Photos by: New York Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation
New York State is known for its fair share of beautiful natural spaces, but not many people know that it’s home to a jaw-dropping, Grand Canyonlike structure. This incredible gorge was formed over millions of years by the movement of the Genesee River, and, because of the gorge’s size, it’s often dubbed “the Grand Canyon of the East.” You can explore all the grandeur of this canyon and within the 14,427 acres of Letchworth State Park, located in the northwest corner of the state, about thirty-five miles south of Rochester.
Learning about Letchworth
If you’re looking to learn more about Letchworth’s natural history before you set off into the park, there’s no better way than by making a stop at the Humphrey Nature Center. The center explores the geology, animals, and plant life within the park. Each exhibit is designed to help visitors better understand what they are looking at when traversing through Letchworth’s forests. Families with children will also love participating in the center’s variety of youth programs and events, including an interactive lesson about the butterfly’s life cycle, which takes place in its outdoor butterfly garden.
For a taste of the cultural and human history of Letchworth, the William Pryor Letchworth Museum, located near the Middle Falls area of the park, is a great place to learn more about the area’s earliest inhabitants and its first settlers. The museum is named for the park’s founder and modeled after his mission for preserving the natural lands in the Genesee River Valley. Here visitors can get a glimpse of what life was like when the area was relatively untouched and can see an array of archaeological artifacts uncovered there. History buffs will also enjoy a visit to the Parade Grounds, a Civil War–era training camp for soldiers.
The Sights and Sounds of Letchworth
Letchworth was established as a state park in 1906, and it welcomes more than 800,000 visitors each year to enjoy its abundance of outdoor and cultural activities. It is often touted as New York’s most versatile park, and it’s easy to see why. From hiking to white-water rafting to horseback riding and even touring the park in a hot-air balloon, the opportunities for exploration are seemingly endless.
Hitting the trails
Hiking and nature enthusiasts have no shortage of trails to conquer in Letchworth, and each offers its own exceptional view of the park. There are twenty-eight trails in total spanning sixty-six miles, and hikes range from easy quarter-mile walks to strenuous twenty-mile loops with steep inclines. The south section of the park offers the best view of the gorge and its three largest waterfalls, Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls, which can be accessed from the seven-mile Gorge Trail.
Another incredible way to see Letchworth is from the air, and two organizations offer hot-air balloon rides above the park, Balloons Over Letchworth and Genesee Falls Balloon. These hot-air balloon tours put riders directly over the gorge and falls for a spectacular bird’s-eye view you can’t get anywhere else in the park, so make sure you have your camera ready.
For thrill seekers, the falls fed by the Genesee River make for the perfect environment for white-water rafting. In summer, the river tends to be lower and calmer than in winter months, so outfitters offer the choice to kayak or raft for a smoother ride. Adventure Calls Outfitters is one such company visitors can enter the river through, and, in addition to its guided rafting and kayaking tours, it also hosts tours accompanied by an experienced naturalist who will point out wildlife and other natural elements of the park that may be hard to spot with an untrained eye.
Speaking of natural beauty, Letchworth is home to a diverse array of animals and plant life that makes it a great destination for bird-watchers, botanical enthusiasts, and others who simply want to immerse themselves in the wild side of the park. While hiking, keep an eye (and ear) out for bald eagles, great blue herons, turkeys, black squirrels, and even the occasional black bear. The park’s many wetland areas are also home to a variety of mammals and amphibians, including beavers and salamanders.
Extend your stay
Those looking for a longer stay should consider pitching a tent or renting a cabin within Letchworth’s many campsites. There are several cabins available near the park’s Lower Falls area, putting visitors just a short distance from a variety of trail entrances and a spectacular view of the falls. The Highbanks Tent and Trailer Camping area can also accommodate overnight guests and is conveniently located between Letchworth’s Perry and Mt. Morris entrances.
You may have thought that a trip west was the only way to see spectacular panoramas like those of the Grand Canyon. However, Letchworth State Park proves that there are plenty of incredible natural wonders in unexpected places. This hidden gem in New York State is one place you’ll surely want to discover.
For more info, visit parks.ny.gov/parks/letchworth