Sunday, November 8, 2015

Letchworth State Park: The Grand Canyon of the East

While Upstate New York is home to many beautiful parks, forests, and wilderness areas, there are none quite as popular as Letchworth State Park. Nicknamed "The Grand Canon of the East," and rightly so, it is the most visited of New York's 180 state parks.

On the western edge of New York's Finger Lakes region, the Genesee River cuts through many miles of bedrock to create a gorge that exceeds 600 feet in depth within the park boundaries. The river snakes and winds through the gorge, forming three major waterfalls along the way before reaching the Mount Morris Dam near the northeast end of the park. In a 2015 USA Today reader's poll, Letchworth was voted the best state park in the entire country. (Watkins glen State Park, also in the Finger Lakes, took the bronze in the same poll.)

Since this blog focuses primarily on off-road running, you may be asking yourself impatiently "Sure, but what about the trails?" Well, Letchworth boasts over 60 miles of trails inside the park proper
while connecting to a few other major trail systems outside of Letchworth's borders. The Finger Lakes Trail crosses the river near the park's south entrance with an official FLT branch trail splitting off into the park. The FLT Letchworth Branch Trail extends for 25 miles along the Genesee River's east side, and as part of the FLT system it is maintained by the Finger Lakes Trail Conference. In fact, the conference is headquarted near Letchworth Park's north end, near the northern terminus of the Letchworth Branch Trail. Additionally, the 80+ mile Genesee Valley Greenway rail trail connects to the park trails and FLT branch trail, opening up the trail network even further.

One sunny day in mid July I decided to take a drive out to Letchworth and explore as much of the park as possible on foot. Being a Friday, I was hoping the tourist count would be lower than typically seen on a summertime weekend. After some fumbling around trying to find a good parking area and then locating the gorge trail, I settled into a steady pace and was able to see all of the most popular parts of the park in one run. I figured it would be a solid day of training for Virgil Crest. Unconcerned about pace, I took dozens of pictures along the way. Finally, after four months, I've found the time to create a blog post to show off the pictures.

Most of the pictures are from the seven mile Gorge Trail on the northwest side of the river. I didn't have time to explore the FLT section on the southeast side of the gorge, but hope to go back someday to check out the rest of the park.

There's only one foot bridge to cross the river inside the park.

Lower Falls

The area around what is present day Letchworth State Park was once known as Sehgahunda, a Seneca native word meaning The Vale of the Three Falls. The aptly titled Sehgahunda Trail Marathon follows the FLT from the north end of Letchworth to the south end.


At about 107 feet, Middle Falls is the highest of the three major waterfalls in the park. The trestle seen in the background, just above Upper Falls, was built by the Erie Railroad Company in 1875 and remains active to this day.

The Gorge Trail gets so up close and personal with the water than one can almost walk right into the mist as it permeates the air along the trailside.

Upper Falls is located near the southern end of the park, with the trestle just upstream from the falls. The trestle crosses the river more than 200 vertical feet above the water.  

Upper Falls

The next several shots are from other points along the gorge trail, which parallels the main road running the length of the entire park. Although I traversed the park on foot, one can drive his or her car to many scenic overlook spots and see all of these same views from the parking areas.

Gardeau Lookout

By the time I finished my run, I was still interested in checking out the Mount Morris Damn at the far north end of the park. It was too far away to reach by foot. After a cooldown dip in the park's pool, I drove up to the same for a little bonus sight seeing.

The Mt. Morris Dam near Letchworth's north end.

Who else has been to The Grand Canyon of the East and what did you think of it? As I mentioned earlier, the park is huge and offers a lot to see. I was hoping to someday run around the entire park fatass style. That is, up one side of the gorge and down the other without backtracking - roughly 40-45 miles. Anyone interested in possibly doing this sometime in the summer of 2016 please contact me.

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