Cornell Restores Cascadilla Gorge Trail - News - Ithaca Times

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Cornell Restores Cascadilla Gorge Trail

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By Deirdre Cunningham

Cornell Plantations' Director of Natural Areas Todd Bittner


Cornell Plantations is gaining on the eagerly anticipated completion of Cascadilla Gorge Trail’s restoration project. Todd Bittner, Director of Natural Areas, is “striving to have the trail completely open by fall semester 2014”. Although Phase One is completed from Linn Street up the creek as far as the Stewart Avenue Bridge, the upper exit out of the gorge is not open yet. Phase Two is focused on the section between the Stewart and College Avenue bridges with three major staircases and a foot bridge to be rebuilt, new railings, and new walks. 

In the middle of the 2008 financial crash Cornell University had a decision to make: either close and invest in the trail or just close it. A comprehensive assessment of the entire gorge trail was conducted and included all wooden railings, trail beds, drainage systems, walls, staircases and more. After much discussion and close analysis, the university chose to invest $1.7 million to pursue the necessary restoration repairs and upgrades for public safety and enjoyment. 

Before any work began, Bittner met with university landscape architect David Cutter to consider the historical aesthetics of the gorge as an iconic space; they documented details and elements that complemented the natural beauty. Donated to Cornell by Robert H. Treman in 1909 to “support public use, education and enjoyment,” the Cascadilla Gorge Trail system was initially constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It runs a total of 7,800 feet in length rising through 400 feet of elevation from Linn Street to Hoy Road. Cornell Plantations manages this gorge and Fall Creek gorge and is committed to protecting these natural areas and providing ongoing educational use, while supporting safe public recreation and enjoyment of the gorge. Eighty-five percent of their operating budget comes from donor gifts and membership.

Joints—cracks in the creek beds—are “caused by stress of rocks on an enormous geographic scale, due to the collision of the continents more than 250 million years ago ... water flows into the cracks, freezes and expands, eventually the rock weakens enough to cause a rockslide making it dangerous and the reason why most of the gorges are closed in the winter,” explained the Paleontological Research Institution’s website. (For information about the geology of the gorges and the Finger Lakes, see The university produced a gorge safety video ( to explain why swimming is not permitted in the gorges and why hikers should not go in there when the trails are closed. 

All project repairs and construction work required compliance with the Army Corps of Engineers regulations, and approvals from the Department of Environmental Conservation and the City of Ithaca’s Planning Department. The first major section, from the Treman Triangle on Linn Street up to the base of Stewart Avenue Bridge, was completed and reopened in 2010 with: a new entrance gate attached to a new retaining stone wall with a historical plaque, a realigned cinder path runs along the top of a new retaining wall, a new steel railing that can be seen through, and fewer invasive plants. The black steel entrance gate, designed and built by artisan blacksmith Durand Van Doren of Trumansburg, won the 2013 Pride of Ownership Award, a joint program of Rotary Club of Ithaca and the City of Ithaca. 

They experimented with new construction techniques and then tested them for durability. For example, the existing railings’ wooden posts attached to metal brackets were replaced with galvanized steel posts inserted into masonry in the rock. Overhead residential drainpipe and surface water that had flowed down the gorge walls and across the walks was rerouted underneath the walks directly into the gorge.

The naturally occurring rockslides supplied debris to reuse for the reconstruction. Small stones are raked into the wet concrete walks and steps for texture (which reduces slippage) and to make it look more natural and historic. Crane access into the gorge, to clean out debris and move boulders, was from the above residential side streets and from Stewart Avenue Bridge. 

Tropical Storm Lee (September 2011) set back the original target date for reopening the trail as far as Stewart Avenue. A subsequent grant application made to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) awarded the project an additional $880,000 based on the trail’s historical significance. These new funds are dedicated to Phase Two of the project. Two main efforts in this section are: removal of tree debris piled up in the creek when it flooded the trail, and fixing the trail itself—three major staircases and a footbridge. The FEMA grant included extra funds to develop “best practices” for a more resilient reconstruction resistant to future flooding. Shotcrete—a pigmented concrete spray—is applied as “armor” to the creek bank retaining walls and then covered with an outer rock layer to prevent water from undermining the wall’s base. 

Cornell Plantations provides a map with recommended hikes at Campus signs also have a QR code to lead visitors to these same maps. Bittner suggested, “If you zoom out beyond the specific recommended route for each, you can see our entire system of preserves—you will need to add “Natural Areas Layer”—and hiking trails.” Descriptions of the gorge trail’s natural heritage, ecological communities can be found at

On Linn Street, a passerby thanked Bittner saying, “He’s putting the gorgeous in the gorges.” •


1 image

By Deirdre Cunningham

Cornell Plantations' Director of Natural Areas Todd Bittner