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“The Grand Canyon of the East” Was Once Considered The Best U.S. State Park

Grand Canyon of the East

JimVallee via Getty Images

Looking to visit somewhere as majestic and breath-taking as the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, but without all the packs of tourists? Head up north to Castile, New York, where Letchworth State Park is located and may be just what you’re looking for. Back in 2015, Letchworth, known as the Grand Canyon of the East, won the USA TODAY Readers’ Choice Award for the Best State Park in the United States. So why is this little-known place so heavily-accoladed?

History of Letchworth State Park

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The area was originally called Sehgahunda, meaning the Vale of Three Falls, by Native Americans who have lived there for thousands of years known as the Old Ones. The Old Ones, who had originally come there by following the mastodons, eventually became the Seneca Tribe.

One of the more famous Seneca settlers was Mary Jemison, known as the “White Woman of the Genesse.” Captured as a young girl, Jemison eventually married into the tribe, and soon became respected and recognized in history for never turning anyone in need away. Throughout the course of her life, she witnessed the development of the area and how the land was taken from the natives and settled by the pioneers until she died in 1833 on the Buffalo Creek Reservation.

In the late 1800’s, William Pryor Letchworth, a successful businessman, envisioned the potential in the land, knowing had it not been for the logging, the land could be glorious. In 1859, he bought 1,000 acres to build his home, Glen Iris, now home to the Glen Iris Inn. By 1874, Jemison’s grandchildren approached Mr. Letchworth to see if they could bury their grandmother on her homeland, which was where he had built his estate. He happily obliged, honoring the woman by allowing them to do so, even holding ceremonies in the ancient Council House.

In 1906, after spending decades bringing the land back to its natural beauty, he gave the land to the State of New York in order to protect his home of Glen Iris from the Genesee River Company. The state of New York created the state park in 1909, and by the 1970s, it had grown to 14,000 acres.

Things to Do

This New York state park is the perfect year-round place for a family getaway. Just 48 miles away from Rochester, it boasts spectacular views of lush forests and plenty of lively waterfalls. The three main, large waterfalls are the Upper Falls, Middle Falls, and Lower Falls, formed by the powerful Genesee River roaring over a gorge. The park also features Inspiration Falls, a ribbon waterfall located on a tributary creek just east of Inspiration Point Overlook.

The area offers activities for the whole family, including hiking, biking, horseback riding, snowmobiling, snow tubing, whitewater rafting, kayaking, cross-country skiing, and even hot airballooning. For hikers, you can check out one of the park’s 28 scenic hiking trails, ranging from easy to moderate levels. If you want to dive into the water activities the park has to offer, check out Adventure Calls Outfitters to book your whitewater rafting, kayaking, and canoeing adventures.

If you plan to visit the park during the winter, you’ll have options to snowmobile, snowshoe, snow tube, and cross-country ski. Just head to the winter recreation area near the Castile entrance of the park to find out more information on how you can book these kinds of adventures. With more than 25 miles of trails for snowmobiling, fantastic hills for tubing and sledding, you can even stop in at the Trailside Lodge for an indoor picnic lunch when you need a break.

Letchworth State Park is also known for its opportunities to catch incredible views of the area via hot air balloon. Check out Balloons Over Letchworth to book a three to four-hour balloon ride to intake the beauty of the park from up above, an experience truly unlike any other.

Learn more about the indigenous history of Letchworth State Park by heading to the William Pryor Letchworth Museum, or check out the Humphrey Nature Center for environmental education opportunities and interactive exhibits that highlight the geology, wildlife, and ecology of the park for school groups, scouts, youth organizations, and the general public. Find out more information on what else the area has to offer by checking out the Letchworth State Park Visitor Center, and grab a souvenir to commemorate your trip at the gift shop.

Where to Stay in Letchworth State Park

If you’re planning to stay overnight, the park has plenty of options depending on what you prefer. If you’re looking to stay indoors, check out the famed Glen Iris Inn. You can also choose from Pinewood Lodge, Pinewood Lofts, Caroline’s Cottage, the Stone House, and the Chalet. The park also has cozy cabins to accommodate you, with over 300 rentals available. Just head to Reserve America to select and book the cabin that is made just for you. They even have pet-friendly options if you’re bringing along your best friend.

If you choose to camp or bring an RV, you also have plenty of options to choose from, based on what’s comfortable for you. There are 270 electrical sites that charge an entrance fee based on where you’re coming from and where you’ll stay. There’s also a swimming pool that’s open from late June to Labor Day, which compensates for the no swimming in the Genesee River rule. Campgrounds include Beaver Meadow, Holiday Hill, Houghton/Letchworth KOA, Maple Grove, the Ridge, Sugar Creek Glen, and Woodstream Campsite/RV Resort.

Have you ever visited the little-known Grand Canyon of the East, Letchworth State Park? Share your adventures with us on our Wide Open Roads Facebook!

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