Letchworth State Park in western New York is called the "Grand Canyon of the East" thanks to the 600-foot deep-river gorge that runs the length of the park, which is dotted with some of the state's most magnificent waterfalls.
An hour outside of Buffalo, a trip to Letchworth is a commitment but well worth the effort. The 17-mile-long park runs along the Genesee River gorge, offering spectacular sights at every bend and turn. Letchworth is a New York state park but has the feel of a national park with amenities that include lodging, fine and casual dining, ranger-led programs, a slate of seasonal outdoor activities, a new, state-of the-art nature center and a major WOW factor. With so much to see and do, it's a fantastic outdoor destination with something for everyone to enjoy, no matter how passive or rugged you like to spend your downtime.
This popular park was on my family's camping bucket list for many years. We're already fans of local camping and familiar with Hudson Valley hikes a bit closer to home. After it was voted the best state park in the country by USA Today in 2015, we decided to make the six-hour drive from our home in New York City to see what the hype was about.
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The setting for your hiking and outdoor adventures can't be beat. Photo by the author.
No matter what you and your family want from a nature-filled family adventure it seemingly can be found at Letchworth State Park. The park boasts more than 60 miles of trails, ranging from challenging gorge hikes to flat and easy kid-friendly walks through the surrounding forest. If you are a mountain biker or equestrian you can also hit the trails here (provided you have your own wheels and hooves; Letchworth doesn't rent.) Families can enjoy passive recreation, perfect for younger kids or groups of mixed ages, including driving the length of the park with stops for amazing scenery; having a picnic under the giant shade trees on the parade grounds; a dip in the pool; fishing for trout or panfish; or going for a romp in the playground. In the winter, snow tubing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling are available.
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Letchworth offers hot air balloon rides over its magnificent waterfalls. Photo via Bigstock.
Letchworth offers some once-in-a-lifetime experiences for families, including hot air balloon rides over the incredible gorge, whitewater rafting trips, and bald eagle spotting. The park is an important bird area for the Audubon Society, so hundreds of different species can be seen flying or nesting in the park, including our national bird.
Did I mention the waterfalls? The park has three of them, including Inspiration Point, the tallest fall in the state.
Another top spot for families is the new Humphrey Nature Center. Opened in June 2016, the center is year-round unlike many other attractions in the park. A visit here gives families the chance to engage with natural elements of the park through interactive exhibits focused on local flora and fauna. The center leads directly to an outdoor seasonal butterfly garden and multiuse trails for further exploration.
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Stay for the night at one of the hundreds of campsites in the park or grab one of the cabins. Photo by the author.
Wth so much to explore, you will want to stay overnight. Highbanks camping area offers several hundred campsites with tents, trailers and fully equipped cabins. My family lives for the chance to pitch a tent and sleep outside, so we spent a week exploring the park from our campsite base. Along with typical amenities, including fire pits, showers and flushable toilets, campers are offered a handy convenience store for forgotten essentials, a playground, and a recreation center with indoor activities in case of bad weather. My son loved taking a solo stroll to the store for an after-dinner treat, something we don't allow him to do in Manhattan. For non-camping families, rooms are available at the Glen Iris Inn, the restored mansion that once belonged to park founder William Pryor Letchworth. The inn is at the center of the park adjacent to the stunning Middle Falls and has a seasonal restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Enjoy a raft ride through the mist on the Genesee River at Letchworth. Photo by darosenbauer via Flickr.
Good to Know Before You Go
- Many attractions in the park are seasonal. The campground is open May through October and the Glen Iris Inn is open March through October.
- If you want to camp, there are hundreds of tenting spots but cabins are in limited supply; Reserve as early as you can, possibly even a year out if you want a cabin.
- Letchworth State Park is long—17 miles from one end of the other— and it takes a bit of time to drive its length.
- Bring your camera. The views of the gorge and waterfalls are stunning.
Top image by Chris Waits via Flickr.