Gorge has many joints in its exposed rock faces. These are vertical fractures that are smooth and appear to have been carved by humans with a saw. The joints were produced by stress put on the rocks after a continental collision that occurred more than 250 million years ago. These are zones of weakness. Water collects in these cracks, and expands when it freezes, which further breaks the surrounding rock. This frost wedging can lead to rock falls. The rocks along the gorge faces are 400 million years old and contain ripple marks, which provide evidence for an ancient ocean in the region.
If you walk along the bottom of the gorge along the trail, you can travel from Cornell’s campus to downtown Ithaca without setting foot on streets or encountering traffic. It is easy to forget you are part of a community of thousands when you travel this way.
Photo courtesy of Doug Kerr via Flickr Creative Commons.
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For more information on Taughannock Falls, another feature associated with glacial retreat in the Finger Lakes region, please see: https://www.facebook.com/