By Andy Thompson, The Evening Tribune, link to original post
What goes down must again come back up. That, in a nutshell, is much of what you must know in order to hike the 22-plus trails of Letchworth State Park.
An attraction that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, the Grand Canyon of the East offers scores of scenic vistas as the Genesee River cuts through the 17-mile long park. At its greatest height, the rock walls soar more than 600 feet above the river below, making for a nature lover’s dream.
Several trails hold to the edge of the gorge on the east and west sides, but many more cut into the hills on the west side, while the remainder offer ways to get to the flats on the east.
History is not far away, either. Founded a little more than a century ago by philanthropist William Pryor Letchworth — whose home, Glen Iris, remains open to visitors — the park today features remnants of the many farms once there. Also prominent on the east side are preserved segments of the Genesee Valley Canal, which once connected Rochester and Olean. Trail 7 especially offers a close view of the canal, and of the proximity of the passageway that so terrified horses pulling packet boats that their drivers were forced to put blinders on them.
The Pennsylvania Railroad took over much of the canal’s route, and ghosts of that branch remain as well.
For the novice hiker, Letchworth offers an excellent way to get acclimated to the pursuit. The west side is the part known to most visitors, with amenities such as restrooms, snack bars and well-worn paths that make most hikes family friendly. Trail 2, for example, begins behind the Council House grounds (where rest the remains of Mary Jemison, White Woman of the Genesee) and wanders through mighty groves of pine trees where farmers once worked the land. Look carefully, and you can still see evidence of homes and barns where apple trees now grow.
Trail 1, the Gorge Trail, is the park’s longest, at 7 miles, and begins at the famed Portage High Bridge where Norfolk Southern trains still run. The walk goes up and down hills, past Inspiration Point and then Wolf’s Creek to end at St. Helena, one of two ‘ghost’ villages in the park. That community, and one nearby named Gibsonville, were dissolved as the park expanded with the construction of Mt. Morris Dam.
The Highbanks area, across from the dam on the west side, is an excellent starting point for a southward trek. The trail is nearly 5 miles in length, and takes walkers through forests with views now and then of Gardeau Flats, a vast area once farmed by Jemison and her family.
The east side of the park is where the hikes demand a little more effort. Trails, not always well marked, take you down steep hills through old growth forests. While none are very long, it is something to consider for those not in good physical shape. The Smokey Hollow and Bear Hollow trails (15 and 16) are only two miles each, but can give a good workout once you hit bottom and need to trek back up. The Big Bend Trail (10) is really a walk on a country road, but has the surprise of taking you to observation points high above the river that most park visitors do not realize exist.
When you reach them, wave to the tourists on the other side and enjoy the feeling of discovery.
Letchworth has 23 waterfalls. Go on a quest to find them all using the guidebook “200 Waterfalls in Central & Western New York – A Finders’ Guide.”