In an effort to be good citizens of New York State and avoid travel to Covid-risky territory, my daughter and I decided on a three-day getaway within the borders of the state we love so much. I’d heard of the “Grand Canyon of the east” and had it on my travel/bucket list. After the very pleasant and scenic drive along Route 17 West, through Orange and Sullivan Counties, and then a right turn north somewhere in Wyoming County, we found ourselves in Perry, New York, a historic town adjacent to Letchworth State Park.
The drive itself took almost five hours from Manhattan, so we knew we’d have one full day in the 14,000-plus state park. It’s shaped like a bolt of lightning at 1 ½ miles wide and 17 miles long. With three magnificent waterfalls, thanks to the Genesee Gorge and the Genesee River, it’s clear why the park has been voted Number 1 in the U.S. (2015), and the Best New York State Attraction (2017).
With almost 30 hiking trails for all levels, and the four-season outdoor activities (fishing, biking, white water rafting, horseback riding, skiing, snowmobiling), it’s the three magnificent waterfalls that draw the crowds. The Genesee River Gorge splits the park in two, and easy walkways along the rim allow visitors spectacular views of the Upper, Middle and Lower Falls.
The Genesee Arch Bridge, completed in 2018, spans the Upper Falls and provides one of the most popular photo spots. For nature enthusiasts, there’s the Humphrey Nature Center which focuses on the geology, wildlife and plants of the area, and interactive exhibits at the Mount Morris Dam & Visitor Center. Get a snack at one of the stands near the falls, or a full lunch at the Glen Iris Inn, the former home of Mr. Letchworth himself.
And what an interesting man he was. Born a Quaker in 1823, William Pryor Letchworth made his fortune in the iron, hardware and saddlery business, and as a young man was able to travel the world, expanding his knowledge of history, art, and social issues. A lifelong bachelor, and with a desire to help his community, he accepted an appointment to New York State Board of Charities and was instrumental in improving the lives of institutionalized children, and the mentally ill. In a Hudson Valley Magazine story from January, 2020, we read that “he pushed for a new, progressive model of care that was a radical departure from the high-rise asylums and decrepit almshouses of the time: a self-contained and self-sustaining village of small cottages on a working farm, which would allow residents a more humane and productive lifestyle under the care of the leading researchers and physicians of the day.” Rockland County’s Letchworth Village, named after him, was modeled on his vision, but fell into disgrace with its overcrowded population and overwhelmed staff; it closed in 1996.
After retiring from public life, Letchworth gifted his land and estate to New York State in order to protect it from power companies who wanted to tap the flow of the Genesee River. He also left his estate, Glen Iris, which is now a country inn and restaurant; historic structures, and a collection of mementos from the 19th century, including tools and items from the Native People. Gazing at the Middle Falls, over 107 feet high and 285 feet wide, it remains just as was during his lifetime, and is a sight to behold.
Letchworth State Park has easy paths along the rim with stone staircases conveniently placed to bring visitors up to specific scenic overlooks. There is an information office, snack stand, gift shops, and plenty of parking throughout the park. Ten dollar entrance fee. Masks required, and social distancing requested.
For accommodations, restaurant information and updates on Covid-restrictions, log on to visitletchworthpark.com.
Photos by MJ Hanley-Goff