Letchworth State Park has approximately 66 miles of trails within its 14,427 acres, but the most spectacular is the Gorge Trail. Bequeathed to New York State in 1906 by industrialist William Pryor Letchworth, the park began as 1,000 acres around Portage Canyon, etched into the shale and sandstone rock face by the Genesee River, which forms the stunning Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls.
Located on the western rim of the 600-foot gorge, the official trail follows the gorge for 7 miles from the Upper Falls to the Saint Helena Overlook. Including unmarked, unmaintained trails, the trail extends for 17 miles. Part of the Finger Lakes Trail along the main park road, the trail passes through the woods and over beautiful erosion gullies, each containing smaller waterfalls.
Beside the Upper Falls, a horseshoe cascade totaling 71 feet, the trail begins as a series of stone stairs wrapped in cool spray along the edge of the falls. Enjoy views of lovely tributaries that rush and drip down small gullies.
The trail continues along the edge of the parking lot past a bathroom building and picnic areas to the Middle Falls. The largest of the three waterfalls, it drops 107 feet into the river below. If you visit on a sunny day, be sure to pause and look at the gorge bend to the left of the falls, where rainbows in the mist are a constant delight.
From here the trail varies from dirt paths to stone steps and goat trails that rise and fall, sometimes steeply, with the tributaries and erosion paths along the rim. Caution is recommended as the trail is often mere feet from the edge. Some areas have a bypass where the main trail has eroded away completely. In addition to spectacular views, hikers will be treated to a variety of woodland creatures, including white-tailed deer, eagles, hawks, and vultures soaring in the thermals over the gorge.
Overlooks such as Inspiration Point, Wolf Creek, and the Tea Tables offer breathtaking views and pauses. These sites feature bathrooms, grills, and stone picnic tables reminiscent of Aslan’s stone altar in Narnia, but also large crowds during weekends in the summer and autumn. The trail isn’t as congested as the overlooks, so it is worth visiting during these times to see the protected red trillium flower and it’s white cousin. Enjoy the shade and intoxicating scents of the white, jack, and scotch pines and the colorful autumnal foliage from the maples, oaks, sumacs, and more.
The staircase at the base of the Lower Falls is colloquially known as The Thousand Steps, but don’t despair: it’s actually only 127 stone stairs that lead to two amazing views of the falls. While there is an upper path view, it cannot be recommended enough to take the side trip down the steps.
A short trail toward the right will lead you to the 70-foot falls, close enough to feel the spray. The trail to the left leads down worn stone stairs and a slippery shale pathway to a large, flat, open viewing platform for the gorge. From here take a deep breath before heading down more stone stairs that lead to the only place in the park where the west and east sides can be crossed, a 400-foot stone bridge.
From the stairs and the bridge, take in the views of the Lower Falls, the rapids racing through the narrowing gorge walls, and even damage marks from a flood in 1972. A word of warning: even in the driest weather, this particular area is always muddy, slippery, and prone to rock fall. Use caution when proceeding.
Return up the 127 steps to continue to the Gorge Trail to its conclusion at the Saint Helena Overlook, where you’ll find restrooms and rest areas. Continue on the unofficial trail for 10 miles or cross the bridge up to the Eastern Gorge Trail.
Other points of interest along the hike, in addition to the many tributaries, are the Portageville Viaduct Railroad Bridge built in 1875 spanning over the Upper Falls, a local hot air balloon company that launches from the lawn between the Upper and Middle Falls at dusk on calm summer nights, or the whitewater rafters and kayakers going down the gorge during high flows.
One hike along the Letchworth State Park Gorge Trail is all it takes to understand why the park won the 2015 Best State Park in the Nation award from USA Today, and it will leave you wanting to explore more.