Hiking The Buttermilk Falls State Park Gorge Trail



Stunning gorge and waterfalls on gorge trail at Buttermilk Falls State Park Ithaca NY

Located nestled away in Tompkins county in the New York Finger Lakes region, Buttermilk Falls State Park features frothing waterfalls, jagged gorges and natural beauty in abundance. This is a popular spot in summer because you can swim in a natural fed swimming hole at the base of a 165ft waterfall.

In this guide, we going to show you exactly how to hike through the Gorge Trail at Buttermilk Falls.

Our Buttermilk Falls Experience

People posing for a photo along the Gorge trail at Buttermilk Falls State Park
Mark and Kristen posing for a photo by one of the large waterfalls

Kristen grew up in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York and we temporarily lived in the region when Mark immigrated to the US in 2019. Visiting the state parks near Ithaca was how we spent a lot of our time during the pandemic and we continually visit them when we’re back in the area to see family.

All of the photos in this guide have been taken by us from a September 2020 and April 2023 visit so you can compare both spring and fall season. In September, it was very hot and we struggled to find parking, but in April, it was cold and rainy so we had most of the park to ourselves. Read more about us.

What Is Buttermilk Falls State Park?

Front on view of Buttermilk Falls in April
The 165ft waterfall in the state park by the main entrance
  • State Park: Buttermilk Falls
  • City: Ithaca
  • State: New York
  • Website: parks.ny.gov
  • Telephone: (607) 273-3440
  • Campgrounds: 25 and 18 cabins
  • Activities: Hiking, swimming, waterfalls, photography, camping
  • Open: All year (gorge trail closed in winter)
  • Annual Visitors: ~200,000

Buttermilk Falls State Park is home to a beautiful 165 ft high cascade waterfall with multiple tiers, bursting out of a wooded hill like a waterslide made of rock. However, the most captivating area lies further upstream, where sharply twisting ravines have eroded due to the perpetual flow of water plummeting towards Cayuga Lake.

The name Buttermilk was derived from the water’s creamy and foaming appearance as it cascades down the huge wide open angled slab of rock into a refreshing pool, perfect for jumping in on a hot day. It’s difficult to see from the bottom, but the falls are multi layered and twist around the gorge as it disappears from view.

You can hike along the Gorge Trail to see the best highlights in the park or you can choose one of the Rim Trails for easier access to Lake Treman. In addition to hiking, you can go camping, swimming or take advantage of the large ball fields on the west side of the park.

READ: Stunning New York State Parks

Directions To The Park

Buttermilk Falls State Park is ideally situated just 3 miles from central Ithaca in western New York state. Ithaca is the perfect base for exploring Buttermilk Falls as well as Robert H Treman, Taughannock Falls and even Watkins Glen State Parks as part of a wider Finger Lakes road trip.

  • Address: 106 E Buttermilk Falls Rd, Ithaca, NY 14850
  • Location: Google Maps

From downtown Ithaca, simply follow NY-13A South for around 10 minutes until you see signs for the state park. The entrance is straight ahead as you turn off NY-13A S. Let’s take a quick look at driving distances and times from nearby major cities including the closest airports if you’re visiting from further afield.

Buttermilk Falls distance from nearby major cities:

  • Binghamton, NY – 52 miles (1h 5m)
  • Syracuse, NY – 58 miles (1h 5 m)
  • Rochester, NY – 90.5 miles (1h 45 m)
  • Scranton, PA – 110 miles (2h 0m)
  • Buffalo, NY – 160 miles (2 h 55m)
  • Albany, NY – 160 miles (3h 10 m)

Search for your flights using the best search engine, Skyscanner. We love this platform because it compares prices on all flight platforms to find you the best deal. The same goes for renting a car, get a benchmark price using Rental Cars or Discover Cars and then see if you can beat it.

Here are the closest airports near Buttermilk Falls State Park:

  • Ithaca Tompkins International Airport (ITH) – 7miles (15m)
  • Syracuse Hancock International Airport (SYR) – 67 miles (1h 20m)
  • Greater Rochester International Airport (ROC) – 97 miles (1h 50m)

READ: How to book cheap flights

Entrance Fees

Woman getting into her SUV at the Buttermilk Falls main parking lot
Main gravel parking lot near the Gorge and Rim Trail entrances

You don’t have to pay an entrance fee and you don’t need a reservation to visit Buttermilk Falls State Park. However, you will have to pay $9.00 for parking your vehicle.

Most New York state parks charge a day-use vehicle fee to enter each facility. So while Buttermilk Falls is free to enter, a vehicle fee is collected April to November from 6:00am to 6:30pm daily. Payment is not taken at the gate but at a machine where you can pay cash or card.

Best Place To Park

Overflow parking lot at Buttermilk Falls State Park near Ithaca New York
Overflow parking lot new the ballfields

There are a few different places to park at Buttermilk Falls State Park. If you want to hike the Gorge Trail or access the swimming pool, the best place to park is at the smaller lot right at the main entrance, but it fills up extremely quickly, especially in peak season.

If you can’t find a spot, don’t worry because there is a huge overflow parking lot located nearby. So if you find yourself in a long line, turn around and head back to NY-13A, turn left and drive for 15-20 seconds, take the very first left turn and you’ll find the overflow car park on your right. From this lot, it will take you less than 5 minutes to walk to the beginning of Gorge Trail. When we visited on Labor Day, we had to park in this lot.

Both of these parking lots are located at the lowest elevation of the state park which means you’ll ascend first before looping around back to the entrance. But there is another option at the upper entrance.

To get to the upper entrance from Ithaca, take Spencer Road to Stone Quarry Road and W King Road. This parking lot dissects the Gorge Trail and the Bear Trail giving you access to both immediately. From here, you’ll begin at the highest elevation so you’ll descend first and then climb back up. However, the lot is small so it might be difficult to find a space in the summer.

Enjoy waterfalls? Don’t miss our popular guide to the best waterfalls in Upstate New York.


Buttermilk Falls Gorge Trail Walkthrough

Hiking is one of the main attractions at Buttermilk Falls and there are a total of seven hiking trails. Here are the seven official hikes with distances listed one way

  1. Bear Trail (BT) – 0.67 miles
  2. Finger Lakes Trail Spur (FLTS) – 1.15 miles
  3. Gorge Trail (GT) – 0.65 miles
  4. Larch Meadow Trail (LM) – 1.02 miles
  5. Lake Treman Trail (LT) – 1.29 miles
  6. Owl Creek Trail (OC) – 0.80 miles
  7. Rim Trail (RT) – 0.82 miles

The most popular hike is the the Gorge Trail which is 0.65 miles one way. The Gorge Trail is often combined with the Rim Trail to make a complete loop. Or you can continue hiking the Bear Trail near the upper entrance to Lake Treman.

We’re going to show you exactly what it’s like to hike the Rim Trail to the Gorge Trail as a loop. According to AllTrails, this hike should take about 60 minutes to complete.

  • Trail distance: 1.5 miles roundtrip
  • Difficulty: Moderate

The difficulty is listed as moderate because portions of the Rim Trail are steep and you’ll encounter numerous stairs along the Gorge Trail. Use this trail map to help you find specific points of interest in the park.

Without further ado, let’s climb through the gorge at Buttermilk Falls…

1. Rim Trail Ascent

Entrance to the Rim trail at Buttermilk Falls State Park
Dirt path entrance to the Rim Trail

The Rim Trail begins around 50 meters from the small parking lot not far from the restrooms, while the Gorge Trail terminates on the other side of state park. So if you use the overflow lot, you’ll be close to the Gorge trail entrance.

As you can see from our photo, the Rim Trail immediately ascends about 500 feet. You’ll walk along muddy dirt paths through sun blocking canopy as you gain elevation and follow the creekside. Be careful of tree roots and large stones sticking out of the ground.

Rim trail climbing quite steeply and through lovely forested land
The flat wooded section along the Rim Trail

Once you reach the top, the trail will even out and it’s a very nice walk through the shaded woods. If you worked up a sweat on the hill, it’s a welcomed break. There are a few areas you can see down into the gorge but you can’t really take any good photographs from this vantage point.

Poor angles, dim light and overgrown vegetation prevent clean views. There is also a bridge you can cross on the Gorge Trail to cut the hike short, but you’ll miss the best section so we wouldn’t recommend it.

2. Upper Gorge Trail Entrance

Entrance to the upper section of Buttermilk Falls State Park
A section of the trail near the upper gorge will pass by the main road

Eventually you’ll reach a twisting road corkscrewing its way through the forest. Upper entrance is directly across the road but you’ll cross the large stone bridge over Buttermilk Creek to your right instead. Bear Trail to Treman Lake is to your left, but we’ll take the right onto Gorge Trail for the purpose of this walkthrough.

The upper parking lot driveway can also be seen in this photo so if you want to descend into the gorge, use this parking lot. Be careful as you make your way down the stone staircase because the steps can be a bit slippery, especially in the rain.

3. Gorge Trail Descent

Bridge marking the turnaround point to access gorge trail from rim trail at buttermilk falls state park Ithaca ny
The beautiful stone bridge as seen from the Gorge Trail

It’s time reap the rewards for thrashing out the steep Rim Trail climb. As you descend the first few steps, you’ll notice the stone bridge you just crossed is extremely attractive, but it’s about to get a whole lot better.

Stone staircase next to gorge in Ithaca ny
A stone staircase cascading down to the creek

The top section of the Gorge Trail begins with the creek narrowing and features sharp shelf-like edges combined with smooth and soft bowl shaped pools. Depending on the time of year, the water flow many be shallow, but it allows greater depth of detail throughout the eroded sandstone rocks to be appreciated.

Several small cascading waterfalls in Buttermilk Gorge
Stunning waterfall cascades

If you visit in spring, the water levels will be much higher making the beautiful pools filled to the brim. The gorge is incredibly scenic and ornate stone staircases add a lost world element to the environment, making it perfect for photographers.

Stunning waterfall and pools on gorge trail in buttermilk falls state park Ithaca ny finger lakes
Multiple pools can be found along the Gorge Trail

This photo above was taken in September when the water levels are lower, but it means you have the chance to admire the various striking features of the gorge.

4. Plunge Pools

Epic gorge and waterfalls with plunge pools on gorge trail at buttermilk falls state park Ithaca ny finger lakes
Our favorite section along the Gorge Trail

Before long, you’ll reach the most beautiful part of Buttermilk Creek. Water snakes intricately through the gorge, carving through dark rock and plunging gently from shelf to shelf. Look at how the deep green foliage of early fall contrasts wonderfully against the dark and sharp rock formations.

Small but surprisingly deep pools are easily accessible from the main Gorge hiking trail. Several signs prohibit swimming and we recommend you save your swimming for the life guarded natural pool located near the main entrance. There is no swimming to help protect the natural environment. It’s also dangerous because water levels and currents can be deceiving.

5. The Gorge Continues

Pulpit Rock and Gorge Trail at Buttermilk Falls State Park
Pulpit Rock and the stone walkway carving its way through the park

The bottom section of Gorge Trail takes you past intriguing rock formations such as Pulpit Rock, which do make you wonder how they survived. In truth, this half is less dramatically and visually stunning so plan to spend more time at the upper section.

But with that said, the lower section of the Gorge Trail is often quieter for this reason so it might be a good place to slow down and enjoy the views thoroughly.

Picturesque gorge and waterfall near Ithaca ny finger lakes
Several small pools along the Gorge Trail

Although this part of the gorge is slightly less dramatic, we don’t want to do the rest of the trail an injustice. There are still lovely wispy waterfalls and ledges to enjoy as you descend the final sections. Notice how much more smooth and rounded the creek is here when compared to higher up?

Waterfall running almost dry in state park near Ithaca ny finger lakes into a green plunge pool
A large pool filled by a small wispy waterfall

You’ll pass yet more waterfalls plunging softly into emerald green pools below. In spring and early summer, these portions are far more interesting as deeper and more powerful falls crash through the creek.

6. Wooden Bridge

Woman standing on the wooden bridge in Buttermilk Falls
Kristen posing for a photo on the wooden bridge

After continuing along the Gorge Trail, you’ll come to a beautiful stone bridge crossing over Buttermilk Creek. This bridge will lead you back to the Rim Trail or you can use it as a shortcut to get to the Gorge when starting on the Rim Trail.

If the Gorge is crowded, this shortcut will help you reach the best part quickly. You may see people wading in the water through this section, but please save your swimming for the natural fed pool located near Buttermilk Falls.

7. Winding Moss Covered Path

Woman walking along a stone walkway in a New York State Park

The remaining section of the Gorge Trail will follow Buttermilk Creek passing by both small and medium sized waterfalls as you make your way back to the main entrance of the park. Take note of the moss covered shale and lush forest canopy when continuing along the path.

When we visited Buttermilk Park in April, it was raining in the parking lot but once we reached the trees along the Gorge Trail, we were protected from the rain.

Two cascading waterfalls along Buttermilk Gorge
Two small waterfalls along the Gorge Trail

This is truly a magical gorge and it’s easy to get snap happy when taking photos. Everywhere you look, you’ll find a great photo location.

Hiking Tip: Be sure to wear a good hiking shoe in the Gorge because water often pools along the trail, especially in spring and fall.

8. Buttermilk Falls View

Top view of Buttermilk Falls near Ithaca, NY
View from the top of the large waterfall along the Gorge Trail

As you continue walking down the Gorge Trail, you’ll get the chance to see the falls from a different perspective at the Falls Overlook. The trail finally ends with an overlook half way up Buttermilk Falls for you to appreciate its full size and angled slope from close up.

Ithaca NY State Park Buttermilk Falls Main Entrance waterfall running dry
The beautiful Buttermilk Falls waterfall with low water levels in fall

If you visit in fall after a summer drought like we did, you won’t find more than a trickle running down the giant tiered rock face. But in spring and early summer, Buttermilk Falls is much more lively and impressive.

READ: Motivational waterfall quotes

9. Another Dirt Path

Wooden trail leading up to Buttermilk Falls Gorge Trail
The wooden section of the Gorge Trail

After you pass by the top of Buttermilk Falls and the Falls Overlook, the trail veers out from Buttermilk Creek and becomes a steep dirt path. You won’t be able to see much from this section of the trail, but take your time and watch your footing as this section can be tricky.

Hiking Tip: Many people hike up the Gorge Trail and then follow the same trail back through the park, but it can be extremely congested in summer. Use the other trails to escape the crowds.

Bear Trail To Lake Treman Trail

Hidden waterfall at Buttermilk Falls State Park
Lesser known waterfall by Lake Treman

If you want to hike a bit further, continue along Bear Trail for 0.67 miles to Lake Treman Trail near the upper entrance. This is an easy going flat trail with minimal elevation gain and it follows the red trail markers.

There isn’t much to see while you hike because you’ll be hiking through trees next to a section of Buttermilk Creek. However, you’ll pass by another large waterfall which is next to a large grassy area with numerous picnic tables.

From here, you’ll reach Lake Treman which will be another 1.29 mile loop. On the far side of the lake, you can also connect to the Finger Lakes Trail Spur for 1.15 miles. We hiked this additional route in April and really enjoyed it because we saw no one else on this side of the park.

Photography Tips

Buttermilk Falls State Park Photography Fall colors foliage yellows
The stunning pools of water along the Gorge Trail

Buttermilk Falls is a fantastic environment to shoot nature photography. After several visits to the park, here are a few tips we’ve learned to help you take the best photos:

  • Use a mirrorless or DSLR camera and a lens with focal length between 12 – 24 for wider shots as well as a tripod.
  • There are a few places you could set your camera on a wall very gently if you forget your tripod. Put a spare hoodie or jacket between the wall and your camera.
  • You need stability to create the silky water appearance by shooting from anywhere around 0.3 seconds to 3 seconds using shutter speed priority mode.
  • Start at 1 second exposure and then make more images at faster and slower shutter speed until you are happy with how the water looks.
  • Visit early in the day before intense daylight but if its bright, use an ND filter to stop down the light.
  • The top half of the Gorge Trail is by far the best photography location in the whole park so take your time here.
  • If you’re a beginner, shoot in RAW and JPEG. You can use your jpeg now but once you have more experience you will be grateful for the RAW file you can go back to and edit.

READ: Our popular photography guides

Facilities And Swimming

Kristen stood next to a life guard seat in front of a swimming pool at the bottom of a waterfall
Kristen standing by the natural swimming pool

In addition to the hiking trails, there are many other activities to enjoy in the park.

While you can not swim in the creek along the Gorge Trail, you can swim in the natural stream fed swimming pool at the base of Buttermilk Falls. The pool is open most weekends from the end of May to early September. However, it’s dependent on weather conditions so always contact the park before visiting to confirm if the pool is open.

Near the main entrance, you’ll also find restrooms, playgrounds and playing fields for the kids. There is plenty of green space for relaxing and picnics. Dogs are allowed at Buttermilk Falls, but must be kept on a leash.

Best Time To Visit

Side view of Buttermilk Falls in April
We also like to admire the waterfall from the side

Buttermilk Falls State Park is extremely busy on weekends between April and October, particularly during the holidays. The peak season is June to August and the park is busiest from 10:00am to 3:00pm. So if you visit in the summer, we recommend arriving early in the day or later in the evening to avoid the large crowds.

That being said, the park is open year round and each season is unique. Here are the highlights:

  • Spring – April is the best month to see the waterfalls at their fullest. During this time of year, the snowpack is melting in upstate New York and the creeks are full. However, weather is unpredictable with both warm and cold days.
  • Summer – The park will be extremely crowded from June to August and it might be difficult to find parking. This is our least favorite time to visit because the Gorge Trail is extremely crowded. However, it’s a great time for water sports and outdoor activities because it’s warm.
  • Fall – Late September and early October is our favorite time to visit because the gorge is filled with beautiful hues of reds, yellows and oranges. However, the water levels are very low so it’s not the best time to see the waterfalls.
  • Winter – The Gorge Trail closes in winter, but the Rim Trails remain open. If you’ve never visited Buttermilk Falls, we wouldn’t recommend this time of year because you’ll miss the best hike. However, the park is beautiful covered in snow.

READ: Fun things to do in the NY Finger Lakes

Where To Eat

Yellow mug from the Yellow Deli sitting on a  table in front of a fireplace
Mug from the Yellow Deli sitting on a table

There are no restaurants or cafes at the park, but there are a number of grills and picnic tables so you can bring your own barbecue grub along.

And the popular college town of Ithaca is right on your doorstep. Below we’ve listed some of the top rated restaurants in the area:

If none of those options work or you need a quick bite before moving on, you can find plenty of the typical chain restaurants in Ithaca, but try to support the local options when you can.

Best Hotel Options

People sitting on chairs at the Taughannock Inn
Mark and Kristen inside their room at the Taughannock Inn

Just visiting Buttermilk Falls? Or do you plan to visit many NY state parks nearby? If so, we recommend staying southwest of Ithaca for Robert H. Treman and Buttermilk before moving north of Ithaca for a day at Taughannock Falls. You could also set up base in downtown Ithaca for a long weekend.

Read our complete guide to the best hotels in Ithaca NY on our sister site or take a look at the top rated hotels in the area below.

Budget Friendly hotels with 1 mile of the park:

Downtown Ithaca (for central location and amenities):

Staying centrally in Ithaca works best if you’re staying in the Finger Lakes region for 3 or more days. Plus you’ll have several amenities on your doorstep.

Northwest Ithaca (for Taughannock Falls):

Staying a night closer to Taughannock Falls means you can drive 20 minutes and beat the crowds more easily than driving up from Ithaca the next morning. We’ve stay at both hotels below and enjoyed both trips.

  • Inn at Taughannock – A luxurious option, but our top recommendation with immediate access to the park and a delicious breakfast. However, it books up very quickly.
  • Glass Magnolia – Another beautiful B&B just a few miles away from the park.

READ: Tips for booking cheap hotels

Campsites And Cabins

Wispy waterfall in a gorge near Ithaca ny
Several small cascading waterfalls along the gorge

If hotels are too expensive or you’d prefer to be outdoors, there are 25 campsites and 18 cabins. Camping is open from the end of May to the beginning of October with prices increasing in July and August for peak season. Reservations can be made up to 9 months in advance.

Campsites cost $15/night in the off season and $29/night in the peak season. You can book a campsite here.

Cabins require a 7 night minimum in the peak season. It costs $210/night in the off season and $258/night in the peak season. You can book a cabin here.

Buttermilk Falls Interactive Map

Click on our interactive map to find all the points of interest as well as our hotel and restaurant recommendations. Here is the map key:

  • Yellow – Parking lots at each entrance
  • Light Red – Points of interest
  • Purple – Restaurant recommendations
  • Blue – Hotels and camping

You can also access our interactive map via this link here.

The Morgan Conclusion

Two people walking along a Gorge Trail in the Finger Lakes
Mark and Kristen hiking Gorge Trail during a rainy day in spring

Buttermilk Falls State Park is a hidden oasis in the Finger Lakes region of western New York. You can enjoy a stunning Gorge Trail with multiple waterfalls and various water activities.

But is Buttermilk Falls State Park worth visiting?

Yes, we think Buttermilk Falls is worth visiting because it’s home to a beautiful 165ft frothing waterfall showcasing a natural swimming pool at its base. You can also hike the beautiful Gorge Trail or walk to Lake Treman which is located in a more remote section of the park. After visiting, you should explore the town of Ithaca or one of the other state parks nearby.

READ: What you need to see in Ithaca, NY

Our Buttermilk Falls Photos

We love visiting this state park and always take many photos. Here are a few of our favorites so you know exactly what to expect:

Flooded road near Lake Treman
April road flooding near Lake Treman
Woman standing in front of fast flowing Buttermilk Falls
Kristen with an umbrella at the base of the falls
Two cascading waterfalls along Buttermilk Gorge
Beautiful cascading waterfalls along the Gorge Trail
Man walking next to Buttermilk Creek along the Gorge Trail
Mark walking along the lower section of the gorge
Brown wooden signs indicating Gorge Trail, Bear Trail and Rim Trail
Wooden sign for multiple hiking trails
Informational sign located in the beginning of the park in front of a waterfall
Perspective photo of the state park
Falls Overlook with woman in background
Kristen looking out from Falls Overlook
Green pay to park machine inside a New York State Park
Green paid parking meter seen in most NY State Parks
Memorial plaque for William J Chapin
Plaque in memory of William J. Chapin
Small cascading waterfalls with moss in the foreground
Tumbling waterfalls at Buttermilk Creek
Woman in a yellow rain jacket along the Gorge trail at Buttermilk Falls State Park
Kristen taking in the waterfalls along Gorge Trail
Woman walking towards the Buttermilk Falls State Park Gorge Trail
The entrance to the Gorge Trail near the swimming pool
Stairs and waterfall view at a NY state park
Kristen standing at the top of Buttermilk Falls
Waterfall next to a stone staircase during the spring in upstate NY
Stunning cascades along Buttermilk Creek

More From The Finger Lakes

More From Upstate New York

Want more New York content? Head over to our New York Travel Guides to explore the Finger Lakes, Adirondacks and the best of NYC.

We hope this guide to visiting Buttermilk Falls State Park helps with planning your visit to upstate New York!

Please let us know if you have any questions about visiting the state park or upstate New York in the comments below.

Happy Hiking,

Mark and Kristen

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