Escape the Urban: Letchworth

29 Aug

Escape the Urban is a new regular feature exploring the outdoors near Western New York.

What more is there to be said about Letchworth State Park, the Grand Canyon of the East, a regular destination for families and tourists from Western and Central New York. Perhaps you have driven the winding roads, walked along the stone walled gorge edge, and enjoyed a waterfall or two. You may have had tea at the Glen Iris Inn, or marveled at the railroad bridge crossing high above the canyon. The western edge of the gorge is very car friendly, civilized, accessible, and, if you don’t mind me saying so, paved.

For a different perspective, try the other side of the gorge. The eastern, unpaved, uncivilized side, where a different view is possible.

Upper Falls from the east

This eastern side follows old canals and railways, hidden valleys and streams, and provides a completely new appreciation for a park many of us have already visited often.

Middle Falls

For my son’s first overnight backpacking trip, I chose a nine mile trek from Portageville in the south to a bivouac shelter up in the hills above the Genesee River. Nine miles is the perfect mix of misery and accomplishment, exhaustion and achievement, to provide the true backpacking experience: tired feet and shoulders, aching back, empty stomach, and the exhilaration that you trudged sleeping bags, tent, food and water up a path only accessible by your hard work and sweat.

Our trip was exclusively along the Letchworth Trail, a spur trail of the mighty Finger Lakes Trail, that connects Allegheny State Park with the Catskills, and provides access to the Great Eastern Trail, Appalachian Trail, and Long Path along the way (more about our unlikely and tremendous national footpaths in a future column). Those nine miles, only one third of the Letchworth Trail’s total length, cover a wide variety of Western New York history and habitat.

The southern end of the hike, climbing out of Portageville, and up the eastern side of gorge, quickly picks up and follows the old Genesee Valley Canal, this section built in the 1850’s and used into the 1870’s to connect Rochester to Olean via waterway, by skirting the massive falls of the Genesee River. The path is relatively level, just wide enough for the mules that used to ply it, and splits the gap between the gorge on one side and the abandoned canal on the other. All that is left of the canal itself, a massive construction undertaking rendered obsolete in less than twenty years by new rail lines, are massive ten foot timbers, the rotting former walls of the canal, and beaver dams backing up the water in low pools not yet filled with rock slides and debris.

The end of the gorge

The Letchworth Trail leaves the old canal bed after a couple miles, and takes a nearly half mile detour around a massive landslide, before joining the old bed of the Genesee Valley Railroad, the progeny and successor of the canal system, and now the Genesee Valley Greenway. The railroad was, astoundingly, not removed until the 1960’s, though throughout much of its life, construction equipment was permanently stationed on the gorge wall to repair track done in by the natural processes of erosion. Now these old right of ways provide transportation opportunities of a different kind: hop on your bike in Letchworth, and you can peddle to Genesee Valley Park in Rochester via the Greenway.

Inspiration Falls from Inspiration Point on the east rim

The Greenway/Letchworth Trail continues along the gorge edge, past Inspiration Point (with a view a Inspiration Falls), and then plunges into the hills, leaving the fading rock walls behind. The Greenway leads to an old DEC road for a short time, and then becomes a true footpath again, across Dishmill Creek (ingeniously named for the industry that used to occupy its shore), and fording innumerable tributaries that form the Genesee Valley watershed. The beauty here is more subtle, and less dramatic, than the wide views of the canyons and waterfalls left behind. Stands of long needled White Pine and Shagbark Hickory. Solitary giant oaks and maples, remnants of the old growth before the logging. Narrow slate bottom creeks, rock tabled from years of erosion, where one could imagine a smaller Falling Water being right at home. Up, and down, and across, five more miles later, my son and I spotted our shelter with weary gratitude.

A different view of the famous railroad bridge

2 Responses to “Escape the Urban: Letchworth”

  1. Ethan August 29, 2010 at 11:30 am #

    NIce!  I’m looking forward to excursions of this sort w/Phin.  I grew up in the city, but I spent summers at camps- first only a week, then a month, and by the time I was 13/14, the whole summer.  These camps–in Dunkirk, then in Algonquin Park, then finally in Vermont–taught me so much and we so formative for me.  I did a lot of hiking and canoeing- carried some very heavy packs!  So… I like reading this stuff since it gives me ideas about what I can do with Phin (and eventually Al, too) on down the road.

  2. Brian Castner August 29, 2010 at 3:07 pm #

    Well, good. I’m doing my job, then.

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