Letchworth State Park
A happy confluence of geography and generosity has created Letchworth State Park, a long swath of parkland on the western edge of the Finger Lakes region of New York. The Genesee River has carved a magnificent gorge through this area, including a series of three large waterfalls, earning the park its nickname, The Grand Canyon of the East. It's one of the most spectacular natural landscapes in the entire Northeast.
A popular destination for day-trips and camping alike, the vistas of Letchworth State Park have entranced since human eyes first sighted them. Today, outdoor enthusiasts use bikes, skis, snowshoes, horses, or just their feet to traverse the trails, while sightseers gape at the three magnificent cascades of the Genesee and the abundant foliage. It's well worth a side trip for anyone visiting nearby, or even as the main destination for travelers from afar.
The Seneca Indians called the area Sehgahunda, meaning the "Vale of Three Falls," forming several villages within what are now the park boundaries. Many of the trails in the park today are based on original Seneca trails, which were used for river access.
In the middle of the 19th century, when the Erie Railroad needed to bridge the gorge, they built the world's tallest wooden bridge right above the Upper Falls. The view from above was so spectacular that trains would stop and let passengers off just to take in the sight. On one such voyage was Buffalo industrialist William Pryor Letchworth; he so enjoyed the view that he bought over a thousand acres of gorge land and built himself a summer home. He called the estate Glen Iris after the rainbow that often formed in the mist of the Middle Falls. As his death approached, the elderly Letchworth decided to protect the gorge from hydro-power or other commercial development by deeding it to the State for use as a park in 1906.
Despite its nickname, the valley carved by the Genesee River doesn't really look like the Grand Canyon; visitors who've seen the real thing won't be very impressed by the comparison. For starters, it's much smaller in scale. At its widest point, the Grand Canyon is 18 miles (29 km) wide; Letchworth Park would just fit inside there—lengthwise! And the Grand Canyon's mile-high depth dwarfs the 300 to 500 plus walls of the Letchworth gorge. On the other hand, Letchworth has far more vegetation in and around the gorge, and it's fair to say there are few other gorges this side of the Mississippi that approach Letchworth in either size or beauty.
Geologically, the Letchworth gorge is very young, carved when the Genesee was forced to find a new route northward after the last ice age. The preglacial river that flowed through current-day Portageville was a tributary of the preglacial Genesee River, and it took a more easterly course through Nunda. It then joined the main branch of the preglacial Genesee, which flowed northwest to Mount Morris, then north to Rochester. When the two branches of the river were blocked by glacial debris at Dansville and Nunda, the east branch rerouted to the south, becoming part of the Susequehanna watershed, while the west branch was forced into a more direct route between Portageville and Mount Morris.
The new route led the river over the Allegheny Plateau, dropping into the preglacial river valley at Mount Morris. Over the next ten millennia, the cascade carved its way backward, much as the Niagara River did during the same period, eventually forming a series of three waterfalls just north of modern Portageville... and a spectacular gorge in its wake. The course the gorge takes is a bit unusual; it twists and turns rather than taking a straight path; since the river once flowed in a meandering route over a broad plain, the falls cut their way backward along the original course of the river.
The three cascades of the upper Genesee should not be confused with three similar waterfalls farther downstream (to the north) in Rochester. Both locations have a Lower, Middle, and Upper (or High) Falls, and both sets were formed during the same period, but they are more than fifty miles apart.
The three cascades are near the south end of the park. The Upper Falls, which total 71 feet (a 50-foot main drop and a few rapids just below) drop over a tight horseshoe bend, making them a little hard to see, but the Portage Bridge just above the crest makes for a dramatic backdrop. The Middle Falls are within easy walking distance of the Upper, and they are both the tallest (107 ft) and the most picturesque. The rainbows of the Middle Falls captured the imagination of both the Seneca Indians (who believed the beauty of the falls made the sun pause at midday) and William Pryor Letchworth, who named his estate Glen Iris after the rainbow-filled valley of the Middle Falls.
The Lower Falls are a bit farther downstream, and they have the shortest drop (70 feet). You've got to climb down a substantial set of stairs to get to any decent viewing location, but it's worth it, as the Lower Falls' face is the most interesting of the three. There's a stone footbridge just below the Lower Falls, the only (legal) way to walk across the river within the park.
While the three main waterfalls capture most of the attention—rightfully so—there are a number of other waterfalls in the park, each representing a tributary of the Genesee that now has to drop all the way down into the carved gorge. That makes for some very tall falls, though they tend to be fairly small in width and volume. Some even dry up seasonally. But with total drops approaching 500 feet, the heights some of these falls reach can rival the volume of the Genesee Falls for sheer spectacle.
Flora and fauna
Unlike the Grand Canyon of the West, Letchworth's gorge walls are covered in trees, making for spectacular sightseeing in the autumn, as the leaves change color. Birdwatchers love the rim of the gorge for spotting hawks, eagles, and vultures soaring overhead.
Letchworth is located on the western edge of New York's Finger Lakes region. It's about 50 miles (80 km) east-southeast of Buffalo, and about 40 miles (65 km) south-southwest of Rochester, depending on what part of the 17-mile-long park you're headed to. For example, if you're headed from the Rochester airport to the Mount Morris Dam, at the north end of the park, it'll take about 45 minutes to drive. If you're headed to the Portageville end, to see the waterfalls, on the other hand, you'll tack on an extra twenty minutes—or an extra 45 minutes if you drive through the park.
The most convenient expressway to Letchworth is I-390, which runs south from the Rochester airport and passes near Mount Morris as it travels through the preglacial Genesee Valley. If you're going to the north end of the park, take the Mount Morris exit (Exit 7); if you're going to the south end, you can take Exit 7 and drive through or around the park, or take Exit 4 or 5 in Dansville and follow State Route 436 west to Portageville. The major east-west expressway routes are the New York State Thruway (I-90), about 20 miles (30 km) north of Mount Morris, and I-86 (the Southern Tier Expressway), about the same distance south of Portageville; both connect up with I-390 or any number of state routes that are more direct.
The park has six entrances, but choose wisely, as there's no way to cross the river (by car, at least) once you're in the park. All of the amenities, including the main park road, are on the west side of the river; the east side has a number of trails and a couple of campgrounds, but is largely wild and undeveloped. On the other hand, only the west side carries an admission fee.
On the east side, the Parade Grounds entrance is to the south near Portageville, off New York State Route 436; it's closed in winter, but the rest of the year leads to the only cabins on the east side. Its trails provide east-side views of the falls and gorge that many visitors never see. There's also a Mount Morris Dam entrance on the north end, accessible from New York State Route 408 south of Mount Morris, which only provides access to the dam's visitors center (along with a nice gorge overlook).
Most visitors will use a west-side entrance. The main entrance is all the way at the top of the park; take New York State Route 36 West (northwest) from Mount Morris and across the river (or eastbound from Leicester, a couple miles to the north) and turn onto the Park Road. There's also access to the Park Road from the Perry entrance and Castile entrance, each farther south. Castile is the southernmost entrance open in the winter; the entrance at the southern tip, the Portageville entrance, is closed in winter. The Portageville entrance is on New York State Routes 19A and 436; the former comes in from the south, through Portageville, while the latter runs east-west and connects to Nunda and Dansville. The Portageville and Castile entrances provide the best access to the falls, the most popular gorge views, the Glen Iris Inn, and the highest concentration of lodges, cabins, and concessions.
To get from one side of the park to the other, you can cross at the north end on Route 36 or at the south end on Route 436, but either way you'll have to re-enter the park at another entrance.
Part of the park's trail system is connected to the Genesee Valley Greenway, a multi-use rail trail that extends 90 miles (140 km) from the Erie Canal in Rochester all the way down to Cuba in the Southern Tier, along I-86. The trail crosses the river on Route 36 in Mount Morris, right at the north end of the park; one of the park's trails picks up just inside the park entrance. From there, the Greenway heads southeast through Mount Morris and Sonyea, then southwest through Tuscarora, Nunda, and Oakland before entering the park north of Portageville; from there you can access the east-side facilities and trails near the Parade Grounds entrance.
Both Buffalo and Rochester have mid-sized airports with plenty of flights daily from all the major domestic hubs and fully staffed rental car agencies. There are a number of smaller airstrips in the surrounding countryside, but then you're stuck without a car to take you the rest of the way.
The park is open daily 6AM–11PM. The per-vehicle entrance fee is $8, payable at the four entrances on the west side of the river. (The fee is only collected between 9AM and 5PM, and only during the busy season.) The east-side Dam and Parade Grounds entrances have no fee, but you can't get to the west side, where most of the attractions and amenities are. Alternatively, the Empire Passport costs $65 and gets you access to all New York State Parks; it's valid from the date of purchase through the end of March in the following calendar year (that is, for at least 3 and as many as 15 months, depending on date of purchase).
Certain park amenities and attractions cost extra; see individual listings below.
You don't need a permit to do most things in the park; the exceptions are for hunting and nighttime snowmobiling. You'll also need to fill out an application to use certain lodges and shelters. All such forms are available on the web site.
The park is close to Interstate 390 and served by several state highways of good quality. Roads within the park are all hard-surfaced, with ample parking at major sightseeing points.
It is illegal to leave the marked trails and roads, even on foot or snowmobile. Don't do it; leave the wilds to the animals!
The primary draws of Letchworth, of course, are the amazing views of the gorge, especially the waterfalls. And though the views are great year-round, the place really shines in autumn; it's one of the best sites for leaf-peeping in the entire Northeast. Once you're done gazing at the views, however, there are a few more attractions to check out.
- Letchworth State Park Visitors Center, ☎ +1 585 493-3600. There are concession buildings with restrooms and guides in several places in the park, but the main visitors center is along the park road between the Middle and Lower Falls, not far from Inspiration Point, north of the Glen Iris area.
- William Pryor Letchworth Museum (Glen Iris grounds), ☎ +1 585 493-2760. May-Oct: daily 10AM-5PM. In 1898, Mr. Letchworth himself erected a "Genesee Valley Museum" building on his estate grounds. He used it to exhibit his collection of Native America artifacts and geological specimens—including a mastodon skull! Though the collection has been expanded and moved to a bigger building since that time, it still maintains his original focus on the human and geological history of the Genesee Valley. The museum also memorializes Letchworth himself, housing his personal library and other documents and artifacts from his life. And the original mastodon skull still astounds visitors today. Recommended donation: $1/adult, $0.50/child, $3/family.
- Council Grounds (just north of Glen Iris). Letchworth took a keen interest in the Native American history of the Genesee Valley, and when he heard that the old 1765 Seneca Council House in nearby Caneadea was in danger, he had the whole thing taken apart and reassembled on his estate grounds. Later, at the request of relatives, he relocated the grave of Mary Jemison, the "White Woman of the Genesee", from the endangered Buffalo Creek Reservation near Buffalo to the new Council Grounds at Glen Iris. A cabin, built by Jemison for one of her daughters and formerly located on her property downstream at the Gardeau Flats, was also relocated. Today, the two buildings and the gravesite (marked by an iconic statue) continue to be carefully preserved. Free with park admission.
- Mount Morris Dam, 6103 Visitor Center Rd, Mt Morris (Access from Route 408, south of Mt Morris), ☎ +1 585 658-4790. Visitors Center open Apr-Oct, daily 10AM-4:30PM; tours Apr-Oct, daily 2PM plus F-Su 11AM; grounds open all year, daily 6AM-11PM. Communities along the Genesee River suffered under periodic flooding throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Great Flood of 1865, for instance, devastated Rochester, and a repeat was seen as increasingly inevitable. Around 1950, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed the massive Mount Morris Dam, using the deep valley to the south as a reservoir, allowing the regulation of northward flow. At 230 feet (70 m) high and over 1000 feet (300 m) long, the dam is an impressive sight. A Visitors Center was created in 1999 on the east side of the river; it contains exhibits on the Dam, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and earth science. Free walking tours that go inside the dam structure depart once or twice daily. The grounds have picnic areas, playgrounds, and trails. Free.
- The dam can also be viewed from the west side of the river, just off the main Park Road; there's no access to the dam or to the main Visitors Center from there, but it's close to the main park entrance, so there's a parking lot and concession stand with souvenirs and food.
Dam that Hurricane!
The wisdom of building the Mount Morris Dam was thrown into stark relief in late June of 1972, when the remnants of Hurricane Agnes dropped several inches of rain on an already saturated Southern Tier. The resulting storm surge sent the Genesee rising to within just a few inches of the top of the dam. The engineers did have to release some water to keep the level below the rim, causing limited flooding downstream, but the dam still saved at least $200 million in damage to Geneseo, Avon, and Rochester.
By far, the most popular activity in Letchworth—not counting sightseeing—is walking the trails, though bicyclists and horseback riders also make extensive use of them. In the winter, bicyclists and hikers are replaced by cross-country skiers and snowshoers. But there are a couple of other ways to traverse the park's spaces.
- Adventure Calls Outfitters (white-water rafting) (near Lower Falls Restaurant; use Castile entrance), ☎ +1 585 343-4710, toll-free: +1-888-270-2410, fax: +1 585 345-4232, e-mail: email@example.com. Apr 6 - Nov 17, Sa Su holidays; plus once daily Tu-Fr from Jun 23 - Sep 2. Five-mile white-water rafting trips through the gorge, starting just below the Lower Falls. $35/person, plus $7 wetsuit rental in cold weather.
- Balloons Over Letchworth, ☎ +1 585 493-3340. daily May - mid-Oct, sunrise and sunset. Spend up to an hour in the air above the Letchworth gorge, with absolutely unparalleled views. Extremely popular in the fall for leaf peeping; book early. $245.
There are also a number of playgrounds in the park, usually in close proximity to picnicking areas, as well as a larger recreation area.
- Highbanks Recreation Area (south of the Dam overlook on the west river bank). Pool open daily late Jun - Labor Day. The main attraction at this recreation area is the swimming pool, which is open when school is out. There's a diving pool and bathhouse adjacent, and ample parking. Other than that, there are a couple of shelters, an information center, some picnic tables, and easy access to the Highbanks camping area. If you came into the park from the north, and don't want to drive all the way to the south end to see the falls, this is probably as far into the park as you'll go; there's not much else to see for another 10 miles at least. Pool: ages 12+ $2, under 12 $1.
- Fire on the Genesee (at Highbanks Rec Area). 3 days in mid-May. An annual Civil War Encampment event, featuring 'living history' presentations and of course battle re-enactments.
The Basics, Inc. operates gift shops in several locations; they sell items commonly requested by visitors, such as souvenir clothing and camera batteries.
The Glen Iris mansion has a formal-dining restaurant, and small snack-bar facilities are located in other areas of the park. All concessions except the Glen Iris are operated by The Basics, Inc.
Nearby towns have additional dining options.
Only the Glen Iris restaurant serves alcohol (such as local Finger Lakes wines), with meals.
270 campsites, 82 cabins, a small motel-style facility, and the Glen Iris Bed & Breakfast rooms (upstairs at the mansion).
- Glen Iris Inn, 7 Letchworth State Park, Castile (Park Road between Castile and Portageville entrances, at the Middle Falls), ☎ +1 585 493-2622. "Glen Iris" is the name William Pryor Letchworth gave to his country estate, where he entertained friends and business associates above the Middle Falls of the Genesee. Today, guests can relax in the very same building, or in one of several out-parcels. The 12 standard rooms are a bit small, with either one double bed or two twin beds, but each has a private bath. The four suites are larger, each with a queen bed, but almost twice as expensive; the largest has a private porch and a whirlpool tub. The adjacent Pinewood Lodge offers seven efficiency units, each with a kitchenette, queen bed, and single-size sleeper sofa. There are also three smaller houses not too far away, offering multiple bedrooms and full kitchen facilities for larger families and groups of up to eight people. The Glenn Iris Inn is well known for its elegant restaurant (entrees $21-37) serving American and European fare, though the service is sometimes found a bit lacking for the price. $100-385 (+$10-25 in Oct).
The park camping season lasts from early May into mid-October. Prices range from $21 to $27 per night per site. ($5 daily surcharge for out-of-state visitors.)
Cabins are available for an extra month on either side versus campsites. Prices range from $30 to $115 per night, with a $6.25 daily surcharge for out-of-staters.
It is illegal to leave marked trails, so there's no "backcountry" in which to sleep. Sleep only in marked campgrounds, cabins, and rooms.
Cell phone service is sporadic within the park boundaries depending on carrier; take appropriate precautions. In the off season, it will be difficult to contact emergency services depending on location in the park. The nearest major medical facility is Noyes Hospital, in Dansville, or Noyes Health Services in Geneseo.
Letchworth is located within an hour's drive of Buffalo, Rochester, Corning, and the Finger Lakes region. Many older villages and towns dot the countryside around the park boundaries. The entire area is hilly with pretty vistas.