This Upstate New York State Park Is Known as the 'Grand Canyon of the East'

Letchworth State Park is a great year-round destination.

<p>JUN DONG/Getty Images</p>

JUN DONG/Getty Images

Nestled in upstate New York, between the cities of Buffalo and Rochester, lies one of the most beautiful natural attractions on the East Coast: Letchworth State Park. Known as the "Grand Canyon of the East," Letchworth boasts stunning views of deep gorges and roaring waterfalls, making it the perfect destination for nature enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers alike.

Letchworth is set on 14,500 acres in the western part of New York state, featuring more than 60 miles of hiking trails, and waterfalls cascading as high as 100 feet. Visitors to this state park can expect to become totally enveloped by the area’s all-encompassing natural beauty. It lets travelers get up close to three major waterfalls, with scenic overlooks and trails riddled throughout the park.

Conrad Baker, an environmental educator for the New York State Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, leads guided experiences in Letchworth State Park and other parks in the Genesee Valley region of New York. Baker told Travel + Leisure that Letchworth has something for everyone, with activities and experiences for casual visitors and also people with days to spend in nature. “Letchworth is significant culturally and ecologically for its diverse landscapes and the diverse people who cared for it and who come here,” he said. “Letchworth is a haven.”

<p>Kenneth Keifer/Getty Images</p>

Kenneth Keifer/Getty Images

Best Hotels

There are several options for those seeking accommodations in Letchworth State Park. The Glen Iris Inn, located within the park, is a popular choice due to its beautiful location and historic charm. Guests can choose from rooms in the main building, as well as other historic cottages scattered throughout the park. (The Stone House, Chalet House, and Caroline’s Cottage are open year-round, while the Inn itself and Pinewood Lodge are open seasonally.)

“Staying at the Glen Iris Inn is one of the most iconic Letchworth experiences you can get,” Baker said. “You’re walking the same hallways as William Pryor Letchworth, and you’re enveloped in the history of the landscapes.” (William Pryor Letchworth is the philanthropist who founded the park in 1907 after donating his 1,000-acre estate.)

Maplewood Lodge is also located in the middle of Letchworth State Park, near the entrance to the Highbanks camping area. This lodge sleeps up to eight people. For another cozy option, consider Parker’s Hideaway, which sleeps six. Campers will find plenty of tent and trailer campsites at Letchworth, plus cabins.

“We have lots of different places to stay, lots of ways of overnighting,” Baker said. “There are many historic houses and homes and campsites, so whether you are a backcountry ‘roughing it’ adventurer, or a Finger Lakes Riesling wine person, there’s something for you at Letchworth.”

Outside of the park itself, travelers can find a number of local bed-and-breakfasts in the small surrounding towns. Major hotel chains are available in larger nearby cities like Buffalo and Rochester.

<p>zrfphoto/Getty Images</p>

zrfphoto/Getty Images

Things to Do

The main attraction at Letchworth State Park is, of course, the park itself. Hiking, biking, and showshoeing are just a few of the many activities available within the park. The seven-mile Gorge Trail is open year-round, taking hikers along the edge of the gorge. It offers breathtaking views of the park's three largest waterfalls: Upper Falls, Middle Falls, and Lower Falls.

“All of these waterfall overlooks are super accessible, you can almost drive right up to them,” Baker said. “At [other parks] you would have to do a day hike to see a waterfall like Middle Falls, but here at Letchworth, you’re like 20 steps from parking.”

The Letchworth Autism Nature Trail offers a range of experiences from quiet engagement to active exploration and adventure, designed for neurodiverse visitors. “It’s a mile-long, interactive trail with eight nature stations where people with sensory sensitivities in particular are invited to interact with different objects found in the woods,” Baker said. “And it’s even paved enough [so that] you can ride a manually powered wheelchair over it if you want.”

In addition to hiking, visitors can also enjoy fishing, boating, and more. Baker’s personal favorite areas of respite include the quiet pockets of old-growth woods, close to Upper Falls, found along Trail 2 or Trail 2a.

With horseback riding, rafting, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing trails, Letchworth has activities to do year-round. There are also guided walks, tours, and various nature and arts programs throughout the year. Upcoming events can be found on the Letchworth State Park website.

The park is also an officially designated Important Birding Area, with a conservation area within Letchworth along the Genesee River. Avid bird watchers can try to spot all 25 different species of the resident wood warblers.

Some of Baker’s favorite not-to-miss attractions include the hot air balloon rides over the park, the north-end swimming pool — this is free and open during summer — and white water rafting, which starts as early as April.

Best Restaurants

When it comes to dining, there are several great choices. There are two restaurants located directly in Letchworth State Park: Caroline’s Dining Room in the Glen Iris Inn and Lower Falls Restaurant.

Caroline’s is open seasonally and offers a stunning view of the park’s Middle Falls. The restaurant serves up classic American dishes and offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus. The Lower Falls features a more limited menu of quick-serve items like burgers and sandwiches.

Baker said there are also snack stands throughout the park, including a popular one on the north end by the dam that also includes a gift shop. But his favorite secret is the produce stand selling locally baked goods at the camper store in the Highbanks camping area. Get there early for the pies, and check their Facebook page for all the upcoming offerings.

The small town of Perry outside the park has some local restaurants for a quick bite too. But visitors looking to get the most out of their meals can also head up to Buffalo or Rochester — both are about an hour’s drive outside the park.

In nearby Rochester, Owl House is a fine-dining spot popular with vegans and vegetarians, serving up fresh and creative dishes using locally sourced ingredients. In Buffalo, Bacchus Wine Bar & Restaurant has tapas and an impressive wine list, or head to Hutch’s for American cuisine with a global flare.

<p>Courtesy of The Owl House</p>

Courtesy of The Owl House

Best Time to Visit

Fall is certainly one of the best times to visit Letchworth, with the rolling hills of vivid autumn leaves. That said, spring is also a great option, as it's when the waterfalls come roaring back to life after a cold winter.

While upstate New York can get cold, blustery winters, Baker said it’s actually a favorite time to visit among some guests (especially locals) due to the extensive scenic and popular snowmobile trails.

Of course, most trails, accommodations, restaurants, and camping sites are open in the summer months. But summer is also the most popular time for visitors, so balance your itinerary based on your own priorities for access versus crowds.

<p>JimVallee/Getty Images</p>

JimVallee/Getty Images

How to Get There

Getting to Letchworth State Park is relatively easy, with both Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF) and Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport (ROC) located within an hour's drive.

Major car rentals can be found at both airports, as visitors will find having a car to reach the park the easiest way to arrive. There’s limited service in some areas of the park, and the overall area is pretty rural, so it’s wise not to rely on any sort of rideshare service for this trip.

From Rochester, avid bikers can cruise down the Genesee Greenway Trail, which connects to Letchworth. There’s also bus service from Rochester to Letchworth on select weekends.

If you're visiting the nearby Niagara Falls, which is less than a two-hour drive away, then this is a great add-on to your trip.

How to Get Around

The park itself is very driveable, so if you are traveling with young children or anyone with mobility issues, it’s still easy to see the falls by driving from overlook to overlook, without needing to walk or hike. Otherwise, it’s a choose-your-own adventure, including biking, skiing, snowmobiling, or even a hot air balloon ride to get across the park.

There are four main entrances to the park on the west side. The largest waterfalls are closest to the southern end, so for visitors looking to just stop by on a short trip, the Portageville gate will get you the best access to the falls in just a few minutes.

Because Google Maps will try to take you to the center of the park if you enter “Letchworth State Park” as your destination, Baker shared the closest nearby addresses to input into your GPS when looking for a certain entrance.

West Side: $10 vehicle entrance fee from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during peak season

  • Mt. Morris Gate (open year-round): 2640 Park Rd, Mt Morris, NY 14510

  • Perry Gate: 7957 Schenck Road, Perry, NY, 14530

  • Castile Gate (open year-round): 6787 Denton Corners Road, Castile, NY, 14427

  • Portageville Gate (easiest waterfall access): 6849 Park Road, Castile, NY, 14427

East Side: Free entrance, but no driveable end-to-end road

  • Parade Grounds Entrance: Portageville Road, Hunt, NY, 14846

  • Mount Morris Dam Recreation Area: 6103 Visitor Center Road, Mount Morris, NY, 14510

Letchworth State Park is a natural wonder that should not be missed. With its stunning scenery, diverse range of activities, and proximity to nearby New York cities, it's no wonder that visitors continue to flock to the area. Whether you're looking for adventure, relaxation, or a bit of both, Letchworth State Park is a can’t-miss adventure all on its own.

“It’s easy to just assume you’ve seen it all in Letchworth, but people come back for 50 years, and they still don’t get to see everything,” Baker said.

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