New York's Finger Lakes Treasure: Letchworth State Park

Letchworth State Park Upper Falls

This 70-foot-tall waterfall is the first scenic view when entering Letchworth State Park's southern entrance.
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'Grand Canyon of the East' is bucket-list stop

I've made repeated trips to New York, and I've wanted to visit Letchworth State Park in the Finger Lakes region. However, it just never worked out — until my wife and I were in the area earlier this month. 

It was a trip worth the detour required to get there!

The state park encompasses more than 14,000 acres surrounding the Genesee River Gorge, known as the Grand Canyon of the East because of the deep ravine carved by the river.

And, like its bigger cousin in the Southwest, the Genesee River Gorge offers stunningly beautiful views. The canyon is as deep as 600 feet, and the rim trail includes overlooks of the three major waterfalls along the river's course.

I wanted to get there early so I could shoot photos of the main waterfalls before the rising sun threw shadows into the gorge. That meant I would have to work fast.

Upper Falls

Yvette (aka My Trusty Assistant) and I arrived at the south gate just before 6 a.m., and drove straight to the first of the major waterfalls along the Genessee River. We could hear the rush of the cascade as we stepped out of our truck!

We hurried to the overlook and were awed by the size of the park's Upper Falls. The river roared over a 70-foot ledge in a horseshoe-shaped crevice in the gorge.

It was so beautiful!

I quickly set up my Benro tripod and affixed my camera, adding a Benro Master Glass polarizer and soft grad neutral density filter in front of the lens.

The gorge provided perfect framing to the waterfall, with a rocky cliff on either side of the cascade. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, so I decided to zoom in on the waterfall.

The print above was the result, and I love the lushness of the forests along the river contrasted with the rushing water. You can almost feel the spray!

Middle Falls

We hurried just downstream to the overlook of the park's Middle Falls, an even larger cascade at more than 100 feet high. It had wonderful character, with water flowing down a terraced rock ledge.

The problem was that the right side of the waterfall was hidden by the ledge on which the overlook perches. So I climbed atop the rock wall around the overlook and knew I could get an unobscured photo — but it would be precarious.

The problem was that the wall wasn't wide enough for me to place the tripod with the legs extended the full footprint; I would have to pull the legs closer together, which creates a less-stable platform.

I also had to extend to the tripod's column all the way up to get the view I wanted.

I carefully set up my gear, and everything was good. I took a couple of test shots to drill in the exposure.

I then made a nearly catastrophic mistake.

I wanted to get something out of my camera bag, which was on the other side of the tripod from me. So I hopped off the ledge.

And my foot tapped a tripod leg. I didn't even have to turn around to know what was happening.

MTA screamed, and I turned to see the rig disappear over the wall. My heart sank, and my knees went weak. It was a 100-foot drop to the bottom of the chasm, and I just knew that's where my camera and tripod would be.

I looked over the wall, fully expecting to see the tripod roll off the ledge, but the rig was coming to a rest about 2 feet shy of the drop-off.

I was so fortunate: The ledge was covered by thick vines, which stopped the tripod from just rolling into the gorge.

Yvette looked at me and said, "What are you going to do?" 

I shrugged and said I was going to get my gear.

Carefully, I eased over the wall to find a nice, solid footing. I spidered down to the tripod, grabbed it and handed it to MTA.

I was still certain there would be severe damage, since the camera had fallen about 7 feet. However, when I looked it over there was nothing wrong with it. Apparently those vines had cushioned it.

I had to take a breather to calm down, and then I reset the tripod (not daring to move again) and created the beautiful print below.

Letchworth State Park Middle Falls

This photo of the park's Middle Falls nearly cost me my equipment.
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Inspiration Point

I had seen pictures taken from the park's Inspiration Point, but nothing prepared me for the panoramic view of the gorge. It was just stunning.

MTA and I stood for a moment taking it all in, and then I set up for a shot.

Honestly, the conditions weren't great. The sun had risen enough to throw golden light over the top of the canyon, creating a garish coloring to the trees and massive contrast with the depths of the gorge that remained in shadow. Even using a soft grad neutral density filter didn't help all that much, although I probably should have used a stronger filter.

However, I love the black-and-white version below, which shows the Genesee River, Middle Falls and the cool railroad bridge crossing the gorge.

Lethcworth Park Inspiration Point

This view from the park's Inspiration Point is jaw-droppingly beautiful.
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Lower Falls

Next stop was the gorge's Lower Falls. I honestly wasn't sure if I would shoot a photo of this waterfall because the sun was starting to light up the interior of the gorge, which I knew would create a ton of contrast.

But when I told Yvette I was going to leave my camera gear for the hike in, she wisely suggested I bring it so she didn't have to hear me whine when I got to the overlook.

The trail to this overlook winds into the canyon, and is just a beautiful if somewhat strenuous hike. Soon, we were standing the waterfall.

It was just beautiful.

Again, the full waterfall isn't quite visible, but there was enough to make a gorgeous print. In fact, the canyon wall to the right of the waterfall actually added some interest to the scene.

I still want to return to the park and get there when the sun isn't creating any shadows.

Lower Falls

Letchworth's Lower Falls is tucked into a tight ravine deep in the gorge, and it has tons of character.
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