Tag Archives: camping vacations

New York’s Watkins Glen State Park is Spellbinding

By Karen Rubin, David Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Rainbow Falls, one of the highlights of the Glen Creek Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Walking the Gorge Trail in Watkins Glen State Park in New York’s Finger Lakes is, in a word, spellbinding.

The centerpiece of the 778-acre Watkins Glen State Park is a 400-foot deep, narrow gorge cut by the Glen Creek that was left “hanging” when glaciers of the last continental glaciation, some 12,000 years ago, deepened the Seneca valley, creating rapids and waterfalls through layers of hard rock. The textures and shapes of the soft shales, sandstone and limestone – which erode at different rates – are gorgeous.

If you have ever visited a slot canyon, and marveled at the smooth, twisted, perfectly contoured curves, walk the Glen Creek Gorge Trail, where you can watch Mother Nature working her magic.

Rainbow Falls, one of the highlights of the Glen Creek Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We don’t waste time after arriving at the Six Nations Campground in the park in the afternoon, in order to take advantage of the beautiful sunlight. So we drop out things and rush down to the Gorge Trail for a taste of what we will see more completely the next day.

In the course of a 1.5 mile stone trail, with 800 steps and beautiful stone bridges you see 19 incredible waterfalls.

Cascading falls on the Glen Creek Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The waterfalls range from those that flow from dramatic heights of 200 foot-high cliffs, to those that cascade; you see waterfalls coming in together from different directions, cutting through the sedimentary rock of shale, sandstone and limestone, making exquisite, remarkably perfect shapes and cuts that are astonishingly precise and straight or curved, and cascades of falls that twist.

Rainbow Falls, one of the highlights of the Glen Creek Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In this “hanging valley,” we also see “hanging gardens” – the tender mosses, ferns, mosslike plants (liverworts) that drape over the rocks and down the rock walls, the delicate plants that stubbornly grow, albeit slowly in crevasses in the rock walls. They depend on continuous moisture trickling down, and you can see differences in ecosystems based on the amount of sun, shade and moisture that a section of the rock wall gets. (Visitors are told not to pick anything.)

A place of perfect peace, Watkins Glen State Park, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You are enveloped by a feeling of perfect peace – the sound of the flowing water, the cool of the green moss and moist rock, the fresh smell, the late afternoon light that turns the tops of the trees into shades of yellow and gold. The gorge is fairly narrow, so you feel cocooned in this primal, Jurassic Park-like setting.

Looking down into where the water flattens out at one point into soil what appeared to be a giant fossil skeleton, exposed in the low water. It is exciting to imagine.

Could this be a titanoboa fossil, only just exposed in the Glen Creek? © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We walk back to Mile Point Bridge where we follow the trail back into the Six Nations Campground, after this brief survey mission.

Back at our campsite, we set up our tents and go downtown to where John, who checked us into the campground, had recommended as the best place in Watkins Glen for sunset: the marina on the southern tip of Seneca Lake. There is a rock wall that is very popular for people to walk out to watch. We opt to go to the Village Marina for dinner where we can dine outside and take in the sunset.

Blazing sunset from the Village Marina in Watkins Glen © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The colors that blaze through the sky, reflect back in the water, after the sun went behind the hills, are spectacular.

The next day, we stroll down from our campsite to the Gorge Trail.

We enter the Gorge Trail at Mile Point Bridge, giving us our first stunning view. We walk the half-mile to the end, at Jacob’s Ladder (a set of 180 stairs that goes to the Upper Entrance), and then return, choosing to go back along the Gorge Trail rather than connect to the Indian Trail that goes along the rim for views down into the Gorge. Going back this way on the Gorge Trail we go down in elevation towards the Main Entrance in the village (many people who don’t want to do the 1.5 mile trail both ways start park up here, hike down, and take a shuttle bus back, $5).

Glen Creek Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park, is spellbinding © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just beyond the Mile Point Bridge is Frowning Cliff, a gorgeous waterfall, then the climatic scene, Rainbow Falls (most dramatic from the other direction on the way back; you walk behind the falls along the trail), aptly named because, on some afternoons, the sunlight comes at just the right angle to create rainbows.

Rainbow Falls, one of the highlights of the Glen Creek Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

On to the Central Cascade (plunging more than 60 feet, this is the highest waterfall in the Gorge), Glen Cathedral (the horizontal layers of shale were formed 380 million years ago; ripples in the rock were created by wave action at the bottom of an ancient sea floor that eventually turned to stone), then a steeper descent, through the Spiral Tunnel (hand cut in 1927) to the Cavern Cascade, where you again walk behind the waterfall) and across Sentry Bridge (look for a round flume hole in the rock where, in the 1800s, water was once diverted to power a mill where the visitor center now stands) to the new Visitor Center and main entrance on Franklin Street in Watkins Glen.

Cascading falls on the Glen Creek Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Walk through the Spiral Tunnel (hand cut in 1927) to the Cavern Cascade, where you walk behind the waterfall, Watkins Glen State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Along the way, we meet up with a park ranger who we tell about seeing what appeared to be a giant fossil. He tells us that it was exposed only two days before and might well be a titanoboa – a giant sea snake that could be as big as 45 feet long. This exciting news passes from one to another as people come to that spot to view it. Another park ranger tells us that a naturalist is coming to investigate.

For awhile, visitors to Watkins Glen State Park that morning had an extra thrill beyond the breathtaking scenery: the prospect of seeing a newly discovered fossil of a prehistoric sea snake, Monster in the Glen.

A place of perfect peace, Watkins Glen State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We finish walking the trail, have a delightful lunch at the Harbor Hotel on the lake. By now it is the afternoon and markedly less crowded (everyone seems to come out early for the walk) as we walk back on the Gorge Trail.

By the time we get back to where the “titanoboa fossil” would have been, we see the naturalist has etched in the soil, “Not a Fossil,” and smudged the image completely away, having revealed the fossil to be a hoax (people had remarked on what they thought were footprints leading to it).

Not a fossil! But now the mystery remains: who created it and how? © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

So, if we didn’t witness a major fossil discovery, we were witness to the hoax. ow the mystery is: Who created the hoax? How? Anyway, it got everyone buzzing that day.

Also, on my walk I saw in black rock what looked like an ammonite. That too was smudged away on our return.

Glen Creek Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park, is spellbinding © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This stunning gorge has been visited by tourists since 1863 and was privately operated as a tourist resort ($1 admission per person, equivalent to $34 today) until New York State acquired the property, in 1906 for a state park. (It is named for Samuel Watkins; “glen” comes from a Greek word meaning “small, narrow, secluded valley”.). After the 1935 flood destroyed the trail, it was rebuilt with a stunning series of stone walks, staircases (there are 800 steps altogether), bridges and tunnels cut through the rock, by Franklin D Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps between 1935-1940. (You can do the trail one way and take a shuttle bus, $5, back).

The stunning rock formations, created by the rushing water, on the Glen Creek Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Capping this experience is the beautiful Six Nations Campground – beautiful trees, excellent restroom facilities, and a glorious Olympic-sized pool. There are also a couple of pavilions that can be rented for groups and even the Iroquois Lodge, which is essentially a house that can be rented instead of a campsite (altogether, you can imagine a wedding here, with photos in front of waterfalls; there are also lovely accommodations in town including a luxury Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel, right on Seneca Lake, where we enjoy lunch). Where we camp, we are just a short walk down to the Gorge Trail.

Our campsite at Six Nations Campground, Watkins Glen State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Six Nations Campground is named for the Haundenosaunee Confederation, more commonly known to us as Iroquois (Haundenosaunee means “They made the house”), a reminder of whose land this was before the European colonists came. The loops of the campground are named for the nations of the Confederacy: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the park brochure notes, is renowned for its organization and democratic system, one of the first of its kind (Ben Franklin is said to have drawn upon the Iroquois Confederation for our US Constitution; suffragist Melinda Gage drew upon the Oneida’s matriarchal structure, in which women could be chiefs, own property, have custody of their children in a divorce, to set out demands for women’s rights in 1848).In 1842, what remained of the First Nations were relegated to the Six Nations Indian Reserve. (More information is available at nearby Ganondaganb State Historic Site, 7000 County Rd. 41 (Houghton Hill Rd), Victor, NY 14564).

Walking the stone trail along the Glen Creek Gorge, Watkins Glen State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are seven moderate trails in Watkins Glen State Park ranging from 0.7 to 7.6 miles and from 479 to 1,171 feet above sea level, but we focus all our time on the Gorge Trail (1.5 miles), captivated by the views and the enchantment of the place. Other trails – the Indian Trail (2.4 miles) and the South Rim Trail (2.6 miles) provide views of the Gorge from above. You can connect from the Gorge Trail to Lovers Lane Loop which takes you to a Suspension Bridge for a view above the gorge. You can also do a Gorge Trail, Outer Rim and Finger Lakes Trail combination (7.6 miles, about 3 hours) (see alltrails.com for more detail). (The trail is closed in winter.)

Cavern Cascade, Watkins Glen State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s about 3:30 in the afternoon when we return to the campsite. We go to the gorgeous, Olympic-sized pool to refresh before returning to the campsite for an amazing steak dinner David and Laini prepared over the campfire they built for our second night camping.

The gorgeous Olympic-sized pool at Watkins Glen State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is no wonder that Watkins Glen State Park was awarded the third best among 6,000 state parks nationwide in 2015, and is consistently among the state’s top parks.

Watkins Glen State Park, 1009 N Franklin St, Watkins Glen, NY 14891, 607-535-4511, https://parks.ny.gov/parks/watkinsglen/maps.aspx.

There is so much to do in Watkins Glen, in the heart of the Finger Lakes, you could easily make this your base for a week.

Auto enthusiasts know Watkins Glen for its famous NASCAR races. The pavement is dotted with names of winners throughout the years, the crosswalks painted like the race start/finish. Auto racing is still sacred here, with much of the quaint village (the downtown was a recipient of New York State’s $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative award) themed for autos.

Wine enthusiasts know Watkins Glen as the southerly point of Seneca Lake, from which you can drive up Winery Trails on both sides.

Nearby is the Corning Museum of Glass; about 1 ½ hours drive away is another jewel,  Letchworth State Park, “The Grand Canyon of the East,” where we camped and hiked last year; a half-hour away is Ithaca.

The Finger Lakes region has over 1,000 waterfalls and gorges, 650 miles of shoreline, more than 16,000 acres of National Forest, and over 2,000 miles of hiking and biking trails. There is plenty to explore indoors at museums, art galleries, historic sites, theaters, wineries, breweries.

With summer turning to fall foliage season (which is amazing here), plan early and secure tickets and lodging.  

Excellent planning aids are available from The Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance, 309 Lake Street Penn Yan, NY 14527, 315-536-7488, 800-530-7488, www.fingerlakes.org.

New York State Begins Weekly ILoveNY Fall Foliage Reports; New Interactive Map

The 2021 fall foliage season is underway in New York State. Fall is one of the most popular travel times in New York, attracting visitors from around the world to explore the state’s unique communities and support local businesses. To help travelers and foliage enthusiasts plan a fall getaway, I LOVE NY has begun issuing its weekly fall foliage reports and will now include a new enhanced interactive progression map (www.iloveny.com/foliage).    

The foliage report is compiled each week using the on-location field observations from I LOVE NY’s team of volunteer leaf peepers. More than 85 spotters extending across the state’s 11 vacation regions are tasked with keeping track of the color change in their area as leaves progress each week. Reports detail the predominant leaf colors, approximate percentage of change, and how much color change has progressed relative to peak conditions.  

View from Chimney Mountain, The Adirondacks. ILoveny.com/foliage report helps you monitor the progress of fall foliage throughout New York State © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

New this year, I LOVE NY is introducing an enhanced, interactive map that tracks weekly foliage change and progression across the state throughout the season. The map, located on the I LOVE NY foliage website, showcases great foliage viewing locations in each of the various regions throughout the state. Visitors can also use the map to see what the foliage is like during peak viewing in a given area, and learn about nearby, must-see attractions. 

Thanks in part to its size and location, New York State has one of the longest and most colorful foliage seasons in the country. On any weekend from late September through mid-November, part of the state is likely experiencing peak foliage.  

Travelers are also invited to share their photos of New York State’s amazing foliage on social media by using the #NYLovesFall hashtag. Photos submitted to this hashtag have a chance of being featured on the I LOVE NY fall foliage website and official I LOVE NY social media accounts reaching nearly two million followers. Reports and the new interactive map are updated Wednesdays throughout the season at www.iloveny.com/foliage.Reports are also available toll-free by dialing 800/CALL-NYS (800/225-5697) from anywhere in the U.S., its territories and Canada. For more information on how to volunteer for as an I LOVE NY leaf peeper, e-mail your name, address and phone number to foliage@esd.ny.gov.

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© 2021 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

America’s Great Open Spaces Filling Up Fast

Hiking in Yosemite National Park. National and state parks are in high demand as families look forward to gathering together again after a year of separation © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

With more and more people – especially those over 65 years old and the most vulnerable – getting vaccinated, Americans are chomping at the bit to get out there and reconnect with family. For many, the ideal destinations are national and state parks, where there is space and enough outdoors, plus all the experiences being in nature affords, to bring the entire family together. Not surprisingly, bookings are already skyrocketing, with campsites, RV rentals, hotels nearest the parks, still operating with COVID19 restrictions, filling up. Those who are just emerging from an isolation mindset may have awakened to find space already booked.

In fact, Tracks & Trails, which specializes in packaging RV vacations to national parks in the western United States and Canada, citing unprecedented demand, is opening 2022 reservations on April 1.

RV Vacations, Novel Lodgings Surge

RV vacations skyrocketed in popularity over this past year, giving renewed focus on the “road trip,” because they offer the freedom and flexibility of touring the country in a fully-equipped and self-contained unit that has everything needed for a perfect vacation. “Picture it as your personal cabin on wheels going to scenic places where lodges or hotels often don’t exist,” said Dan Wulfman, founder and president of Tracks & Trails, whose specialty is packaging RV vacations to national Parks in the Western U.S. and Canada – not just renting the RV.

RV travel allows friends and families to be autonomous and as private as they please while enjoying the freedom of America’s open roads. Time for lunch? Just pull off at the next scenic turnout and open the fridge. Potty stop? Easy. End the day in the natural beauty of national park campsites chosen especially for Tracks & Trails travelers. 

Wulfman notes that the pandemic is turning millions of non-campers into aspiring RVers, and the trend is exploding. The RV Industry Association found that 20% of US residents surveyed are more interested in RV travel than in flying, tent camping, cruises, or rental stays amid coronavirus concerns.

“But getting in an RV and setting off without a plan can be daunting for a first-timer,” says Wulfman, who introduced the concept of packaged RV vacations in 1996. “That’s where the sage advice, travel tips, and insider knowledge of experts can make or break the experience. Because of COVID, choosing your dates 6 to 12 months in advance is now essential.”

Tracks & Trails is sold out for July and August of 2021, but trips in September and October may still be available. And due to unprecedented demand, the company will begin accepting reservations for 2022 trips on April 1, 2021. 

For those savvy enough to lock in their dates early, the hard part is done. The company’s team of expert planners handles all the arrangements that make it so challenging to organize a worry-free 7-14 day, multi-destination RV trip on your own. Travelers work with their T&T Trip Wizard to select one of the 20 carefully-crafted itineraries, decide on the right RV, and pick optional excursions that suit their tastes. The company takes care of the rest: reserving prime campsites, booking guided excursions with trusted outfitters, and preparing comprehensive documentation that ensures things go smoothly on the road.

Canyonlands National Park, Utah © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of Tracks & Trails’ most popular itineraries is the 13-night Mighty 5: Utah & the Grand Canyon  beginning and ending in Las Vegas that visits all 5 of Utah’s national parks – Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches – and the Grand Canyon. Optional excursions that can be prearranged include canyoneering, rafting, ATV riding, horseback riding, and Jeep tours. The base trip cost, which includes up to 4 people, ranges from $8,000 to $10,000 and is available from May 15 to October 15 (sold out July-August 2021). (www.tracks-trails.cominquiries@tracks-trails.com, 800-247-0970)

Another source for RV vacations is Blacksford, a new recreational vehicle rental business with an all-inclusive pricing model that includes unlimited miles, no generator fees, bedding, bath and kitchen supplies, free Wi-Fi, free annual national park pass and 24-hour roadside assistance. Blacksford also curates road trip experiences by connecting travelers with vetted campsites, guides and other hand-picked attractions. https://www.blacksford.com.

Other sources for places to stay:

An oasis in Death Valley: The historic Inn at Death Valley, one of the Xanterra Travel Collection hotels in national parks © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Xanterra Travel Collection (www.xanterra.com) is the management company that oversees lodgings – including the campsites, cabins and lodges – in many of the most popular national parks, including the most iconic hotels, like El Tovar in the Grand Canyon, the Inn at Death Valley, Zion Lodge and the historic hotels and lodges in Yellowstone. For information about what’s open, what services will be available, reservations as well as any travel guidelines in this post-quarantine world, go to https://www.xanterra.com/contact/national-parks/.

Other sources for lodging for DIYers: hotels.com, booking.com, koa.com, glampinghub.com, vrbo.com, airbnb.com,

Tour Companies Enhance Experience

In many instances, the best way to experience the national parks is through a tour program with an outfitter or company that specializes in hiking, wilderness, nature, or any number of specialties. Not only do they bring an extra measure of enjoyment, literally maximizing the experience, but also have access and expertise casual travelers do not have. Tour companies range from those that are laid back, sightseeing oriented – the classic bus tour like Tauck (tauck.com) and Collette Tours (gocollette.com); find more at Escorted National Parks Tours (escortednationalparkstours.com, 800-942-3301) – to active, adventure trips, even private expeditions.

Among them:

Grand Canyon, hiking the South Kaibab Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Backroads has trips to Yellowstone & Tetons, Glacier, Kenai, Olympic, Arches & Canyonlands, Bryce, Zion & Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Yosemite, Saguaro & Tucson, Hawaii, Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, Everglades, https://www.backroads.com/tours/national-park-vacations, 800-462-2848

Roadscholar, specializing in trips for seniors, offers 220 national parks trips in Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Sedona, Yellowstone, Banff, Appalachian Trail, Mt. Rushmore, Group or solo packages include lodging, meals, & expert-guided educational tours. (Roadscholar.org/parks)

Off the Beaten Path (www.offthebeatenpath.com), based in Bozeman, Montana, is an outdoor, active travel company offering guided small group adventures and private custom journeys across the globe, including national park experiences in the Rocky Mountains, Desert Southwest, and Alaska.

Natural Habitat Adventures expedition leaders guide exclusive small groups to the most remote parts of America’s famed nature sanctuaries. https://www.nathab.com/us-national-parks-tours/ 800-543-8917

REI Adventures offers hiking-oriented trips in Great Smoky Mountains, Utah, Alaska, Yellowstone and Grand Tetons, Olympic, Rocky Mountain, Big Bend, Yosemite, Grand Canyon national parks (https://www.rei.com/adventures/p/national-parks/a/hiking, 800-622-2236).

Sierra Club Outings, the Sierra Club’s tour operation, offers a variety of active experiences in national parks (content.sierraclub.org/outings, 415-977-5522)

Zion National Park, Utah © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

National Geographic Expeditions (www.nationalgeographic.com) has trips and private expeditions to Alaska; Denali to Kenai Fjords; American Southwest National Parks Private Expedition; Arches, Canyonlands & Mesa Verde National Parks Private Expedition;  Glacier National Park private expedition; Yosemite Private Expedition; Grand Canyon, Bryce & Zion; National Parks Family Journey: Yellowstone & Grand Teton, and Discover American Canyonlands, (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/expeditions/destinations/north-america/national-parks/, 888-966-8687)

Country Walkers www.countrywalkers.com), renowned for well-crafted itineraries for guided walking and self-guided walking that highlight local cuisine, authentic accommodations, and immersive cultural experiences  has programs in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons (www.countrywalkers.com/tours/wyoming-yellowstone-grand-teton/, 800-234-6900).

Escape Adventures (www.escapeadventures.com) operates adventure travel vacations catering to the full spectrum of active traveler, from road cyclist to mountain biker to electric biker, hiker, and multi-sport enthusiasts, and from first timer to friends and family groups of all ability levels, in the Grand Tetons & Yellowstone (https://escapeadventures.com/tour/grand-tetons-yellowstone-road-bike-tour/) and Zion and Bryce Canyon other national and state parks (800-596-2953).

Western River Expeditions operates rafting trips in Grand Canyon, Utah and Idaho,  866-904-1160 (Local: 801-942-6669) or visit http://www.westernriver.com/. Western River Expeditions is an adventure travel company headquartered in Salt Lake City, with operations and offices in Moab, Utah and Fredonia, Arizona. Annually from March through October it escorts more people down rivers on professionally guided rafting trips in Utah, Idaho and Arizona than any other company. It is the largest licensed outfitter in the Grand Canyon and the largest single tour provider in Moab, UT, through its division Moab Adventure Center (http://www.moabadventurecenter.com/).

OARS (www.oars.com), famous for rafting trips through the Grand Canyon, has introduced a series of “Road to Whitewater” road trips: five itineraries that lead to at least one major rafting adventure, as well as incredible sites and experiences along the way. The itineraries are designed with Covid-19 protocols and precautions in place. Itineraries include: Colorado Rod Trip: Denver to Dino Loop in Northwest Colorado, Utah and Wyoming; the Scenic route to the Lower Salmon and Hells Canyon from Portland Oregon; San Francisco to Southern Oregon to experience national parks, wild rapids, majestic redwoods and coastal vibes; Salt Lake City to Moab, an ultimate Utah national parks road trip; Los Angeles to Yosemite; and The Tahoe to Yosemite Loop (www.oars.com/road-trips, 800-346-6277).

Novel Ways to Experience The Outdoors

With sustainably built, LEED-certified “tiny house” cabins, Fireside Resort in Jackson Hole, is nestled in a wooded setting at the foot of the Teton Range, enabling guests to get back to nature while enjoying the intimacy of a boutique hotel and the ambiance of their own cozy residence. https://www.firesidejacksonhole.com/

Red Reflet Ranch, a 28,000-acre luxury guest ranch in Wyoming.

Guests at the Red Reflet Ranch, a 28,000-acre luxury guest ranch in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, stay in fully-stocked private cabins and enjoy farm-to-table cuisine while participating in equestrian programs, cattle branding, hiking, mountain biking, ATVing, fly fishing, shooting, family-friendly activities and cooking classes. https://red-reflet-ranch.net/

A stay at The Wilson Hotel in Big Sky, Montana, offers the opportunity to explore the surrounding mountains, rivers and Yellowstone National Park. Go hiking through shaded forests and wildflower-filled alpine meadows, float or fly fish a clear, cool river, experience the adrenaline rush of lift-served mountain biking at Big Sky Resort, or tour the natural wonders and wildlife of Yellowstone. https://thewilsonhotel.com/

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© 2021 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Driveable Adventures: Hiking/Camping in the ‘Grand Canyon of the East’ – NY’s Letchworth State Park

Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It doesn’t take long once you arrive at New York’s Letchworth State Park to see why this vast preserve merits its nickname, “Grand Canyon of the East.” One of the most dramatically scenic areas in the eastern United States, the Genesee River roars through a humongous gorge that extends the 17 mile-long expanse of the park, over three major waterfalls between cliffs as high as 600 feet, surrounded by lush forest.

Ever since I saw a poster of Letchworth State Park while riding the Long Island Railroad, I said, “Where is that!” So when our plan to camp and hike in the Southwest fell apart this year and feeling safe staying within New York State which has so scrupulously monitored and imposed safety conditions to contain the coronavirus, we sought out a comparable adventure driving distance from home: Letchworth is just south of Rochester in western New York in appropriately named Wyoming County.

Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

Our camping trip was made all the more special by staying in the campground within the state park that had only just reopened (private campgrounds, such as Kampgrounds of America, koa.com, are also available in the area) – so we could cook our dinner in the most spectacular settings – dinner with a view and be in prime places for the early light. (I booked our stay mere minutes after the website, reserveamerica.com, reopened reservations.)

During the two full days we were there, we hiked the most scenic, marquee trails: the Gorge Trail (#1), 7.6 miles following along the rim in the southern portion of the 17-mile long park, and the next day, the Highbanks Trail (#20), 4.5 miles along the rim and through forest in the north part of the park. Indeed, these hiking experiences were reminiscent of hiking the Rim Trail along the southern rim of the Grand Canyon.

Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

Letchworth State Park, (voted best attraction in New York State in 2017) is a geologic wonder. Its main attractions are three waterfalls (and if you visit in the late afternoon, you may well see rainbows over the Middle Falls) in the southern section. The trails take you to the most popular, scenic overlooks, which people can drive to, so they can be bustling with visitors (when we visited, people seemed to be respectful of wearing masks and keeping distance). This is another reason why camping in the park is such an advantage – the driving tourists tend to arrive at mid-day, so you can get out early and have these spectacular scenes almost to yourself.

If you do the hike early in the morning, do it from north to south. It’s out-and-back, so to avoid doing the 7.6 miles twice (that is, 15 miles), you can leave a second car or a bicycle at the end (as we did).

Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

The park is huge, about 17 miles long (it takes about 20-30 minutes to drive from the campground to the Upper Falls along the Park Road which is narrow, winding and rolling with dips and rises) to the Upper Falls area. Indeed, the park is so narrow that the hiking trails are just alongside the road, separated in most instances by curtains of trees.

Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

The Gorge Trail, in the south, brings you to the most spectacular views – Upper Falls and Middle Falls in quick succession, then Lower Falls. The real surprise is coming upon Wolf Creek waterfall and a bridge with a painterly scene. Along the way you come upon these stunning stone look-outs at Inspiration Point, Archery Field Overlook, Great Bend Overlook, Tea Table lookout, which also have stone tables and BBQ set-ups.

Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Highbanks trail in the north section doesn’t have the awesome waterfalls, but is very special in its own way, providing the expansive vistas that evoke awe over just how enormous and winding this gorge is (respect for Mother Nature’s power) and why Letchworth has been dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East.” Here, the hike brought us into stunning woods where the forest itself makes a painterly canvas.

View from Hogs Back on the Highbanks Trail, Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com
Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

We started at the absolutely stunning overlook at Hogs Back (where we parked our car for the hike), going south about 2.5 miles, then reversing and going north from Hogs Back, you walk along the ridge, sometimes almost hanging over the gorge, until you come to the Mt. Morris Dam Overlook. The treat here comes at the end, at the Mt. Morris Dam Overlook Area, where there is a delightful snack bar serving excellent ice cream.

Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

Two of the trails that I believe was closed during our visit, but definitely recommended is the Footbridge Trail that brings you down to the Lower Falls (#6A), just a half-mile long but rated “moderate” and the Portage Trail (#6).

Footbridge, Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

Altogether, the park offers 66 miles of trails (almost all rated easy or moderate, and most on the west side of the park). But for hard-core hikers, there is a 22-mile Finger Lakes Trail that runs along the entire eastern section of the park

Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

I tried to research in advance to find the best places for sunrise and sunset photos, which of course depends on season and weather. I wasn’t able to get any sunrise or sunset photos, but the late afternoon light proved best at the Upper Falls and Middle Falls (where rainbows seem not uncommon as the sun lowers and sends its rays through the mist).

Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

Instead of eating at the campsite (not that scenic, but very pleasant for sleeping and breakfast), we kept our food in the cooler and equipment in the car and each evening would pick out a different setting – dining on tables with slate tabletops apparently taken from these very cliffs. David would haul out his Coleman stove and tiny propane tank, his culinary tools, cutting board, and perform his culinary magic. We dined at the appropriately named Tea Table the first evening, Wolf Creek the second evening, which proved our favorite, with a virtually private view of a sweet waterfall, that we discovered on our hike. We were going to have our third night’s dinner overlooking the Upper Falls, but realized this is the most popular part of the park, and since a priority was to avoid possible exposure to lingering COVID germs, we decided to return to Wolf Creek which we again had all to ourselves.

Wolf Creek, Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

Each evening we returned to the campsite and David and Laini made a fire (s’mores for dessert!). The peace of this place, with tall trees opening to a blanket of stars, and fireflies darting about as if they were Superflies! or shooting stars, was perfect and priceless.

Highbanks Campground, Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

Letchworth, which was voted USA Today’s Reader Choice for Best State Park in the nation in 2015, is well maintained, especially during this heightened COVID-19 health emergency. The campground restroom facility was very clean, and all the restrooms (they indicate which are open), require masks and social distancing.

Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

Our plan for this trip was to be completely self-sufficient so we wouldn’t have to worry about getting water or food, not knowing if places would be open to buy supplies and wanting to cut down our interactions as much as possible. We took enough supplies for our three days, though we did discover that by the time of our trip, this region of New York had achieved Phase 4 reopening, so places were open though with significant limitations, including the Highbanks Camp Stores. (Concessions also were at the Dam Overlook Cafe and Highbanks Pool Snack Bar on the North end; Letchworth Gift shop, Lower Falls, upper Falls Snack Bar.)

(Indeed, for the foreseeable future, travel will involve more planning and forethought, checking ahead what will be open and under what conditions; as a general rule, some places are requiring advance reservations or timed-ticketing.)

Mount Morris Dam, Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com
 

The Highbanks campground is wonderful – six miles from the entrance, and several more miles to get to the actual camping loops for tents and RVs. There are also cabins. Several areas accommodate pets.

There are also a few cottages and lodges available within the park. For a family vacation rental experience, the Maplewood Lodge, located at the entrance to the Highbanks Camping Area, sleeps up to eight and has a furnished kitchen, living room with working fireplace, TV and DVD/BluRay player and formal dining room.

Camping was one of the attractions for us to come to Letchworth at this time (so many are choosing camping and RVing and even AirBnBs over commercial hotels), but the park also offers the charming Glen Iris Inn, scenically set right above the Middle Falls.

Glen Iris Inn, Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

An inn since 1914, the historic Glen Iris Inn was formerly the country estate of William Pryor Letchworth. Completely restored, the inn offers accommodations and is open to the public for breakfast, lunch and dinner (banquet and catering services are available for special events). We see people dining on the lovely veranda, as well as in an enormous tent set up on the lawn to further accommodate those preferring to dine al fresco.

Addressing this historic moment, rooms are sanitized with an electrostatic cleaning machine and sealed for the guest’s arrival; capacity in Caroline’s Dining Room is limited to 50%. In addition to rooms in the Inn, the Glen Iris also offers some cottages (585-493-2622, glenirisinn.com).

Just across from the inn is the small stone William Pryor Letchworth Museum which tells the fascinating story of Letchworth Park, paying tribute to William P. Letchworth who preserved the land and its heritage by donating it to the state. The museum tells the history of the Genesee Valley, the canal, and of the Seneca who lived on these lands. Letchworth’s personal collection of artifacts from local Native American tribes is on view.

The museum also relates the compelling story of Mary Jemison, “The White Woman of the Genesee,”  born on a ship from Europe in 1743 and kidnapped from her home in Pennsylvania in 1758 by Shawnee, then sold to the Seneca who adopted her into the tribe, becoming Dehgewanus. (Trail #2 is named the Mary Jemison Trail, the creek is named De-ge-wa-nus Creek and there is a statue of her, erected by Letchworth not long after her remains were brought back from a reservation and reburied on his estate, that Letchworth dedicated to her memory in 1910; read her remarkable story: http://www.letchworthparkhistory.com/jem.html)

We didn’t have the opportunity to visit the museum during our visit, but is one of the top items on our list for our return.

Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

We also did not get a chance to explore the Humphrey Nature Center which in normal times, offers year-round environmental education programming and interactive exhibits highlighting the geology, wildlife, and ecology of the park.

Highbanks Trail, Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

Letchworth State Park offers many recreational facilities and activities that were just beginning to reopen at the time of our visit – including nature, history and performing arts programs, guided walks, tours, a summer lecture series. The enormous Highbanks Recreation area has a pool. And since our visit, the park opened a new $2 million outdoor Lower Falls Recreation Center offering table games, badminton and pickle ball courts, bocce and shuffleboard, as well as a fitness loop.

Highbanks Trail, Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

The project also involved restoration of a historic bathhouse that is used as the base for the whitewater rafting concessionaire, Adventure Calls Outfitters (https://adventure-calls.com/). Letchworth also offers  kayaking, there is even hot air ballooning (https://balloonsoverletchworth.com/). 

A half-dozen trails allow biking (I wouldn’t recommend biking on the main Park Road), and there is horseback riding as well.

Middle Falls, Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

Letchworth State Park is open year-round – the fall colors look spectacular, as do the winter scenes when there is cross-country skiing on most of the trails, snowmobiling on four trails, and snow tubing. Winterized cabins are available.

To book a spot in the state campground, go to https://newyorkstateparks.reserveamerica.com/.

Letchworth State Park, Castile, NY 14427 (there are several entrances, but Mt. Morris Entrance is closest to the highway; check out the wonderful antique shops in Mount Morris); 585-493-3600, letchworthpark.com.

Letchworth State Park, New York © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarnandnear.com

New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation oversees more than 250 parks, historic sites, recreational trails and boat launches, which were visited by a record 77 million people in 2019. A recent university study found that spending by State Parks and its visitors supports $5 billion in output and sales, 54,000 private-sector jobs and more than $2.8 billion in additional state GDP. For more information on these sites, call 518-474-0456 or visit parks.ny.gov.

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