Trail: Gorge Trail (to waterfalls)
Geographic Location: southwest of
Mount Morris, NY
Length: 5.2 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2013
Overview: An out-and-back along the
gorge rim passing 3 river
Park Information: http://nysparks.com/parks/79/details.aspx
Google Map: http://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=205105
Directions to the trailhead: From
drive SR 36 north 1.2 miles to the park entrance on the left. Turn left to enter the park. Drive the main park road 14.9 miles to the
signed turnoff for Mount Morris .
Turn left on the Lower Falls
access road, and bear right where the river access road exits left. Drive the Lower Falls access road 1 mile to the
large paved Lower
parking lot at its end. Park in this
lot. Note that this hike is located in
the south section of Lower Falls .
Coming from the south, it will be faster to use the park’s southern
Portageville entrance and drive the park road north 2.4 miles to the Letchworth State
Park access road described above. Lower
The hike: Cutting a 20-mile-long and 600 foot deep gash through the heart of western
York, the gorge has been called the
Grand Canyon of New York and the Genesee
River Grand Canyon of the
East. The river held the interest of
early industrialists for its source high in the Pennsylvania
mountains (for the described later in this blog
entry) and its ability to power mills with falling water. The Genesee Valley
Canal Genesee’s many waterfalls
led to the building of mills and tool shops, which in turn led to the city of Rochester
along the waterfalls near the river’s mouth.
The gorge today is the centerpiece of impressive 14,350 acre
, one of the crown jewels
of the Letchworth
State Park New York state park
system. Established by an act of the
governor in 1907, the park is named for William Pryor Letchworth, a Buffalo
businessman who bought this land after it had been clear-cut logged in the
1850’s. Letchworth built his country
estate Glen Iris here, a building that can still be toured today. After Letchworth’s death in 1910, the
transition of his estate into a state park began, making Letchworth one of the
oldest state parks in America.
Visitors flock to the park for the gorge overlooks, the three large river waterfalls in the gorge, and the seemingly endless recreation opportunities. With a large tent and trailer campground, cabin area, numerous picnic areas, a canoe/kayak launch for the gorge’s whitewater rapids, a swimming pool, and an historic inn, the park seems to have every form of recreation imaginable.
Included in these recreation opportunities is hiking, as 23 trails totaling 66 miles await hikers. By most accounts the park’s best trail is the 7 mile each way Gorge Trail, which links many points of interest on the gorge rim. Because a 14 mile route is a bit long for a day hike, I recommend the 5.2 mile round-trip portion described here to capture the most scenic section of the trail.
|Lower Falls trailhead|
Heading south from the parking area, pick up the wide dirt trail that goes between a concession stand on the left and the restroom building on the right. At less than 0.1 miles, the trail forks. The Gorge Trail stays right here while the spur trail to
the first of the three major river waterfalls, exits left. You will want to visit Lower Falls at some point during your
visit, and the 127 stone steps between here and the waterfall will seem easier
to climb now than at the end of the hike.
Thus, angle left to begin the Lower Falls Trail. Lower
After descending the stone steps and meandering to the river bank, you reach a decaying overlook that gives a nice view of the shale rock formations below
. There is also a footbridge over the river
here, but it cannot be used to form a nice loop. Continuing along the Lower
Falls spur trail, the trail quickly
enters a grassy area that gives a nice view of Lower
Falls . This 55 foot waterfall plunges down a fault
line that runs diagonally across the river.
is actually my least favorite of the three major waterfalls at Letchworth, but
it would be a show-stealer at most parks. Lower Falls
After viewing Lower Falls, retrace your steps back up to the Gorge Trail and turn sharply left to continue south on the Gorge Trail. The Gorge Trail is blazed with yellow rectangular paint blazes inscribed with a black “1,” the “1” corresponding to the trail number on the park map. The trail climbs slightly to arrive at a closed parking area that used to serve the “easy view” overlook of
. The falls view from here is obstructed, so
the “easy view” is no substitute for the arduous stone step climbing you just
did. Lower Falls
Past the closed overlook area, the trail climbs moderately as it enters a mixed deciduous forest featuring maple, oak, and beech trees. The forest at Letchworth is nice mature forest because this land has been managed as parkland for over 100 years. 1 mile into the hike, you climb some more stone steps, but this set is much shorter than the set to
|Hiking along the gorge rim|
After climbing the last set of stone steps, you enter a dark white pine planting that dates to the early 1900’s. Some additional gorge views featuring the tall, vertical shale cliffs open up to the left. There are no railings at these impromptu overlooks, so take care not to get too close to the edge.
|Impromptu gorge overlook|
At 1.6 miles, you reach Inspiration Point. Accessible by car via the main park road, Inspiration Point is the most famous view in the park. Looking southwest, two of the three river waterfalls can be seen: Middle and
. You will get better views of these waterfalls
later, so perhaps of more interest for now are the remnants of the Upper
that can be seen in the riverbed. Authorized
in 1836, the Genesee
Valley Canal provided a waterway
connection between the Genesee Valley
Canal Erie Canal in Rochester
in Alleghany River ,
thus allowing boats to float from the east coast to the Olean, PA Ohio River. The canal was short-lived, as the dawn of the
railroad era had come. The canal opened
in 1862 and closed in 1880. Interpretive
signs help you find the canal remnants in the gorge.
Past Inspiration Point, some gradual climbing brings you to the highest point of the hike. The park road pinches very close to the rim here, and a low stone wall separates the trail from the precipice. The trail now descends some gradual stone steps located right beside the park road before switchbacking left to descend to the gorge rim and additional nice gorge views.
|Trail pinched between road and gorge rim|
At 2.4 miles, the trail crosses a steep ravine on a sidewalk built right beside the park road. On the south side of the bridge, you leave the main park road for a gorge overlook, cross the upper/middle falls access road, descend some stone steps, and cross the access road again to reach the overlook for Middle Falls. Watch for the paint blazes to follow these turns.
At 107 feet high,
is my favorite waterfall in this park. From
this overlook, the waterfall appears roughly at eye-level, making for excellent
viewing. Water plunges over several
layers of rock with enough volume to create a rainbow in the mist. As the trail approaches the top of the falls,
an impressive view of the shale gorge cliffs appears below the falls. Middle Falls
The trail surface turns to mulch as it continues upstream with the river only feet below you to your left. 3 miles into the hike, you arrive at the viewing platform for
. Another cascading ledge-type waterfall, this
71 foot waterfall is most distinguished by the active railroad trestle that
frames it in the background. Two
observation platforms give different angles of the falls. Upper Falls
The Gorge Trail continues past
another 0.2 miles, but most of that distance involves climbing stone steps, and
no other points of interest are obtained.
Thus, I recommend you turn around at the Upper Falls overlook and retrace your
steps 2.2 miles back to the Upper
trailhead, savoring each overlook one more time on your way back. Lower Falls