by Chris Clemens
First established in 1981, the Cayuga Nature Center in Ithaca, New York boasts 150 acres of woodland explorations. For those seeking a learning experience within a nature-based classroom, the center provides both educational and recreational ways to engage with the outdoors.
Plus, they have a six-story treehouse!
Set back from Taughannock Blvd and overlooking the picturesque woods lining the west shore of Cayuga Lake, the CNC has a long and interesting history. The property was first used starting in 1914 to serve the region as a tuberculosis clinic. As treatment for TB became less necessary because of fewer illnesses, it then became a facility to assist the treatment for children with cardiac disease. To further those efforts, the WPA constructed the main facility in 1939. Just after World War II, the building would be re-purposed as a dormitory for nearby Cornell University and then again by BOCES to start environmental-based educational programs.
That most recent effort was so successful, a few local groups officially came together in 1975 to plant the seeds of the CNC’s official founding six years later. More recently in 2011, the CNC joined forces with the Paleontological Research Institute (Museum of the Earth) to further enhance their ability to provide a fun, educational environment for all.
When you first enter the main building, you’ll encounter some taxidermy exhibits with some placards talking a lot about the rich ecology in the Cayuga Lake region. But, the second floor has an entire wing of live animals with tanks and cages filled with everything from turtles to a pile of cockroaches. I was kind of surprised at how vast their collection of live species was, and was thinking that it would be a great place to “wow” a kid at seeing so many unique animals up close.
Out back, they have a few more animals, and often will give live demonstrations. While I visited, a caretaker was talking about their resident fox as it leapt around the cage and darted under obstacles, while taking the occasional break to perch on the caretaker’s shoulder as our audience watched in amusement.
The hiking paths are all clearly marked, and lead all over the property to other exhibits like the Butterfly Garden and at the opposite end, an old log cabin. Guided tours with different themes are available different days of the week, so if you want to get more of an educational experience, you can check the calendar here.
Further out behind the main building, and only a short five minute walk, the Cayuga Nature Center features a full six-story tree house! Getting to the top via easy stairs or more adventurous ladders is a task made even more fun by ‘hidden’ passageways and netting over openings. Admittedly, the view from the top is mostly just of the trees immediately surrounding the tree house, so I might recommend checking it out in the fall when the leaves have dropped. But still, where else in the Finger Lakes can you climb a six-story tree house??
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens