To me, the best kind of secret is a travel-related one, be it a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that locals love; a hidden beach, away from the crowds; and best of all, a destination that hasn’t yet been discovered.
While everyone has heard of the Grand Canyon, there are several, smaller “grand canyons” scattered throughout the Eastern United States, namely in Maine, New York, and Pennsylvania. While these respective canyons may lack red rocks, mule tours, and glass-bottom walkways, they still provide spectacular heights, wildlife, and recreational possibilities—all without the crowds you’ll find in Arizona. Check out these gorges while they’re still a secret.
Pine Creek Gorge, Tioga State Forest, Pennsylvania
My family has lived in central Pennsylvania for sixteen years, and I had never heard of Pine Creek Gorge, “The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,” until recently. My embarrassment doubled when I learned the gorge starts just a few towns away from my parents’ home.
The entire canyon is nearly fifty miles long, with twelve miles of protected lands tucked inside Tioga State Forest, one of Pennsylvania’s “old growth” woods. Access to the gorge is through two state parks, Leonard Harrison on the eastern rim or Colton Point on the western side. Both parks offer panoramic views from heights approximately 800 feet up, accessible from hiking trails, mountain biking, or even on horseback.
“If [you] like the outdoors, you’ll love this place,” says Tim Morey, an environmental education specialist for the Pennsylvania WILDS Recreation Team. “Vistas are king here, but especially [so] when trimmed in mountain laurel, which typically blooms in late June. This area has always been known for its eastern black bear, white-tailed deer, and wild turkey populations. Once-scarce wildlife such as the river otter, fisher, osprey, and even the bald eagle have [now] returned. While traveling along the river corridor, one might also see a variety of birdlife including belted kingfisher, common merganser, cliff swallows, or cedar waxwings that inhabit the Riparian Corridor. A wide variety of warblers can be sighted (or at least heard) for those more in tune to birding.”
There are several trails open for hikers of all experience and fitness levels. Morey recommends the Pine Creek Trail for those wanting less-strenuous hikes, as its path is wide and nearly level, as well as the West Rim Trail. “[West Rim] is good for beginners, and still rewarding for more advanced hikers with its abundant vistas along the Gorge.”
“I should mention one of the easiest, yet amazing vista hikes anywhere,” continued Morey. “The Barbour Rock Trail starts along the road to Colton Point State Park, four miles south of Route 6, and connects with the West Rim Trail. It’s one of the very best overlooks in the entire Gorge. All this and the hike is only one mile round trip on an easy to follow and nearly level path—you drive to the top.
“If that’s not challenging enough, head further south in the Gorge to the Golden Eagle Trail—a nine-mile very strenuous day hike highlighting the Wolf Run Wild Area, [featuring] interesting rock outcrops and yet more spectacular views.” Beyond hiking, there’s also mountain biking, horseback riding, camping, and fishing.
Naturally, many like to visit the Gorge in autumn, when both sides of the canyon pop with the blazing colors of fall. “This is one of the rare times when you might find the area ‘crowded’ by some standards,” explains Morey. However, visiting during the week avoids the crowds entirely.
Where to Stay: La Belle Auberge Inn, Wellsboro; rates from $109/night, double occupancy, including full breakfast.
Letchworth State Park, New York
More than sixty miles of trails to explore by foot, bike, or horseback; hot air balloon rides over three waterfalls; and whitewater rafting along the Genessee River, flanked by canyon walls stretching 600 feet up. Any of these activities can be had with a visit to New York’s Letchworth State Park, also known as the “Grand Canyon of the East.”
Just thirty-five miles south of Rochester in Castile, New York, Letchworth offers natural splendor among both the Finger Lakes and the Allegany foothills. “Autumn foliage is spectacular,” according to Lisa Burns, tourism director for Livingston County.”Spring and summer are peak. Winter is also extremely good for cross-country skiing. There’s something to do in every season.”
“It’s pretty easy to put your own tour together,” says Roland Beck, park manager. “Ask for info on hikes at the visitor center. Maps are available free of charge.”
“The park is about nineteen miles long from north to south,” explains Burns. “The vistas of the canyon are breathtaking at the south end of the park—there are plenty of look-outs and trails.” She recommends Letchworth’s portions of the Genessee Valley Greenway Trail and the Finger Lakes Trail for sightseeing and wildlife. For those preferring an organized excursion, Burns highlights Wolcott Farms 4 Seasons of Fun horseback and sleigh ride tours.
“Trail one is the best walking trail as far as vistas [go],” says Beck. “And the Wolf Creek Area of the park is one of my favorite spots, with [its] stone walls dating back to the 1930s, a small creek and bridge, and the waterfalls. It’s a nice, quiet spot.”
History buffs, take note: The park is also filled with notable sites and monuments dedicated to the region’s influential Native Americans, pioneers, and philanthropists, particularly William Pryor Letchworth, the founder of the park, and Mary Jemison, known as the “White Woman of the Genessee.” I like to spend the night at Glen Iris Inn, Letchworth’s beloved estate nestled within the park grounds, and tour the William Pryor Letchworth Museum.
Gulf Hagas Rim Trail, Maine
“[Visit in] winter for frozen falls and ice formations,” says Bob LeRoy, land stewardship manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). “Spring for big water. Summer for vistas, swimming, and fishing. And fall for colors.” Maine’s Gulf Hagas Rim Trail, part of the Appalachian Trail, offers a challenging hike for visitors wanting a day excursion that will test their outdoor and athletic skills.
A gorge stretching through Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness area, the Gulf Hagas region, like Letchworth, is also referred to as “the Grand Canyon of the East.” The closest town is Brownville Junction, about one hour north of Bangor, in the Moosehead/Katahdin region. Like Letchworth, a river (in this case, the Pleasant River) runs through it—except in this case, hikers have to cross the river in order to complete the trail.
“The Gulf has some challenging sections,” explains LeRoy. “If conditions are wet, it can be very slippery on the rocks. Caution should be used. Tevas and a walking stick are helpful accessories for crossing the river. Bring good quality hiking boots, rain gear, and plenty of drinking water and a snack or lunch.” Visitors can get a full array of hike planning resources at the AMC Trip Planner website.
The most popular hike, the Rim Trail, stretches over roughly an eight-mile loop, and can be done in one day. “Plan five to eight hours, depending if you stop to swim,” LeRoy says. The Pleasant River Crossing is approximately 150 feet wide, and there’s no bridge—plan accordingly with footwear and supplies. Summer usually brings the weakest currents and waist-high water; following a heavy rain (particularly in spring), the current may be faster and the depths greater. And once past the river, there are several narrow passageways and climbs over slippery rocks.
With such obstacles, why bother taking the risk? As with any challenging terrain, the rewards are great: Along the trail, hikers can see thirty-foot-high waterfalls, cliff walls (some plunging down more than 400 feet), vistas, and wildlife such as moose, river otters, and mink. Additionally, with its remote location, visitors often have the trail all to themselves, even in peak weather conditions.
And it’s not all death-defying adventure. The Rim Trail connects with the Pleasant River Tote Road on its final stretches, which offers wooded canopies and easier hiking conditions, without the slip-and-slide feel of some of the earlier rocky terrain.
Where to Stay: Greenville Inn, Greenville; rates from $140/night, double occupancy, including breakfast.