by Karen Rubin
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
It doesn’t take long once you arrive at New York’s Letchworth State Park to see why this vast preserve merits its nickname, “Grand Canyon of the East.” One of the most scenically magnificent areas in the eastern United States, the Genesee River roars through a humongous gorge that extends the 17 mile-long expanse of the park, over three major waterfalls between cliffs as high as 600 feet, surrounded by lush forest.
During the two full days we were there, we hiked the most scenic, marquee trails: the Gorge Trail (#1), 7.6 miles, following along the rim in the southern portion of the 17-mile long park, and the next day, the Highbanks Trail (#20), 4.5 miles along the rim and through forest in the north part of the park. Indeed, these hiking experiences were reminiscent of hiking the Rim Trail along the southern rim of the Grand Canyon.
Letchworth State Park – voted best attraction in New York State in 2017 – is a geologic wonder – its main attractions are three waterfalls (and if you visit in the late afternoon, you may well see rainbows over the Middle Falls) in the southern section. The trails take you to the most popular, scenic overlooks, which people can drive to, so they can be bustling with visitors (when we visited, people seemed to be respectful of wearing masks and keeping distance).
The Gorge Trail, in the south, brings you to the most spectacular views – Upper Falls and Middle Falls in quick succession, then Lower Falls. The real surprise was coming upon Wolf Creek waterfall and a bridge with a painterly scene. Along the way you come upon these stunning stone look-outs at Inspiration Point, Archery Field Overlook, Great Bend Overlook, Tea Table lookout, which also have stone tables and BBQ set-ups.
The Highbanks trail in the north section reveals the expansive vistas that evoke awe over just how enormous and winding this gorge is and why Letchworth has been dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East.” The treat here comes at the end, at the Mt. Morris Dam Overlook Area, where there is a delightful snack bar serving excellent ice cream.
Altogether, the park offers 66 miles of trails (almost all rated easy or moderate, and most on the west side of the park). But for hard-core hikers, there is a 22-mile Finger Lakes Trail that runs along the entire eastern section of the park.
Our trip was made all the more special by camping in the Highbanks campground within the state park that had only just reopened (private campgrounds, such as Kampgrounds of America, koa.com, also available in the area). (I booked our stay mere minutes after the website, reserveamerica.com, reopened reservations.)
We kept our food in the cooler and equipment in the car and each evening would pick out a different picturesque setting to enjoy dinner.
The park also offers the charming, historic Glen Iris Inn, scenically set right above the Middle Falls which was formerly the country estate of William Pryor Letchworth and has been an inn since 1914 (585-493-2622, glenirisinn.com).
Just across from the inn is the small stone William Pryor Letchworth Museum which tells the fascinating story of Letchworth Park, paying tribute to William P. Letchworth who preserved the land and its heritage by donating it to the state. The museum tells the history of the Genesee Valley, the canal, and of the Seneca who lived on these lands. Letchworth’s personal collection of artifacts from local Native American tribes is on view. (Learn about Mary Jemison, “The White Woman of the Genesee,” https://www.letchworthparkhistory.com/jem.html.)
There is also the Humphrey Nature Center which in normal times, offers year-round environmental education programming and interactive exhibits highlighting the geology, wildlife, and ecology of the park.
Letchworth State Park offers many recreational facilities and activities that were just beginning to reopen at the time of our visit. The enormous Highbanks Recreation area has a pool. And since our visit, the park opened a new $2 million outdoor Lower Falls Recreation Center offering table games, badminton and pickle ball courts, bocce and shuffleboard, as well as a fitness loop.
The project also involved restoration of a historic bathhouse that is used as the base for the whitewater rafting concessionaire, Adventure Calls Outfitters (https://adventure-calls.com/). Letchworth also offers kayaking, there is even hot air ballooning (https://balloonsoverletchworth.com/).
A half-dozen trails allow biking (I wouldn’t recommend biking on the main Park Road), and there is horseback riding as well.
Letchworth, which was voted USA Today’s Reader Choice for Best State Park in the nation in 2015, is well maintained, especially during this heightened COVID-19 health emergency. The campground restroom facility was very clean, and all the restrooms (they indicate which are open), require masks and social distancing.
Letchworth State Park is open year-round – the fall colors look spectacular, as do the winter scenes when there is cross-country skiing on most of the trails, snowmobiling on four trails, and snow tubing. Winterized cabins are available.
To book a spot in the state campground, go to https://newyorkstateparks.reserveamerica.com/.
Letchworth State Park, Castile, NY 14427, 585-493-3600, letchworthpark.com.
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