Welcome to Letchworth State Park, New York’s most versatile park, offering something for everyone, from the serious outdoor enthusiast to the casual picnicker, from the fine diner to the tent camper, from the relaxed sightseer to the curious history or geology buff. And don’t forget that Letchworth has the most colorful fall foliage display in the East.
In New York, we count ourselves as very lucky. Our parks have everything from salt water to majestic summits, from Great Lakes to country streams, from rural charm to urban sophistication. From that distinguished list, Letchworth’s versatility easily stands out. In fact, Letchworth took home top honors in USA Today’s 2015 Readers’ Choice Award for Best Park in the United States.
Situated high above the canyons formed by the Genesee River just west of the Finger Lakes and at the eastern edge of Western New York, Letchworth is accessible from all parts of the state. It’s five hours from New York City, four from Albany, two from Syracuse and barely one hour from Buffalo and Rochester. Overnight guests can choose from the sumptuous accommodations of the Glen Iris Inn, the former residence of William Pryor Letchworth (1823-1910), or the campground that combines primitive atmosphere with contemporary amenities. The campground has 287 tent/trailer sites and cabins for year-round camping.
Letchworth, often called “the Grand Canyon of the East,” is known for its breathtaking views of the Genesee River as it flows north toward Rochester and Lake Ontario, sometimes as much as 550 feet beneath the top of the gorge. Three spectacular waterfalls and dozens of smaller ones give the river ever-changing dynamics. A new train trestle replaces the mythologized original, but at 235 feet above the river, 963 feet long and with a 483-foot arch it has become an instant Letchworth landmark in its own right as it continues to carry freight trains across the expanse of the gorge.
The park comprises 14,000 acres and is 17 miles long with 66 miles of hiking trails lacing their way up and down the river banks and through the woods. Some of the trails accommodate bikes and horseback riding. Water sports enthusiasts can kayak, raft the whitewater and fish, while the winter months offer opportunities for cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. The Humphrey Nature Center opened in 2016, offering hands-on education about the flora, fauna and ecology of the area.
Beyond the activities that attract 21st century park visitors, lies a history unparalleled for its richness. Part of an ancient sea many millions of years ago, Letchworth yields many fossils. The Genesee River itself was formed in pre-glacial times but was given its contemporary characteristics by the last retreating glaciers somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago. Needless to say, Letchworth remains a popular spot for geologists, both amateur and professional.
The Seneca Nation originally inhabited the territory now called Letchworth State Park and called it Segahunda, or “Vale of three falls.” Mary Jemison (1743-1833), known as the “White Woman of the Genesee” lived in the area after she was kidnapped at age 12 by the Senecas and then chose to live her life with them, marrying and bearing seven children. She is buried in the park. The park’s namesake, industrialist William Pryor Letchworth, first bought land in 1859 as a retreat from his business world in Buffalo. He built today’s Glen Iris Inn as his private residence and accumulated 1,000 acres. In 1906, he bequeathed his estate to New York State for a park. After his death, the area was expanded and became a cornerstone of the fledgling state park system.
Part of Letchworth’s legacy resides in the William Pryor Letchworth Museum, which was founded with the collections of the park’s founder. The exhibits focus on the natural and cultural history of the Genesee Valley, and include archaeological artifacts of the Seneca Nation, displays on Mary Jemison and early pioneers.
Whether you come for the day or stay for a weekend, you’ll need several visits to discover all that Letchworth State Park has to offer.
By Rick Ohler