The tourist brochures and websites sometimes call Letchworth State Park in upstate New York "the Grand Canyon of the East" and one of the most scenically magnificent areas in the eastern U.S.—and for once, they’re not exaggerating.
Consider that the Genesee River rushes through a long, deep gorge dropping through three major waterfalls, braced by vertical cliffs as high as 600 feet. The park, 35 miles south of Rochester, comprises 66 miles of trails in the 14,350 acre park. Visitors will find oodles to do, including camping, hiking, horseback riding, as well as natural history tours and talks, rafting, and even hot air ballooning.
The park was created in 1907 when a wealthy philanthropist, William Letchworth, donated the land in an effort to protect the canyon from developers. He died three years later, at age 87.
A successful industrialist and, by age 22, a partner in a malleable iron manufacturing company, Letchworth purchased his first tract of land near Portage Falls in 1859 in what was once Seneca territory. The Seneca, allies of the British, were forced out of the area following the Revolutionary War. They called the land around the canyon Shegahunda, the “Vale of three falls.”
Letchworth hired William Webster, a noted landscape architect, to design his estate, including winding paths, rustic bridges, and impressive fountains. His mansion, Glen Iris, is now a completely restored inn and restaurant. In addition to pitching a tent or parking your trailer in one of the park's 270 campsites, staying in one of the 82 cabins, many of which are winterized, you can also opt for more luxurious accomodations by ldoging in the historic Glen Iris Inn, which commands scenic views of the Middle Falls of the Genesee River. Guest room rates per night range from $100 for a standard guest room to $385 (at the height of the fall season) for Stone House, a two-story, four-bedroom home,
In addition to the main waterfalls, there are about fifty smaller cascades on tributaries feeding the river. One of those is Inspiration Falls, a spectacular ribbon dropping 350 feet. Occasionally it dries up and only appears as a wet stain on the cliff. A magnificent stone bridge arches across the river near the lower falls. A sometimes slippery but well-stepped trail leads down to the bridge.
When I visit, I drive in from the north, and the first view of the canyon is always surprising after driving across miles of flat farmland. There are lots of look-outs along the road, each seeming to offer a more impressive view than the last. There’s also a high railway trestle that spans the canyon above the falls and if you’re lucky, you can see a train crossing.
Letchworth is a spiritual place for me. The words of a childhood hymn came to me last time I walked a trail through some hemlocks that flank the cliffs: “This is my Father’s World, and to my listening ears, All nature sings, and round me rings, the music of the spheres.” The man who penned these words, Maltbie D. Babcock, lived in nearby Lockport, and I’d like to think that this place inspired those words.
The park is only about 60 miles southeast of Buffalo, New York, and is an easy daytrip from Niagara Falls. Letchworth is impressive at any time of year but I especially like late September and October when the fall colors ‘spruce up’ the place.
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