Driving Through Western New York • June 2017
On our way home from visiting our families, we decided to break up the drive into 2 days, giving us a chance to do a little exploring in Western New York before returning to reality. We drove through Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, sticking on the most direct route, then exited I-90 before entering New York in favor of a scenic route along Lake Erie. We took highway 5 up to Dunkirk, NY, stopping to admire a lighthouse and Lake Erie, and were finally able to see New York’s Whispering Giant Statue — #7, our 19th giant found in 16 different states (it was actually my 20th giant!). After that, we began making our way East to a campsite for the night. We started to look for a place to grab dinner, but the further East we drove, the smaller the towns were and it seemed like our chances of finding food were growing slim. But when driving through Gowanda, we turned a corner and there stood our little miracle: Tim Hortons! We got dinner and donuts (which would also serve as breakfast in the morning) and drove confidently into the wilderness to a free campsite Curtis had found online.
We drove through Zoar valley, in awe of this deep canyon found in the middle of nowhere. We haven’t done much exploring in Western New York, and it always takes me by surprise when we discover beautiful new sites. It’s a mixture of farmlands, orchards, rolling hills, and the occasional giant gorge with waterfalls. The highways are quieter and there is so much waiting to be discovered! We felt like we were out in the middle of nowhere, and thought for sure that this was going to be the perfect spot for a quiet night of camping.
When we arrived in East Otto State Forest, we were surprised as we began driving on the dirt road to the campsites and found many of them were occupied. I suppose this is a Friday night in the summer, but still — it’s not near any towns or well-known attractions. Thankfully we still found a spot, about as far back into the woods as we could go. We set up camp and prayed the predicted thunderstorms would either hold off or be minor.
As it turned out, a thunderstorm would have been preferable. By six o’clock it would appear that all available campsites were occupied, evident by the cars that would drive by our site and then turn right around every 5 minutes. The next two campsites over featured two families, with all the children apparently under the age of six, a propensity for yelling at each other and the children, and a chainsaw. Around 10 o’clock an entrepreneur came around on his riding lawnmower trying to sell firewood. But these neighbors were tame in comparison to the neighbors on the corner who decided to throw a block party…until 2 am. Complete with bass booming back of the truck stereo systems, 20+ young adults, and even a car driving down the road with six people on the hood. It rained a bit at some point in the night, but never enough to douse the party. We may or may not have given in and called the county sheriff on the non-emergency line, but that did nothing to resolve the issue. Somehow we managed to get enough sleep to function in the morning. We tore down camp and got out of there by 7 o’clock or so.
Thankfully, the last day of our trip ended on a high note. We started our day around East Otto, taking a lovely morning walk through Griffis Sculpture Park. This is one of America’s largest and oldest sculpture parks, featuring work done by Larry Griffis, Jr. There are several trails that take you far back into the woods where you come across more and more unique sculptures, and we saw quite a lot of them in our time there. The trail through the woods came to a few open meadows that were decorated with statues all over, some we were even able to climb on to get a better look around. This was a very enjoyable stop, and we were able to find a few letterboxes in the park as well.
Next, we drove up to Letchworth State Park. We had seen so many pictures of this park and had wanted to visit during our Finger Lakes trip last February, but hadn’t been able to, so we thought we might as well since we were driving by. I am SO glad we did, because now that I’ve seen it I feel like we would’ve really missed out had we lived in New York and never gone. This was rated the #1 State Park in America in 2015 by USA Today, and is known as the “Grand Canyon of the East.” (Side note: it’s rather humorous how many times we come across canyons or parks that are referred to as the Grand Canyon of the ___. For example, the Grand Canyon of Vermont is Quechee Gorge which we visited last September.)
When we were entering the park, we drove up to the entrance station to pay the $10 fee and get a map. Charlotte jumped on Curtis’ lap to greet the kind ranger lady, and who said in response, “What an adorable puppy! You look like your name should be…Charlie!” We laughed and told her that that’s what we thought as well. 🙂
As we were driving into the park, I was looking down and focused on the map, trying to figure out where we were, and I happened to look up just as we were coming upon an overlook — and it was honestly breathtaking! I had seen pictures of this exact view, but wasn’t prepared for how large and great it would actually be. Having not done much research besides letterboxes, we weren’t sure where to begin, so we drove down to the Lower Falls parking area.
While we loved the park and nature itself, we quickly found one thing that bothered us about this park: the maps were completely unhelpful! We had found this to be an issue when visiting Watkins Glen in the winter, but assumed that was because we didn’t have to pay the fee. As it turns out, even when visiting in season and paying the fee, the maps they give just don’t help if you just show up wanting to hike. For instance, we really wanted to see if we could hike a loop, but the map didn’t show any bridges across the river. However, not long after beginning on one trail, we saw that there was one bridge — so could there be more? No way to find out without walking miles on one side to where we thought another one might be… Maybe if we had gone to a visitor’s center we could’ve gotten more information, but the park was already rather busy and we didn’t have all the time in the world. We just went in hoping that we could hike a good portion of the trails on the South end and see the sights.
Anyway — we did cross the bridge and continued hiking on the East rim, heading South, hoping to cross another bridge around the waterfalls. However, we were unable to because one of the trails (#7) was closed. We crossed back to the West rim on the first bridge, began walking South, and ended up hiking all the way to Inspiration Point. Here we got a great view of the gorge, the middle and largest waterfalls, and the railroad bridge high above the upper falls. After that, we hiked back to our car. Altogether we hiked 6 miles in our 3 hours in the park — you can see our AllTrails hike recording here for reference of where we hiked. We finished our time here by driving all the way through the park and exiting on the North end.
At this point, it was mid-afternoon, and we were ready to be done driving and just be home. However, we couldn’t just hop on the interstate quite yet — we still had one last county in Upstate NY to cross into! We went North on highway 21 to Palmyra, NY, entering Wayne county, and took 31 along the Erie Canal. Had we had more time, it would have been quite enjoyable to visit many of the historic sites in the county including the Erie Canal, Lake Ontario, and several sites relating to the founding of Mormonism. Maybe next time. Satisfied that we had indeed been inside the county, we took NY 14 South from Lyons to I-90/NY Thruway and drove the remaining three hours home. Goodness, New York is a long state! But all these longer routes were worth it — look at how awesome New York looks on our county map now!
It was so good getting this chance to see family, as well as more of our home state, but coming home to reality was really hard. This move is turning out to possibly be our most complicated one. But hey, we’ll get through it as we always do, and at least this will all make a good story someday. Be excited for that. 😉