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WNY hiking trails to explore now

New York State is full of natural wonder and beautiful scenery, and one of the best ways to enjoy the splendor is to immerse yourself in it. A hike in a beautiful place is one of the best ways to spend a summer day with your family.

Western New York is dotted with dozens of parks, each with their own trail systems waiting to be explored — so consider these hikes as a good place to start.

Zoar Valley

A deep gorge in northern Cattaraugus County created by Cattaraugus Creek, Zoar Valley is a rugged scar through the landscape that looks like it was plucked from a western and dropped into Western New York. Its prehistoric beauty can best be seen from one of the two trails that branch off from the Valentine Flats parking area.

From the lot, hikers can head north on a .75 mile loop that includes excellent vantage points over the creek and ends at a scenic overlook that juts out into the gorge. This trail is fairly flat, and is good for less adventurous hikers.

For a more energetic hike, visitors can head south from the Valentine Flats lot through groves of hardwood and down steep paths into the gorge itself. The trail descends (and on the way back ascends) more than 100 feet as it winds its way along the floodplain of the creek to the confluence of the Main Branch and South Branch.

Park rangers suggest planning for a several-hour hike if you intend to venture down into the gorge. It’s only .8 miles but the hike out can be strenuous and time consuming.

Open year round, dawn to dusk
10112 Valentine Flats Road, Gowanda, NY
716-372-0645; www.dec.ny.gov


Whirlpool State Park

Located just north of Niagara Falls, Whirlpool State Park runs along a nearly 7-mile stretch of the Niagara Gorge where the river takes an abrupt, 90-degree right hand turn, which creates a giant whirlpool.

From the main parking area, located in the De Veaux Woods State Park across the street, hikers have three great options.

For those who want to see the rapids and whirlpool but don’t want a strenuous adventure, go with the Rim Trail. It stretches 6.6 miles along the rim of the gorge, though hikers can easily just do part of it and turn around if time or light is in short supply. It never gets down near the water, but certainly has some of the most breathtaking views from 200 feet above the river.

For a slightly more active outing, hikers can head down a set of 325-year-old steps off the Rim Trail. At the base of the steps head right to go north up the gorge along the Devil’s Hole Trail. This 2.6 mile round-trip hike brings walkers right down close to the river and its class six rapids — some of which are so loud that they make it impossible to hear your companions, even if they shout.

The most difficult trail in the park is probably also its most rewarding — the Whirlpool Trail. To find it, hikers must descend the same staircase from the rim that reaches the Devil’s Hole Trail, but at the base they go left and embark on a 2.6 mile loop that takes them within a few dozen feet of the great whirlpool in the Niagara River.

Open year round, dawn to dusk
3180 De Veaux Woods Dr E, Niagara Falls, NY
716-284-4691; www.dec.ny.gov


Letchworth State Park

Known as the Grand Canyon of the East, Letchworth has some of the most dramatic scenery in New York State. The park is centered around the gorge carved by the Genesee River that’s as deep as 600 feet below the surrounding forests.

The best way to take in the park’s striking scenery is on the 7-mile Gorge Trail, which follows the river past its most impressive features: the waterfalls. Known as the Upper, Middle and Lower Falls, these three dramatic features are located within a few miles of each other on the trail and are easily accessed in a single hike.

The Gorge Trail also takes hikers within sight of the dramatic railroad bridge that crosses the gorge above the river. A brand new steel arch bridge replaced the iconic trestle bridge in 2017.

The entire park is a wonder to explore, with 66 miles of trails and lots of other activities like rafting, balloon rides and horseback riding.

Open year round, dawn to dusk
1 Letchworth State Park, Castile, NY 14427
585-493-3600; www.letchworthpark.com


Chestnut Ridge Park

Chestnut Ridge Park is well known around Western New York as a place to go sledding in the winter, but it boasts one of the most unique hikes around in a little known part of the park — the Eternal Flame Trail.

About a mile and a half south of the main park entrance is the parking lot for this hike, which is in the southwestern portion of the park in what is known as the Shale Creek Preserve.

From the parking lot, this trail runs along the top of a small ravine then descends down into it. From there, hikers can follow Shale Creek to the southwest until they reach a small grotto with a waterfall — and an “eternal” flame contained within it.

The fire is caused by a small natural gas leak that comes up through the rocks. The flame is usually burning, but natural phenomena around it can cause it to extinguish, so it’s a good idea to bring a lighter on the trek.

The hike is just over a mile in length, but has an elevation change of over 175 feet as the trail drops down into the ravine.

Open year round, dawn to dusk
The parking for the trail is off Chestnut Ridge Road, just north of Seufert Rd., Orchard Park, NY
716-858-7037; erie.gov/parks

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