Taking a Hike at Letchworth State Park

It seems I’ve been temporarily sidelined from running by a bout of tendonitis. While this is a big disappointment to me, the good news is that lower impact activities don’t aggravate my pain so I can stick to other pursuits like hiking, gym workouts, and paddling for the next couple weeks.

Yesterday, I decided to get my exercise by hiking in Letchworth State Park in New York, affectionately known as “The Grand Canyon of the East.” The park was once the estate of William Pryor Letchworth and spans over 14,000 acres in the Southern Tier of New York, bordering several towns in multiple counties. The centerpiece of the park is the deep canyon carved out over thousands of years by the Genesee River. In some places, canyon walls are 600 feet high.

More than just a hiking destination, Letchworth offers a wide variety of activities. Over 20 miles of mixed-use trails are approved for hiking, horseback riding, and biking and can be used in the winter for snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. There are ample camping facilities, a stocked trout pond, a museum, a fine dining restaurant (The Glen Iris Inn), and outfitters offer hot air ballooning and river rafting trips. As if that weren’t enough, Letchworth also hosts a variety of events throughout the year including craft shows, a Civil War re-enactment, a 5K race, concerts, and a car show. That’s a lot of things to do!

From Metromix

I, of course, only had one day to enjoy the park so I tried to make the most of it. I left mid-morning for the hour-long drive from the suburbs of Rochester. I made a pit stop in Geneseo to fuel up with a veggie sub from Aunt Cookie’s Sub Shop, a place well known to any SUNY Geneseo alums. While it probably didn’t rank highly on health value, the sub was delicious and very affordable. A hefty 6-inch sub and a small bag of chips cost me just over $4. After that, I continued on to the park through the Mt. Morris entrance. The park runs roughly north-south. I entered at the north, but most of the action in the park is at the south end. It’s a lengthy drive to get from one end of the park to another, but along the way there are many scenic vistas of the gorge to enjoy.

I hiked the Gorge Trail, Trail 1, from Upper Falls to Lower Falls and then hiked the Lower Falls trail which leads almost to the bottom of the gorge. The Gorge Trail is seven miles total one way, but the route that I took was about five miles round trip. Along the way, markers spray-painted on trees confirm you are on the right track. It can be confusing, though. At various points this trail passed through woods, across meadows, along paved roads, and up and down over 200 stone and wood stairs. The trail is pretty well kept, but some of the old stone bridges and stairs are showing their age and I did have to take a couple of detours.

The best views along the way are those of the Middle Falls, just outside and below the Glen Iris Inn. The view of Upper Falls with the railroad bridge crossing over is also neat, but I didn’t get a decent picture.

Flowers were in bloom the whole way, giving the trip some color. I also saw squirrels, chipmunks, and lots of birds. Birds of prey continuously circled the canyon looking for a meal.

The Lower Falls Trail hooks into this trail at a well-marked point. This trail is not for the faint of heart, though. Over 120 stone stairs take you down into the gorge, then you pass down a slope or more stairs to a poorly maintained stone platform, which leads you to still more stairs that finally let you out along the canyon walls to a view of the Lower Falls.

Stairs at the Middle Falls

You never really get closer to the Lower Falls than several hundred feet, and again it didn’t make for great views with my iPhone camera. However, the engineering that went into making a stone pathway and bridge along these rough walls is admirable. I can only imagine the effort!

Detail of canyon walls

Today, five miles left me exhausted and took up most of the afternoon. I wish I had gone earlier in the day or had planned my trip for a day when something else was going on in the park. Letchworth is definitely worth seeing, but the $8 per vehicle day pass is a little much for someone who is coming alone just to do some day hiking. Check it out if you have a chance, but plan your visit around other events if you can or invite a carload of friends to join you!

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