Hitting the road again: Letchworth state park

Letchworth state park, renowned as the Grand Canyon of the East, is a 14,350-acre park in New York state, following for about 27 km the course of Genesee River. With three major waterfalls, lush forests, and a deep gorge, the park is one of the most scenically areas in the eastern U.S. The Genesee River is the essence of the park, and can be observed either roaring through the gorge on sudden drops, between cliffs as high as 600 feet in some places, or in a calm course along its winding way.

Letchworth state park

***

Summers are made for road trips, spontaneous excursions, or pre-planned adventures. If you prefer to stay at home or take the road, the summer is full of inspiration! The first half of the year has been hectic for us, and we didn’t dare to plan in advance too many things. But there is always something in the back pocket, either to visit a new park, to hike a new trail, to visit a historic landmark, or to discover remote waterfalls.

Suddenly, in the middle of a hot and humid summer, after crossing the southern border to New York state, I felt the old and familiar thrill to be on the road again! After less than 3 hours driving, we arrived at Letchworth state park.

Named after William Pryor Letchworth, who got captivated with the area around the Upper and Middle Falls during his business trips in the 19th century, the park was actually his idea, to create a life-long project of rejuvenating the land and creating a place to rest and reflect. Thus, he donated his beloved 1,000 acres to the State of New York in 1910 after his passing, which in time it has become a paradise for all to enjoy.

Letchworth state park -Genesee river

The park has six entrances, and you’ll definitely need to make up your mind from which direction you want to go. With 29 trails, totalling more than 100 km, there are plenty of opportunities to explore the park. We decided to do the Gorge Trail (rated moderate), starting from Portageville Entrance, where the Upper Falls are. The trail follows the rim of the gorge for most of the distance, with several lookouts and interpretive signs along the way that provide a glimpse of the history of the canyon and the whole area.

Gorge Trail is 7 miles in total, but we actually hiked only to the Lower Falls, realizing that most of the lookouts can be reached by car as well, with only a short walking distance to the edge of the cliffs (in some instances). The trail is mostly flat for the sections going along the road, but involves a lot of stairs climbing in order to reach some overlooks of the valley. You wouldn’t want to miss any of these major waterfalls if you are here, as the staggering sheer gorge provides spectacular views into the canyon. The hot and powerful sun made the hike a bit uncomfortable, but we enjoyed even more the shaded areas.

Wolf creek, Letchworth state park

Looking at the steep Genesee Gorge walls, it was hard for us to imagine that this gorge is relatively new, geologically speaking. The winding river flowing between former glacial lakes detoured around the buried interglacial valley. The glacial rerouting for the middle section of the Genesee started about 10,000 years ago, changing its course using the west branch, a tributary river, cutting a new valley northeastward from Portageville, a little west of the original valley, forming today’s spectacular gorge with so many scenic waterfalls.

Letchworth state park - cliffs

Home of the native Seneca people, the land around this canyon was called Sehgahunda, the ‘Vale of the Three Falls’.

At 70 feet high, the Upper Falls is a deep horseshoe shape. The top of the falls is part of the strata named the Nunda Sandstone. Similar with locally known Portage Bluestone, it was quarried south of Portageville. In order to slow erosion, in 1878, the crest was reinforced with concrete.

Letchworth state park - Upper falls
Letchworth state park – Upper falls

The largest of the three falls, the Middle Falls steals the show from all the other waterfalls of the park. With 107 feet high and 285 feet wide, it has changed very little since Letchworth’s time, because of its many hard, and strong sandstones. The Senecas believed that the great beauty of Skagadee, the Middle Falls, inspired the sun to stop at midday in admiration.

Letchworth state park - Middle falls
Letchworth state park – Middle falls

Around the bend downstream is the Lower Falls. Currently at 70 feet, the Lower falls are constantly changing because of the softer shales. The harder caprock of the Lower Falls is known as Table Rock, forming dozens of waterfalls on tributaries throughout the park.

Letchworth state park - Lower Falls
Letchworth state park – Lower Falls

Most scenic overlooks with panoramic views are on the west side of the river, where most of the hiking trail network is. The only trail bridging the Genesee River in the park crosses a stone bridge just below the Lower Falls, and gives you the opportunity to observe the magnificence of the adjacent cliffs.

Letchworth state park Lower falls area

Another spectacular spot, is the Hogsback overlook, named this way for its resemblance to a wild boar’s high-hunched spine. The river turns in many directions within the park, but this is its most abrupt loop. The rocks exposed by the river are formed from tiny particles of clay that settled in a tropical ocean 350 million years ago. In these soft sediments, which were actually washed from the Appalachian Mountains 250 miles east of here, the river has carved a canyon six times wider than its 400-foot depth.

Hogsback overlook, Letchworth state park
Hogsback overlook, Letchworth state park

Once we wrapped up our hike, we continued on the Park Rd, until we reached our last stop, at Mt. Morris Dam, before heading to our next destination: Finger Lakes Region.

Mount Morris Dam, Letchworth state park
Mount Morris Dam, Letchworth state park

Tip(s) of the day:

  • Make sure you’re getting a map from the Visitor centre, or you can download one online;
  • Sturdy footwear is recommended if you are going hiking, and be ready for lots of stairs along the Gorge trail;
  • Several picnic areas and clean washrooms can be found along Park Rd, the main road of the park;
  • Cell phone service is spotty, so do not rely on the internet;
  • Various activities are available throughout the park, including hot air balloon riding, weather permitting;
  • With 180 state parks in New York, you might consider purchasing the Empire Pass. If the time does not permit to use the pass throughout the entire year, the entrance fee to most state parks in NY is $10 daily, and you can use the day pass to as many state parks you can use within the same day.

~ visited in July 2022

24 thoughts on “Hitting the road again: Letchworth state park

  1. I’ve heard of the Finger Lakes but never of this park. I love the tall cliffs and waterfalls. Waterfall 2 is gorgeous. You said It’s only 3 hours south, are you in Toronto? I’m going to send this to my friend who lives in downtown TO, she’d love it. Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Please feel free to share it. Yes, I’m in GTA, and this park is not too far from us. There are few nice parks on the southern border. Hope you’re having a wonderful Thanksgiving Maggie!

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  2. I couldn’t agree more about how summer and road trips go hand in hand. The scenery in Letchworth State Park looks beautiful, especially those waterfalls and gorge. With more than 100km of trails, it sounds like there are a lot of great hiking opportunities!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nature doing her thing on a grand scale, Christie. Thanks for the tour and photos. I felt the heat along with you, however. Now we live part time in Virginia (the part where we are’t wandering), we experienced the heat and humidity in July/August.
    I loved: “Home of the native Seneca people, the land around this canyon was called Sehgahunda, the ‘Vale of the Three Falls’. And also about the sun stopping to appreciate the view. Beauty does not stop at cultural boundaries. –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Curt! Hope all is well with you and you’re enjoying your wanderings. I’m behind with reading the news😊 but hopefully I can catch up soon.
      The world is so beautiful, and we all should stop sometimes to appreciate the beauty of it.
      All the best, Christie

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