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A Guide to the Grand Canyon of the East: Once Considered the Best US State Park

Known as the Grand Canyon of the East, Letchworth State Park once won USA TODAY Readers' Choice Award for Best State Park in the US in 2015 and the Best Attraction in New York State in 2017. Just over an hour out west from the popular Finger Lakes region in the city of Castile, the state park is a smaller, but impressive northeastern alternative to Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park. So what makes this little-known place so heavily-accoladed?

The picturesque park sits on the powerful Genesee River which runs through a vast gorge that rises up to 600 feet in some places and drops over three major waterfalls. While Grand Canyon National Park might be too hot to visit in the summer and has limited places to hike and see in the winter, Letchworth offers plenty of outdoor activities for all seasons ranging from whitewater rafting in the summer to cross-country skiing in the winter.

What to Do

Gorges covered in fall foliage near Archery Field at sunrise creates a majestic scene at Letchworth State Park, NY

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The park has five entrances, with three of them open all year-round. Mount Morris, Perry, and Castile are accessible during the winter, but Portageville and Parade Grounds close down. To enter, you'll pay a $10 fee for the day. But pro tip: visitors are only charged from early May to late October from 9:00am-5:00pm daily, meaning you can bypass the fee for that day if you arrive early enough and end up camping in the park. You might be charged for the next day when you leave, unless you exit the park before or after those times.

There's no shortage of outdoor activities in the park, something for every kind of explorer. For those looking for more relaxing activities, you can go on short, easy hikes to see the gorgeous fall foliage and incredible views looking over the gorge and of the three main waterfalls. You can also reach most of the notable park features by driving along Park Road. Plan for a scenic lunch at Wolf Creek, where there are shaded picnic tables next to the water. Great Bend and Hogsback Overlook are also great stops along the road, offering spectacular views of the gorge. If you want to cool down and go swimming, the Highbanks Recreation Area at the north end of the park has an Olympic-sized swimming pool that costs a couple bucks to swim in and is surrounded by large picnic areas and pavilions.

Thrill-seeking hikers wanting to get their blood moving will take on some of the more difficult hiking trails among the 66 miles to explore. Hike along the 14-mile round trip Gorge Trail to see all three of the park's main large waterfalls- the Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls- on one trail or explore other hiking trails that showcase other beautiful smaller waterfalls such as the ribbon waterfall Inspiration Falls throughout the park. But if hiking isn't the only activity you want to do, there are also biking and horseback riding trails that will take you through the park's lush forests. For the adrenaline junkies that love water activities, there are whitewater rafting, kayaking, and canoeing tours available to book. Just check out Adventure Calls Outfitters for more information on how to do so in the park.

Hot Air Balloon Flying Over Letchworth State Park In New York

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A popular activity to do in the area during nicer weather is seeing breathtaking aerial views of the entire park via hot air balloon. Check out Balloons Over Letchworth to book a three to four-hour balloon ride to intake all the natural beauty from above, an experience truly unlike any other. You can also learn more about the park's Indigenous history about the Seneca tribe by visiting the William Pryor Letchworth Museum and check out the environmental education opportunities and interactive exhibits that highlight the geology, wildlife, and ecology of the park at the Humphrey Nature Center. The Humphrey Nature Center is also near the Autism Nature trailhead. The Autism Nature Trail was added to the park in September 2021 so that everyone, especially those would with autism spectrum disorder could experience the outdoors. The ADA-compliant trail has eight fun stations along its one-mile path that offer activities ranging from quiet engagement to active exploration.

The park turns into a beautiful winter wonderland during colder months, and your outdoor activity options include snowmobiling, snowshoeing, snow tubing, and cross-country skiing. You can find out more information by heading to the winter recreation area near the Castile entrance of the park. But if you want to rent snowshoes and/or if you're a first-timer, Endlessly Outdoors provides rentals and lessons. After exploring more than 25 miles of trails for snowmobiling and fantastic hills for tubing and sledding, you can stop in at the Trailside Lodge for an indoor picnic lunch when you need a break.

The middle falls along the Genesee River inside the Letchworth State Park.

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Where to Stay 

There are a range of places to stay that can accommodate you comfortably in any season. Warmer months promise great weather that's perfect for camping, and the park's 257 campsites are open from mid-May to early October. There are also cozy cabin options to choose from if you're interested in more of a rustic getaway. With 81 options to choose from, these are popular to book. Make your campsite/cabin reservation on Reserve America ahead of time to guarantee your spot. There are also pet-friendly options if you're bringing along your best friend.

The famed historical Glen Iris Inn is surrounded by the park's natural beauty and overlooks Middle Falls. It offers hotel rooms and luxurious suites as well as other lofts, lodges and cottages for a more lavish stay. In the winter, the Glen Iris Fountain located at the front of the inn turns into the Ice Volcano, a popular frozen feature that reaches up to 50 feet.

If you're traveling in an RV, you'll have 270 electrical sites to choose from that charge an entrance fee based on where you're coming from and where you'll stay. Campgrounds include Beaver Meadow, Holiday Hill, Houghton/Letchworth KOA, Maple Grove, the Ridge, Sugar Creek Glen, and Woodstream Campsite/RV Resort.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on September 29, 2021.


Lauren Pineda is based in Austin, Texas, and found her love for writing in local music journalism. She now enjoys writing about all the hilarious mishaps and adventures that happen when traveling somewhere for the first time and prides herself on being a budding traveler with an ambitious drive to learn more about the places she visits. Instagram: @lt.jpeg

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