Four NY State Parks: Camping at Robert H. Treman & Lechtworth, day trips to Taughannock Falls & Watkins Glenn

The New York State Park system is amazing; grand in scope and very well maintained.  We tend to think of National Parks as huge, requiring days if not weeks to explore, and state parks as small scale bits of nature that can often be experienced in a single day if you are just looking for the highlights.  Not so many of the huge state parks in the NY system.  Indeed, one could easily imagine Watkins Glenn or Letchworth as true national parks; sure, they can’t match the awesomeness of the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, but I found them easily as impressive, if not more so, than Cuyahuga Valley, Congaree, or Hot Springs National Parks.

Introducing the kid to Geocaching

My dad and stepmom had strongly recommended Robert H. Treman for the great falls system and fantastic day hikes, and our own online research pointed us towards Watkins Glenn, both in the lower Finger Lakes region outside and west Ithaca.  With the latter’s campground completely booked, our decision was made easier, and we secured four days in the drycamping section of Robert H. Treman.  At just over $25/night it is a touch steep for a site with no connections but it turned out to be the best choice for us: far less chaotic and crowded than Watkins Glenn, with the option of actually swimming in a section of the river right next to the lower falls.

Our site at Robert H. Treman 

Our site was quite spacious and heavily treed, which provided necessary relief from the sun driven heat, particularly since generator use was restricted to a few hours in the morning and evening.  For most of our stay the camping area was not much more than half full, though the electrical hook up sites stayed packed.  No worries, we paid less and had a wonderful, large, and level site with plenty of squirrel activity to keep Pad Kee Meow entertained.

On our first day we spent part of the afternoon swimming in the lower falls area.  Since it was still the weekend we had to contend with significant crowds, mostly day use people, but it was still a fun time, and the falls themselves are pretty impressive.

The lower falls after it was closed to swimming

Kalynn got braver on Rosemarie’s bike, resulting in the inevitable first crash and associated skinned elbow, but to her immense credit she barely shed a tear and literally got right back on the bicycle.

That evening we had significant rain, the resulting run off leading to the closure of the swimming area for nearly two days.  This provided two opportunities: we could take pictures of the lower falls without all those pesky people in the way, and we now had the time to visit the nearby Taughannock Falls.

We had first seen Taughannock Falls from the upper viewing area during the evening rain shower, and were quite excited to get to the bottom the next day, having spotted several swimmers enjoying the seeming very nice swim hole below the the 215′ fall.  The following day upon making the one mile hike from the lower falls parking area, however, we learned that swimming was actually prohibited, and without the rain adding to the water volume the falls were little more than a trickle, the up stream region having experienced unusually dry conditions.

But we had come to swim, so we were gonna swim somewhere.  We drove a few miles down the road to the section of the park sitting on Cayuga Lake, complete with marina and swim beach.  The latter was a very contained, as in small, beach filled with day use people, swimming in a roped off murky area near shore.  The slightest step out of the roped off area, even knee deep, resulted in lifeguard interaction.  It was awful, but we made the best of it.

The next day went better.  We made the half hour drive to Watkins Glenn State Park, which contains a stunning set of falls and pools with hiking trails on either side of the deep gorge they have cut over millennia.  Aside from the very confusing, bordering on unsafe vehicle entrance to the park, it was a great experience.

We truly enjoyed the round trip day hike, but again, swimming was completely prohibited.  Sure we spotted a young couple risking arrest by swimming in one of the most inviting falls pools you can imagine, but we weren’t there to take that kinda of risk.

We instead visited one of the actual designated swimming pools in the park for a couple of hours of play and another informal swimming lesson for Kalynn.  At the end of our visit, while in conversation with one of the ladies running the gift shop, I expressed my disappointment at not being able to swim at either Watkins or Taughannock, though we really enjoyed the former as well as our camping experience at Robert H. Treman.  She strongly recommended we visit Letchworth State Park if we could fit it into the schedule.

And so we did: we did not have any reservations for the last two days of July anyway, so we secured an electrical hook up spot at Letchworth.  This place is gigantic, at least by state park standards.  Referred to by some as “The Grand Canyon of the East” or perhaps just “of New York,” it is 17 miles long and encompasses more than 14,000 acres along the Genesee River.  It includes three major falls, scores of minor ones, and 600′ cliffs in some places along the river gorge.  With 66 miles of hiking trails within the park, you could spend quite some time here exploring.  We only had two days, so we would be limited to the short ones to see the major falls.

You can see the obvious giddiness during math hour

Thankfully we are no longer travelling without a tow vehicle.  With the swimming pool at one end, the campground 5 miles towards the center, and the falls area at the opposite end, you really need a car to take advantage of all this place has to offer.  We ended our short stay with an educational reptile encounter aimed at the camper kids.  I didn’t knock any of them out of the way to touch all the snakes and lizards this time.

Closing out our review of this quad of NY state parks I can’t help but mention, or perhaps reiterate the downsides.  We have been to a lot of parks, many on the state level, in a score of states, and none of them are as tightly controlled and restricted as in NY.  Fenced off areas, lots of rules, no getting in the water even along the entire 17 miles stretch of the Genesee, and tiny designated swimming spots with aggressive lifeguard control.

I was told that swimming used to be allowed at Letchworth, but someone had died, so the obvious state response was complete closure, unless of course you are paying money for the white water rafting.  Even the man made pools are operating at a level of micromanagement we have not previously seen.  Its not just the 10 minute pool break every hour complete with a laconic life saving drill, its the overabundance of restrictions in every regard.  I am just not used to it, and was almost relieved to get to the less restrictive state park in West Virginia on our second stop after leaving NY.

Ah well, am I being to hard on NY?  Is it a necessity just because of their popularity and thus need to control the crowds?  Regardless, we generally enjoyed our stays in the parks, and were particularly impressed with how well maintained they are since some other states seem to be operating theirs on a shoe string budget.

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4 thoughts on “Four NY State Parks: Camping at Robert H. Treman & Lechtworth, day trips to Taughannock Falls & Watkins Glenn

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