Cornell is much more than the sum of the classes offered, and more than the buildings that house its classrooms and labs. It is also a unique landscape—forged by glaciers, settled by farmers, and identified by Ezra Cornell as the site on which to build his school of higher learning.

The university’s founder envisioned a uniquely open institution “where any person can find instruction in any study.” A plainspoken, hardworking son of the land, Cornell was a true democrat, wanting his new university to accept individuals solely on the basis of their qualifications and interests. And the landscape on the hill that had so struck him with its beauty reinforced this sense of democracy, with its varied topography and inspiring views.

The splendor of the Cornell landscape cannot be fully appreciated by a casual drive through campus, especially when its sole purpose is to drop off a daughter or son at a North Campus dorm to begin a life without parents. No, the Cornell experience is one best achieved on foot, because it is only when walking that one can appreciate the true complexity of our land forms.

The central campus is bordered by a pair of deep-cut gorges that were carved after the last ice age. Cascadilla Creek Gorge, which runs along the southern edge of campus, is home to six spectacular waterfalls, diverse plant and animal species, and a 1930s pathway constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Hiking up this third-of-a-mile gorge trail, one feels embraced by the majesty of nature—and a long way from the rigors of classes.

The central campus is bordered by a pair of deep-cut gorges that were carved after the last ice age. Cascadilla Creek Gorge, which runs along the southern edge of campus, is home to six spectacular waterfalls, diverse plant and animal species, and a 1930s pathway constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Hiking up this third-of-a-mile gorge trail, one feels embraced by the majesty of nature—and a long way from the rigors of classes.

Looking down from the high rises of North Campus, one spies Beebe Lake, a wide spot in the second gorge corridor, Fall Creek. Beebe Lake was originally a swamp, but was dammed by a young Ezra Cornell to provide year-round power for Colonel Jeremiah Beebe’s plaster mill (which Cornell managed at the time). Today, it is a beloved icon to students and alumni, with Sackett Bridge at one end and the powerful Triphammer Falls at the other. After walking around the lake, one can stand on Triphammer Bridge and watch the thundering falls to the east, and to the west see just how deeply the rushing waters have carved the limestone walls that formed the gorge.

Hiking up this gorge trail, one feels embraced by the majesty of nature—and a long way from the rigors of classes.

After the drama of the two gorges, the central campus may appear flat or tame. But this 786-acre hilltop that Ezra offered to his wife, Mary Ann, as “a garden of Eden for my bird of Paradise” has many more surprises to reveal. Despite the proliferation of new buildings in recent decades, the innate qualities of the landscape remain largely intact. The first set of academic buildings on campus was the “stone row” on the Arts Quad, and just below them, Libe Slope slouches down to West Campus and beyond to the city. A favorite for sledding before it was prohibited, this turf-covered hillside is now the site for Slope Day, a celebration of the academic year’s end.

Just southeast of the Slope is the great Gothic student union, Willard Straight Hall, and alongside it in a mini-gorge is the Willard Straight Rock Garden. The unkempt condition of the rock garden lends it a romantic air, a perfect spot for moonlit strolls. The water that runs through the garden is commonly known as Wee Stinky Creek, and uphill from it one finds Wee Stinky Glen. These odd monikers apparently refer back to a time when the College of Veterinary Medicine was located nearby and the creek was used as a drain for chemicals and animal wastes. Fortunately, no odors remain from that less regulated era.

Up a knoll, near the intersection of Tower Road and East Avenue, sits the A.D. White House, from which Andrew Dickson White, Cornell’s first president, could look out the picture windows and see the new campus taking shape before him. The views that White had from that perch are reflective of one of the great qualities of the Cornell landscape—from nearly any point, one gets glimpses of other natural and manmade forms.

AD White House Gardens

Further east, up Tower Road, one arrives at the Agriculture Quadrangle, which is mostly flat. But Mann Library, at its far end, provides views from its glassed rear walls into an old-growth woodland, and the extensively renovated Warren Hall looks down on the Dean’s Garden, a horticultural gem. The Dean’s Garden is under the management of Cornell Botanic Gardens, which operates the botanical garden, wildflower garden, and arboretum that together occupy 200 acres. These are three major components of Cornell’s museum of living plants, and each has been developed in a natural depression or bowl.

In many ways, the Botanic Gardens’ areas are a microcosm of the greater Cornell landscape, with their rolling hills, proximity to water, marvelous view corridors, and surprises around every bend. As the seasons progress, different sections of the Plantations take center stage for their beautiful displays. Early spring is the time to troop over to the Mundy Wildflower Garden, located between Judd Falls Road to the west and Caldwell Road to the east. Within this wooded glen are paths lined with a multitude of native spring ephemerals, from trillium to trout lilies, hepaticas to spring beauties. In summer, many of the collections in the botanical garden—including the Robison Herb Garden, Young Flower Garden, and Pounder Vegetable Garden—offer an abundance of blooms, scents, and textured foliage. Then in fall, the F.R. Newman Arboretum is in its greatest glory, its groves of trees showing off their rich palette of autumnal colors. Even though the plants that fill the Botanic Gardens' landscape are dormant in winter, this is still a stunning season in which to visit. Nowhere is that more true than in the Mullestein Winter Garden, located in the heart of the botanical garden. Each of the trees and shrubs in the Winter Garden has been selected for its interesting bark, evergreen foliage, colorful berries, or unusual form, so that the overall effect is a visually stunning garden, even though there is not a single plant in bloom.

Ezra Cornell made a brilliant decision when he sited his university here. Now it’s your turn to explore all that Cornell has to offer. You won’t see it all in a single hike, but each time you visit campus, we hope that you will discover something new, delightful, and enriching.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Cornell Botanic Gardens: cornellbotanicgardens.org
Map of the Ithaca campus: cornell.edu/maps
Visiting Cornell: cornell.edu/visiting