It’s one of the natural wonders of New York State, with old growth forests, dramatic vistas and heart-pounding recreation opportunities, yet it remains an overlooked and somewhat obscure destination even in its own backyard. Located in southernmost Erie County along the banks of Cattaraugus Creek, Zoar Valley is a breathtaking spectacle of the kind you would expect to find in the wilds of the West. Cliffs plunge nearly 400 feet to the valley floor, making hiking along the canyon rim fraught with potential peril (proceed with caution!) but replete with views (and eagle sightings) that are sure to make your spirit soar.
From Buffalo, the fastest route to Zoar Valley is via Route 219 to Springville where you connect with Route 39 to the charming village of Gowanda. There are a variety of public access points along the length of the valley on either side of Cattaraugus Creek, with hiking trails that take you along the canyon’s edge and others that lead you to the valley floor.
Among the former, I’m a big fan of the Deer Lick Conservation Area, a 400-acre preserve owned and operated by the Nature Conservancy. Five well-marked trails lead you into the property from a parking area located along Point Peter Road. Massive old-growth trees tower over the White Trail that leads to Bear Point and unparalleled views of the South Branch of Cattaraugus Creek. There’s an inescapable feeling of epic, awe-inspiring grandeur as you traverse these trails, a sense that you’re walking among giants from another age, which of course, you are.
Among the more popular access points to the valley floor is the Valentine Flats trail, located on Valentine Flats Road. This is an abandoned road that once led to a farm on the flats at the confluence of the Main Branch and South Branch of Cattaraugus Creek. Though it’s hard to imagine a working farm in such a wild setting, the road affords a manageable entry into the canyon and the splendor that’s found walking at the base of the slate gray cliffs.
A word of caution. As noted above, Zoar is a spectacular but potentially hazardous place to hike. Care should be exercised when walking along the rim’s edge and hikers in the valley should be wary of waters that can rise rapidly during storms. With that in mind, if you’d like to experience the magic of Zoar Valley with an experienced guide, the Zoar Valley Canoe & Rafting Company specializes in springtime rafting excursions.