Sunday, February 23, 2014

Gorge Trail from Lower to Upper Falls

Middle Falls of the Genesee River in Letchworth Gorge
6 miles round trip, 950 feeet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, $8 New York State Parks day use fee

Letchworth Gorge is nicknamed the "Grand Canyon of the East," and I'm inclined to agree with that assessment. I drove to the park through mile after mile of rolling upstate New York countryside when all of a sudden, the ground dropped away, revealing a chasm between two 500-foot tall vertical walls of sandstone. The Gorge Trail visits the very best of the park, starting near the Lower Falls, passing through the most spectacular portion of the Gorge and ending at the Upper Falls. Along the way, the Genesee River makes three large drops, each of which are among the most impressive waterfalls in the East. The park and the falls would almost certainly be much more famous if Niagara Falls weren't two hours away.

I did this hike with my cousin on a warm, cloudy August day. We left Rochester in the early morning as the forecast called for rain; we hoped to do the hike and return to Rochester before the rain set in, which we did successfully. From Rochester, we followed I-390 south to exit 8, where we took US 20A west to Geneseo and Leicester before taking the fork for New York Route 39 about two miles out of Leicester; we continued to Castile, where we turned left on State Route 19, and a mile later from 19 on Denton Corner's Road, which led into the park. There was a small admission fee to enter the park. Once in the park, we right turned onto the park road, where we got our first stunning glimpse of the canyon, and soon took another right to follow the road leading to the Lower Falls parking area. We parked in the large Lower Falls parking lot to begin our hike.

The first part of the hike was a downhill visit to the Lower Falls. The parking area was most of the way down the canyon; but we had to descend a little further into the canyon by stairs until we came to a broad rock platform on the lower canyon rim. From here, we followed a narrow grassy trail to a grassy ledge not far from the falls themselves. The sandstone here formed almost perfectly flat layers; the falls occurred where the Genesee River reached the edge of the particular table of sandstone. The walls of the canyon soared above us.

Lower Falls
After leaving the Lower Falls, we descended even more stairs to reach the stone bridge over the Genesee River. A beautiful arch bridge spanned the Letchworth Gorge here; we followed it across and walked a bit along the stone steps and pathway on the other side of the Gorge. This path eventually led to another trail, but we decided to backtrack across the bridge and continue upstream along the Gorge. My cousin and I both agreed that the stone bridge held some resemblance to a certain underground bridge in a Peter Jackson movie.

Stone bridge downstream of Lower Falls
Downstream of the bridge, the river became a little calmer, though the canyon walls were still steep and grand. A few miles on, the Genesee River comes to a temporary rest behind Mt. Morris Dam, a massive concrete dam at the northern end of the gorge.

Letchworth Gorge
After we backtracked to the top of the steps and were nearly back to the parking area, we turned left onto the Gorge Trail. This trail followed the lower rim briefly, passing above an obscured view of Lower Falls, before it began climbing. The next mile or so of the trail brought it further and further uphill, until it reached the upper rim. Once on the upper rim, we had fabulous views of the gorge and its walls of Devonian sandstone. We approached the park road (which paralleled the Gorge Trail) at Inspiration Point, where the river made a huge bend and we came upon a stunning view of the tall Middle Falls with a peek of the Upper Falls further back and the high Portage Bridge behind it.

Middle Falls from Inspiration Point
The gorge is being formed fairly fast: each year, the Genesee River cuts into the surrounding sandstone at the order of magnitude of an inch. Geologically, the canyon is very young: it has formed since the last Ice Age. However, the rock layers exposed in its walls are much older and link it to the Blue Ridge Mountains that I write so much about. Letchworth is at the northern edge of the Allegheny Plateau, the westernmost physiographic part of the Appalachian Mountains. The plateau is composed of layer after layer of Paleozoic sedimentary rock: it was once the Appalachain Basin and only later became uplifted to become a plateau. As the Appalachian Mountains formed through a series of orogenies, the west side of the mountains (where the current plateau is) was a shallow sea. As the mountains formed, they also eroded, with sediments piling up in the Appalachian Basin. Letchworth's sedimentary layers are from the Late Devonian Period, but the best known layers are those laid down during the Carboniferous Period further south. The swampy nature of the Appalachian Basin at the time eventually resulted in the massive reams of coal throughout the Appalachian Plateau. Getting just as much attention these days is a Middle Devonian Period layer known as the Marcellus Shale, which spans southern upstate New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and much of the rest of the Appalachian Basin. The Marcellus Shale's ample natural gas reserves are leading to fracking throughout the current plateau. The plateau itself formed when uplift eventually brought these sedimentary layers out of the shallow sea and made it into a flat highland just west of the Appalachian Mountains.

The gorge
Past Inspiration Point, the trail followed the gorge rim for a while and then joined up with the park road. We followed the park road sidewalk downhill, passing some visitor facilities and parking lots, until we came to a stairway that descended towards the Middle Falls. The falls were impressive with both their mist and roar as we approached. We stopped for a snack break at a small visitor overlook, which we shared with many other visitors. The Middle Fals were extremely impressive, at over 100 feet high.

Middle Falls
After spending some time at Middle Falls, we continued along the rim of the gorge to the top of the waterfall; from there, we followed the path along the river, which paralleled a parking area and a road. This fairly flat trail continued until we came to a viewpoint of Upper Falls and the towering Portage Bridge behind it. An older version of Portage Bridge, which carries a railroad across the gorge, was once the tallest wooden bridge in the world.

Upper Falls and the Portage Bridge
We continued past this view onto a boardwalk-type trail, which led to the rim of Upper Falls. Unfortunately, the view wasn't great here; I would recommend ending your hike here and returning to your car at Lower Falls. We continued onward and climbed back to the upper rim of the canyon from Lower Falls, but neither of us found it to be worth the effort as the trail just leads to another trailhead.

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