INTROThey say the best training for climbing mountains is to climb mountains, but what if you don't have any mountains close to your home? The answer is, find a nearby trail, throw on your gear, and get hiking.
This is my situation and also my solution.
LETCHWORTH STATE PARKNestled in the western part of New York State between Buffalo and Rochester is a glacier-carved gorge with a river flowing through it, surrounded by a wilderness park. The locals refer to the gorge as the "Grand Canyon of the east" and although it does not rise to that level, it is still an impressive site to behold. Numerous hiking trails cut their swaths through the park, offering the eager hiker a hefty array of adventures to choose from. The most popular trail is the Gorge Trail: a seven mile, marked trail that runs along the gorge's western rim from north to south. The Gorge Trail offers almost non-stop breathtaking views of the gorge, in addition to paralleling the popular parking areas that provide quick access to tourists who want to see the highlights. My wife and I quickly decided on this popular trail. Due to time constraints, we planned to hike the southern part of the trail which allows access to three scenic waterfalls. It is important to note that the Gorge Trail is not a loop, and getting to the end of it leaves the hiker stranded seven miles from their car. Some hiking groups conquer this obstacle by leaving another vehicle at the end of the trail or by having a vehicle shuttle them to the opposite end of the trail.
THE GORGE TRAIL
My wife and I arrived to the park at 10:30am. It was a beautiful summer weekend and we expected a heavy crowd of people in the park that day. Vehicle admittance to the park was $6 and the park attendant was extremely helpful in giving us directions to the southern parking lot to begin our hike and providing us with trail maps. As we pulled into a parking spot, we were surprised to see that there were only two other cars. A quick glance at the occupants made it clear that they were not planning on going on any long hikes today. They were just there to gaze at the gorge and maybe have a picnic lunch.
We stepped out into the warm morning air, nibbling on energy bars and sipping sports drinks, before slipping on our gear and hitting the trail. The air was thick with potential and I could smell the sweet scent of pine trees and hear the nearby roaring waterfall. The feeling was unmistakable. I was back in the woods again. I was ALIVE.
We had to backtrack the trail a short distance to it's beginning (or end) to see the first of our three landmarks: Upper Falls. We snapped the obligatory photos and headed north towards our next objective: Middle Falls.
The first section of trail is heaven on your feet. The trail is soft dirt and I could swear they mix in peat moss to cushion it more. You can barely feel your boots hitting the ground and each step seems to spring forward effortlessly, defying the very gravity that holds you to the trail.
As we walked silently through the first wooded section, the woods came alive with wildlife. The birds sang on our approach and the chipmunks and squirrels danced across the trail in front of us. As we fell into nature's morning lull, we heard a quick thrashing in the leaves directly next to us and turned to see a good sized garden snake scurrying away for protective cover. I quickly glanced at my wife and hoped that she had not seen it. One look at her face let me know that she had. My mind quickly raced through all of the possible scenarios that this unexpected encounter could result in. Would my wife jump into the gorge in fear? Would crisis counselors need to talk her down from one of the surrounding trees? Would she head back to the car and lock the doors? When it comes to snakes, the fictional character of Indiana Jones has nothing on my wife. She hates them. Period. "Why? Why? Why?" she muttered to herself.
"It was only a garden snake, and it was heading away from us..." I offered hopefully.
My wife shrugged and continued down the trail. I was proud of her. She had accepted the obstacle and decided to continue on. In fact, she did not even bristle when another snake again jumped from the leaves a short while later. I whispered a silent prayer of thanks and begged mother nature not to bless us with any more sightings of her legless children. She must have heard me since we did not see another snake that day.
Along the trail is many sections of handbuilt stone steps. As I was climbing another steep set of them, I could feel my breathing getting heavy and my heavy pack sent a dull ache across my back from shoulder to shoulder. The humid air caused me to perspire significantly and I began to doubt my ability to handle this easy trail for the day. I had purposefully overloaded my pack to create a handicap for myself. I expected the trail to be easy and wanted to gain a training benefit from the hike. I overloaded the backpack with water and food. I even threw in several metal cans of fruit cocktail! Had I handicapped myself too much? I was confused as I knew my training should have easily prepared me for a hike with this amount of weight. Unable to explain my feelings, I ignored it and pushed forward. It turns out my body was just presenting pre-hike jitters. As the hike progressed, my pack began to feel very light and my breath soon came in even measures. I was warmed up and excited for the journey ahead.
We followed the trail and soon ended up at the next objective: Middle Falls.
Again it was time for photos and a rest before continuing on to Lower Falls.
Compared with the relatively short distance between Upper Falls and Middle Falls, the next leg to the Lower Falls is significant. The gorge begins to deepen in this area and your exposure to the gorge can become quite severe. While some sections had protective walls and fences, other sections were surprisingly unprotected. I'm talking one misstep or trip and you could be falling hundreds of feet into the gorge below. It is important to note that this exposure is actually self imposed. The trail is very wide in most sections, actually connecting to open areas of the park in spots. The exposure is what you make of it. If you don't like exposure, you simply put yourself a safe distance from the rim and continue your hike at this distance. I have a very healthy fear of heights and could not resist challenging myself a bit and staying close to the edge of the gorge. I even crept ridiculously close at resting points to feel the adrenaline rush and to catch the incredible views that were spread out before me.
The breathtaking views on this trail are the main reason that it is the most popular one. Each break in the trees offers a unique look into nature's magnificence and the awesome power of glaciers to carve huge masterpieces into the earth's surface.
We eventually arrived at the Lower Falls and had a quick snack before attempting the 127 steps (there is a sign, we didn't count them) down to a lookout point near the Lower Falls. We joked that the walk back up was not going to be fun. After some pictures and quiet reflection time, we headed back up the stairs and punished our quads and calves with a steep 127 step ascent.
We headed another 20 minutes down the Gorge Trail but did not see any reachable objectives on the map for our day. We soon turned around and headed back to the Lower Falls area for lunch.
FALLS PICNIC AREAS
It is important to note that each one of the falls (Upper, Middle, Lower) has it's own parking area near the trail with picnic tables, shelters, restrooms, and gift shops (although the first two weren't open when we first passed them).
As we opened up my backpack to have lunch, we were soon assaulted by swarms of non-biting black flies. They made normal tasks difficult at best and we soon realized that lunch was going to be a nightmare of man (and woman!) VS insect. We spied a beautiful stone and wood shelter nearby and politely begged the renting party inside to use one of their tables for a quick lunch. The shelter was called the Octagon and the people inside told us that their guests were not arriving for awhile and that we were welcome to lunch within. It was a bit strange. The shelter is a stone foundation with an open wooden structure atop of it, yet despite the openess, not a single fly nor other insect, ventured within. The shelter has a stone fireplace inside and the sweet smell of past burnt hardwoods added a special something to our hard earned meal.
RETURNAs we retraced our steps along the trail we had something rather strange (as I think about it now) happen. As we were walking, a sudden strong gust of wind from the gorge caused us to stand straight up and stare into the openess of the vast gorge outstretched in front of us. Right before our eyes, a huge turkey vulture, floated over the openess, gliding on the wind, with no apparent need to even flap it's wings to stay aloft. I don't want to get religious or spiritual here, but it was as if the earth was forcing us to watch this scene and boasting of it's magnificence in a choreographed display of one of nature's finest moments. I talked about it with my wife later and we had both noticed the moment and had secretly wished that we were that bird, gliding effortlessly on brisk winds, over a picture perfect gorge flush with dramatic cliffs and formations of jutting stone.
We eventually made it back to the car and enjoyed the afterglow of taxed muscles spent pursuing nature's splendor.
The hike had been all that we could have hoped for and more...
I just wanted to add that this trail is not appropriate for small children. As stated in the trip report, there are many sections where a person could simply walk right into the gorge. We even found one section where a popular lookout point had begun falling right into the gorge! This is a wonderous hiking venue, but it still holds a decent amount of danger for small children and careless adults and it would be a disservice not to mention this possible hazard.
Also, the trail markers are very sparse in some areas. It is an obvious trail, just stick to the edge of the gorge, but don't try to rely solely on trail markers.
HELPFUL LINKSOFFICIAL PARK SITE
TRAIL DESCRIPTION WITH A MAP
NICE PDF FILE SHOWING THE TRAILS OF LETCHWORTH