Friday, August 9, 2013

Letchworth State Park: Gorge Trail (to waterfalls) (Blog Hike #431)

Trail: Gorge Trail (to waterfalls)
Hike Location: Letchworth State Park
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 Genesee River gorge rim passing 3 river waterfalls.

Directions to the trailhead: From Mount Morris, 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 Lower Falls. 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 Falls parking lot at its end.  Park in this lot.  Note that this hike is located in the south section of Letchworth State Park.  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 Lower Falls access road described above.

The hike: Cutting a 20-mile-long and 600 foot deep gash through the heart of western New York, the Genesee River gorge has been called the Grand Canyon of New York and the Grand Canyon of the East.  The river held the interest of early industrialists for its source high in the Pennsylvania mountains (for the Genesee Valley Canal described later in this blog entry) and its ability to power mills with falling water.  The 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 Letchworth State Park, one of the crown jewels of the 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 Lower Falls, 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.
            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 Lower Falls.  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.  Lower Falls 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 Lower Falls.  The falls view from here is obstructed, so the “easy view” is no substitute for the arduous stone step climbing you just did.
            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 Lower Falls.
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 Upper Falls.  You will get better views of these waterfalls later, so perhaps of more interest for now are the remnants of the Genesee Valley Canal that can be seen in the riverbed.  Authorized in 1836, the Genesee Valley Canal provided a waterway connection between the Erie Canal in Rochester and the Alleghany River in Olean, PA, thus allowing boats to float from the east coast to the 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.
Inspiration Point
            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, Middle Falls 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 Upper Falls.  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 Upper Falls 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 Lower Falls trailhead, savoring each overlook one more time on your way back.


  1. Thanks for posting this alternate route. Perfect for a weekend hike with my 7 year old. 14 miles was going to be way too long!

    1. Thanks for the comment. I like this route too: it visits the most scenic areas in the park without getting in and out of the car often and without pegging the difficulty meter. You may also like Taughannock State Park over near Ithaca; it is also very scenic but not too difficult.

  2. Does this park have a loop that you can backpack over several days?

    1. I only do dayhikes, so I don't know about backpacking. There are certainly some trails at Letchworth that are long enough to accommodate a multiday backpack, but I would first contact the park and ask about their backcountry camping policy.

      Have fun on the trail,

      David, aka the Mathprofhiker

  3. Any recs for spots to watch the sunrise along the trail?

    1. This trail goes along the west rim of the gorge, so you have quite a few options. The section going north from Inspiration Point (toward Lower Falls) has some nice impromptu east facing gorge overlooks. Just be careful if you are out there in the dark: there are no railings or other protections at the cliff edge along that stretch.

      Have a great hike,

      David, aka the Mathprofhiker

  4. excellent guide - thank you! we put your advice to good use on this rare 60° day on late November. a perfect hike - cheers!