Step-by-Step: The Genesee Valley Greenway

The central portion of the trail passes through Letchworth State Park, which has many magnificent views. Photo by Michael Venturino

The Genesee Valley Greenway is a trail following a corridor comprised primarily of old, smoothed-out railways alongside the old Genesee Canal bed. We found it to be a 90-mile-long exclamation point of pure nature, rural farmlands, views of the Genesee River and upwards of 20 historic canal locks. This still relatively unknown walking/cycling trail runs from Genesee Valley Park in Rochester, southward, through four counties, to North Cuba. Joanne Guarnere and I walked its entire length on 12 weekends, over two summers. We parked our car, walked for three or four hours, then turned around and walked back to our car. I guess you could say we walked it twice. The daily mileage given below represents the distance one way.

Day One, Ballantyne Road to Scottsville – 7 miles
We started our trek on Ballantyne Road, half-a-mile west of the Genesee River, where we park near the apron of the well-marked Greenway. This section sets the perfect tone for the ’way. The trees lining the trail form a natural arbor or tunnel, running as far ahead as the eye can see. There are breaks in the “tunnel” giving view to horse farms and wheat fields. As we stand on an old stone lock, a giant, red cutting machine makes its way through the wheat field headed directly toward us. It comes within spitting distance of us, the farmer nods hello and cuts sharply away.

We walk under the New York State Thruway and eventually arrive in Canawaugus Park, on Oatka Creek, in the village of Scottsville. We detour into town, enjoy pizza at a sidewalk table, and head back to Ballantyne Road on foot.

Day Two, Scottsville to Avon – 11 miles!
We park at Canawaugus Park in Scottsville, last week’s stopping point, and head out. Two miles south of Route 251, again on a smooth cinder trail, is a beaver pond bigger than a football field. The beaver dam is right next to the walkway, its overflow runs beneath us. The well-constructed barrier is 4 feet high with freshly packed mud and beaver paw prints all over it. Trails winding through the cattails speak to beavers dragging chewed limbs back to the dam. Three crow-sized green herons squawk from dead trees jutting out of the pond.

We continue on through woods and farmland, with the Genesee River meandering in and out of view. We arrive at state Route 5, just west of the village of Avon. We sit on a big rock and eat our apples. Crossing Route 5 we continue through a gravel pit, cross Route 20, and pass through more uninhabited land than I ever imagined existed in upstate New York. We reach Fowlerville Road.

Day Three, Avon to Piffard – 6 miles
We park on the Greenway apron at Fowlerville Road. This is one of the most walker/cycler-friendly stretches, with miles of rural path through open farmlands. We come within a softball toss of two fawns eating vines growing up a dead tree stump. They eye us questionably but can’t seem to stop eating. Suddenly their mother appears, snorts, and they trot off to a cornfield where they stop and turn to watch us. Way up on a hill to the east we see the campus of SUNY Geneseo overlooking the Genesee River valley. The river has now disappeared from sight but we come to a huge algae-covered swamp. Through binoculars we watch a great blue heron snatch frogs from the water, toss his long neck back, and let the frogs drop down almost three feet of bill and neck, to his stomach. In the same field of vision is his white counterpart, either a great white heron or an albino blue. A sharp-shinned hawk sweeps around the pond perimeter at treetop level and disappears. Above us a red-tailed hawk screams. I wonder who the lucky person might be that owns this land. We reach Route 63, in Piffard, by the Yard of Ale.

Day Four, Piffard to Mt. Morris – 8 miles
Cutting behind houses, as the Greenway does, frequently gives sight to local resident’s “back side,” in some cases, virtual private junkyards. We pass along behind a house with what I would describe as “The history of American automobiles, farm equipment and major household appliances, all united by one common thread – rust.”

And speaking of automobiles, we get a kick out of the warning signs placed along the Greenway at almost every crossroad. They reflect that even though great pains were taken to create this hiking and biking trail, we are still an auto-centric society. The signs are positioned on the trail 450 feet before each road, cautioning us to slow down and watch for traffic, lest we careen into the road at 2.75 miles an hour and T-bone a passing car. We stop just north of the village of Mt. Morris

Day Five, Mt. Morris to Sonyea – 3 miles
We walk southward through the village of Mt. Morris, well, behind the houses on Main Street, one of which is the former home of Francis Bellamy, who penned the Pledge of Allegiance.

For a moment we feel like human bowling pins as adolescent dirt bikers buzz around us, pull wheelies, then go airborne over a ditch. We follow the well-cleared trail southward, along Route 39, visible to passing cars just a few feet to our right. The trail cuts out to the pavement as if crossing the road. But on the other side we see no sign of it. We consult our maps. An old Chevy with a primer-gray door pulls up. A guy in his 30s asks, “What are you looking for?”

“The Greenway, we lost it over there, just the other side of the road.”

“Oh, I used to walk that old rail bed as a kid. Go right through there.” He points to a wall of trees, vines and undergrowth that look like the last human footsteps they’ve seen were his.

Seeing our quizzical expressions, he says, “I’d come with you, but” – and he pats the 12-pack on the seat next to him, “I’m watching the game and it’s starting right now.”

The harder we look for the rail bed of his youth, the tougher the going. Each potential outlet brings us to a dead end – an unscalable ravine or the edge of a cliff overlooking Keshequa Creek. Finally we come to a dirt road and follow it more because it’s traversable than that it might be the right route. And it’s not. We walk right into a prison yard and have to retrace our way back to where we saw the guy in the Chevy. We netted 3 miles, but probably walked-clawed our way through 6!

Day Six, Sonyea to Dudley Road – 7 miles
We park where that guy gave us directions last week. We’ve had a chance to review a Greenway website during the week in the comfort of air conditioning. We resolve to follow the advice of those who’ve gone before us, and follow the road until we get to where we know we can pick up the trail again. We get less than half-a-mile when a state guard pulls up and tells us we can’t leave our car back there because it is prison property. I leave my backpack and binoculars with Joanne and trot back to the car. I park it in a nearby abandoned gravel pit.

We head out along Ridge Road. Just over a rise we come to another prison yard. The inmates are outside enjoying the summer day. A guard eyes us suspiciously. A few hundred feet further is an unforgettable spectacle: the old cemetery for the insane asylum that was once here. The graves go back to the early 1900s. There are thousands of them all the same size – tiny concrete posts with numbers on them, in row after row so that no matter what angle you look at them they form rows, like the nameless wire bristles on a hairbrush.

We walk through the village of Tuscarora, where we stop at the Country Buck Diner and Store for snacks. We continue, following Guile Road, to Creek Road, to Dudley Road, where we pick up the Greenway again by Keshequa Creek. We call it a day and head back to our car.

Day Seven, Dudley Road to Short Track Road – 6 miles
We park on Dudley Road next to Keshequa Creek. Far ahead we see what appears to be people walking across the trail. The answer to this puzzle is that the Greenway crosses a golf course! We walk right through where people are preparing to tee off. We say, “Hi,” and they look at us in amused surprise.

The trail again parallels the old Genesee Canal. Between Nunda and Portageville, for a distance of two miles, are 17 locks. We walk through another tunnel of trees. Far ahead in the tiny light at the end of the tunnel is a strange-shaped figure. As we get closer we see it is a woman photographer, under the cloak of a large-format camera on a tripod, taking our picture. We reach Short Track Road, eat our lunch and turn back.

Day Eight, Short Track Road to Portageville – 6 miles
We pass the railroad trestle over the Genesee River gorge at the south end of Letchworth Park. A sign says to keep off trestle. There are 50 people on the trestle, leaning over the railing, gazing at the water far below. It’s been a gradual climb for the last few miles, and suddenly we’re overlooking the river below, moving slowly under the bridge at Portageville. We walk-slide down the steep path to the road and cross the bridge. The solid, smooth pavement beneath our feet feels strange. We sit on boulders on the river’s edge and eat our lunch.

Continuing on, we find someone has painted in white letters, “Entering God’s Country,” on a huge boulder.

Indeed, things are different here. In the last eight weekends we’ve worked our way upstream along the Genesee River, out of the river valley to the geologically-elevated southern tier. Here the riverbed is rocky. The summer water level is low and there are many places where we could walk across the river jumping from stone to stone. We stop south of Portageville, just off Route 19A, at a place where the Finger Lakes Trail suddenly appears and joins OUR Greenway.

Day Nine, Portageville to West River Road – 8 miles
Over days nine and 10 we switch from cleared trail, to dead-end shortcuts, to the highway so many times that, looking back, we can barely follow our own notes. We cross from Livingston into Allegheny County and come to a sign that says something to the effect of, “Private property, Greenway people not welcomed.” This means we should turn back, go to the highway, and circumvent this large farm. But we decide to keep going and to try walk along the uncharted riverbank. After 30 minutes of trying to get through wet backwaters and thorny underbrush, making no headway, ankles slashed by thorns and reeds, we head back. We finally reach Route 19A, having wasted more than an hour in that detour. We walk along the shoulder of the road and finally stop, short of Fillmore, in a small clump of white pines. We climb under the pines, out of the sun, eat our lunch and head back.

Day 10, West River Road to Caneadea – 8 miles
By now, we’ve read several pieces about the Greenway on the Internet and in local newspapers. Each writer bicycled the trail. None mention what we found to be one of the highlights of our own Greenway experience: bald eagles. When cycling along, you must keep your eye on the quirky ground surface. Walking allows you to look around. We saw a bald eagle hanging in the air over the river in Portage­ville, we saw two over the river near Houghton, and during a third weekend we saw one near Houghton, flying up from the river’s surface. We stop at Caneadea, sit on the steps of an old church, eat our lunch and head back.

Day 11, Caneadea to Rockville – 8 miles
The old church is really hopping, hosting a chicken dinner and we have to park down the road from it. A few buildings south of the church on Route 19A, we pass a huge country gift shop. I am informed by Joanne that we will have to come back here with wheels. Soon.

Today is one of our longest days. We walk all the way to Rockville, a hidden cluster of half-a-dozen houses just off Route 350, south of Belfast, where we turn around and head back. It is a hot day. We are exhausted. Retracing our steps back to Caneadea, the temperature drops noticeably. Suddenly we are in a torrential downpour. Rain comes down without let-up as lightning explodes around us. There is nowhere to get shelter and nothing to be gained by stopping. We push on, drenched and virtually blinded by the rain. We come to a side road and an ornate old barn, probably from the mid-1800s. We run up to it and huddle under its generous eaves. The day had been so hot just minutes earlier, and now the temperature and pressure have dropped, forcing the hot air that has built up inside the barn outward, rushing – whistling through the spaces between the old boards, and effusing the powerful smell of old hay.

The lightning stops and the rain lessens. It has rained so hard and so long that the trail is now filled with water, which is rushing along like a creek, and we are walking and stumbling along through it with little whitewater rapids around our ankles. We are so relieved that the lightning has stopped that we stomp through the water like children.

Day 12, Rockville to North Cuba: The End! – 7 miles
The last leg of the ’way is easy going; flat ground and smooth surface through picturesque farmland. Even though arriving at Jackson Hill Road in the tiny settlement of North Cuba is a non-event, we sit down on the path and savor the moment.

With the sound of jet skis coming over the hill from Cuba Lake, less than half-a-mile away, I think about our 12 weekends on the trail. They seem like 12 years in terms of depth and breadth of experience.

Indeed, walking this old canal and railroad corridor, with its historical significance, its mile-after-mile of silence and natural beauty, its other friendly walkers and cyclers, its disjunct sections, mudslides, potholes, bridges out, and open highway legs, along with nature’s sudden summer downpours, and our own miscalculations and wrong turns – all of this is a metaphor for life. A very good life. One that brings a smile to our faces each time we recall it, and one that has pushed us on to other walking experiences in the New York countryside.


by Rich Gardner
Rich Gardner is a Rochester-based writer and a regular contributor to Life in the Finger Lakes. He and Joanne Guarnere are currently walking the Erie Canal path. They started at the Niagara River in Tonawanda and have reached Eastern Syracuse.