Complete Guide to Exploring Letchworth State Park
Letchworth State Park, located in Western, New York has some big shoes to fill. It’s known as the “Grand Canyon of the East”, and as someone who has visited the Grand Canyon, I was hesitant to say that the East Coast had anything similar. But, that was until I visited this incredible park! Letchworth has absolutely earned its nickname, and is a park I can see myself visiting again and again to take in the sights.
At Letchworth State Park, the Genessee River flows through a deep gorge that it’s carved over thousands of years, over several large waterfalls, and through a dam that winds through the end of the park. There are so many sights here, and all of them are accessible to anyone who wants to view them. Well designed facilities, parking areas, and even restaurants, have made this park an incredible place for anyone to explore.
I highly recommend that Letchworth State Park be added to your list of places to travel. And, if you are planning to pass through, keep reading to learn everything you need to know about the sights here, lodging options, food choices, and what to expect in general.
Letchworth State Park Location
Before you can visit Letchworth, you have to know where it is and it’s tucked away in a pretty rural location. Plus, for how beautiful this park is, it’s shocking to me more people don’t know about it, and I do think that it has to do with location. Everyone’s heard of the Grand Canyon, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone whose heard of Letchworth (and that even goes for experienced East Coast hikers).
Letchworth State Park is located in Livingston and Wyoming Counties in New York. It’s an hour away from both Buffalo and Rochester, and about an hour and a half away from Niagara Falls. So, if you’re planning to visit any of those places, throwing Letchworth on your itinerary may be worth it.
When you arrive at the park there are multiple entrances you can take to enter. The park itself takes about 30 minutes to get from top to bottom, so these different entrances help you arrive at the place best for you and your trip.
The main entrance, is the Portageville entrance located in the southern most tip of the park. This is the entrance you’ll take if you just want to get out and see the waterfalls as fast as possible (or you plan to drive to them).
The Perry Entrance is located on the western side of the park, and is the entrance you’ll take if you’ll be camping or staying in any of the lodging in the park. Note, entering here has you about 20-25 minutes away from the waterfalls by car.
The Castle Entrance is located very close to the lower falls. This is a great entrance to take if you want to stop for a quick bite at the Lower Falls Restaurant to eat before hitting the trails or waterfalls. I personally like this entrance for hiking the pink trail downs to the waterfalls and back (total 6.0 miles).
The Mount Morris Entrance is at the northernmost part of the park and is great to take to get to the Dam, the pool, the Hogsback Overlook (the best one in my opinion), or an alternative entrance for the campgrounds.
The Parade Grounds Entrance is a less common entrance because it’s on the east of the river (and you can’t get to the waterfalls/overlooks from the east side). This is the entrance people take if they want to hike the Finger Lakes Trail or if they’re staying in cabins D or E.
The US Army Corp of Engineers also have an entrance on the east side of the park, and this one you’ll use if you plan to do the Mt. Morris Dam tour.
Navigating Inside the Park: Crossing the Genesee River
Before getting inside the park, you’ll want to be certain of which side of the Genessee River you want to be on. Something I was surprised to discover on my visit is that you can’t easily cross over the river from inside the park. To get to the other side of the river, you have to exit the park, drive around it, and then enter the park from a different location. This isn’t exactly convenient.
Most of the waterfalls, overlooks (including for the dam), and most of the lodging are on the western side of the park. So be sure to enter the park on that side if that’s what you’re going to see. If you’re looking to tour the dam or are planning to hike the Finger Lakes Trail, then you’ll want to enter in on the Eastern side.
Where to Stay in Letchworth State Park: Campgounds, Cabins, and Inns
Letchworth State Park definitely gets lodging right. During my visit, I stayed in one of the campsites in the park, and was blown away by the facilities and resources available. It was so easy and convent to stay inside the park, and I absolutely recommend booking a site when planning your visit.
With that said, the park sites get booked up early (I reserved my campsite months in advance). And although they do offer walk-in options if they are available, I wouldn’t count on that. Lodging at Letchworth State Park is definitely something you need to plan in advance.
Camping at Letchworth State Park
There are 8 large camping areas inside Letchworth, and many of them are suitable for tents as well as campers/RVs. Each of these areas hold around 20-30 individual campsites and are situated around a central camp store. Additionally, the area around the camp store has a large field and basketball courts. Just up the road from the campsites is the pool, which I’ll talk more about later in this post.
You’ll reserve the campsites on the state park reservation site, and I highly recommend doing it early. These spots filled up quickly. If you want to see the sites before booking one, you can try the campADK website. But note, it’s not always 100% accurate, so plan at your own risk.
Each camp area has it’s own bathroom facilities. Campground 200 and 700s have recently renovated facilities that are NICE individual stalls with toilets and showers. These are kept exceptionally well cleaned.
As for pets, they are only allowed in the 100, 200, 700, and 800 loops. Pets must be on a leash at all times while in the park, including at the campgrounds.
Cabins in Letchworth State Park
In addition to campgrounds, Letchworth State Park has plenty of cabins (81 to be exact) for people to rent and stay in while visiting the park. Like the campgrounds, these cabins book up very quickly, so if you would like to stay in one while visiting the park then you’ll need to plan to book it months in advance.
The cabins are broken down into groups A-E, each in a different location in the park. In terms of location, cabin groups A and B are the closest to the waterfalls (by far), but neither allow pets. In fact, if you have pets, then the only cabin group you can stay in is cabin group C, which is up near the campgrounds (~20-25 minutes away from the waterfalls).
Cabin groups D and E are actually located on the opposite side of the river as the waterfalls, and if you read the sections above you’ll know that you can’t cross over the river inside the park. So, if you stay in these cabins you’ll need to leave and re-enter at a different entrance to visit the waterfalls. But, these are likely to be the less crowded cabins, so if you want more peace and quiet these are likely the ones you want to go with.
You can reserve a cabin here.
Hotels and Inns In and Around Letchworth State Park
If campgrounds and cabins aren’t your thing (or you went to book and they were all reserved), there are other lodging options inside and outside of the park.
The most well known lodging option is the Glen Iris Inn, located inside Letchworth State Park. This inn has a stunning view of the Middle Falls, and contains a nice resturant. Rooms start at $145 a night (which isn’t a bad rate at all) and you have the benefit of being right outside the falls for the duration of your stay.
If you would prefer to stay outside of the park, there is a Country Inn and Suites available located near the Mt. Morris entrance at the top of the park. It’s so close you can actually see the park entrance from the hotel! But keep in mind that if you stay here, you’ll be about 30 minutes away from the waterfalls.
On the south side of the park, there isn’t a big hotel chain, but there are a few different inns you can stay at, including the Colonial Inn, the Genessee Falls Inn, and the Bottle Tree Bed and Breakfast. Additionally, there are some AirBnBs other cabins/campgrounds surrounding the area.
Keep in mind though that if you aren’t staying inside the park, you will need to pay the daily fee of $10 to enter.
What is There to Do in Letchworth State Park?
Known as the Grand Canyon of the East, visiting Letchworth State Park comes with some high expectations. And although people know of the waterfalls, they may not know what else there is to do outside of the waterfalls when visiting.
But, this park isn’t just about the waterfalls. In fact, my favorite parts of the park weren’t the waterfalls at all. There are so many things to do inside this park, and so you never have to worry about running out of options here.
Visit the Lower Falls, Middle Falls, and Upper Falls
Now, I know I just said that there was more to do in Letchworth than see the waterfalls – but really, most people travel here to view the falls first and foremost. So, let’s start there.
There are three main waterfalls in Letchworth: the lower falls, the middle falls, and the upper falls. All three are located in the southern part of the park.
If you enter from the south, you’ll hit the upper falls and middle falls first. These two waterfalls are located very close (walking distance) to each other and there are concrete paths in between them for people to visit. These are entirely accessible, and I even saw older people using walkers to visit the falls – so really, these are something everyone can see and experience.
Farther up the road (~1-2 miles) is the lower falls. For these, you do need to be able to walk down stone steps to be able to truly view them. There is an “easy viewpoint” for people who can’t, but it’s honestly not a great view and easily overlooked. But if you can hike down to them you’ll get a beautiful view of the falls from the lookout area down the stairs.
If you’re hiking the pink trail to see the falls, there is a fourth waterfalls just north of the lower falls that doesn’t have a name. You get just a glimpse of it from the trail, but it’s beautiful to see and you don’t have to share the views with others (as you do at any of the other falls view points).
Viewing the Overlooks at Letchworth State Park
Before visiting Letchworth, I knew that there were overlooks, but the reality of the views here are truly nothing at all what I expected. They were so much better. In fact, my favorite part of visiting Letchworth were the overlooks and I could have spent way too much time at each of them. As this is a gorge/canyon – these views are truly incredible.
If you’re driving up the main road in the park, then once you drive past the lower falls heading north, you’ll start to pass by each of the overlooks. There are 6 main overlooks in the southern part of the park. Of these my favorite was Tea Table, which is the northernmost overlook in this group.
What I loved about Tea Table was that there were several picnic areas and the view was just amazing. I ended up traveling back down here from my campsite to eat breakfast at Tea Table on my last morning in the park, and it was absolutely fantastic.
However, there is one overlook, the Hogsback overlook, in the northern side of the park that I almost skipped, and am so glad I didn’t. This overlook outdid every one of the other overlooks (in my opinion). The view here was breathtaking and is entirely worth the trip up to this side of the park. Keep in mind it’s about 25 minutes away from the waterfalls, and probably about 15 minutes away from the Tea Table overlook.
Hiking Trails and Letchworth State Park
Hiking trails are prevalent in Letchworth State Park with over 29 trails to choose from. These ranges from 0.5 miles all the way up to 24 miles. Most are 5.0 miles or less, so there are plenty of options for those looking for casual hikes
With so many options to choose from, how do you choose which hikes to take?
My main recommendation is to take the #1 pink trail, also known as the Gorge Trail. This is 7.0 miles one way, and starts at upper falls and heads all the way up to the Tea Table overlook. Now, I don’t actually recommend hiking it that way. I mean, if you want to do a 14.0 mile trek (out and back) more power to you – but I’d think for most people visiting the park that this may be beyond their ability.
Instead, I recommend starting the Gorge trail at the lower falls and then walk south to the upper falls and back. In total this is a 6.0 mile trek and there are a few features that I think make it worth it. First, the elevation climbs on the way out, and then decreases on the way back. I personally like to do the hard part of the hike at the beginning, and by starting at the lower falls you are able to do just that.
Second, since you cover all three main falls in one hike, the next day you can come back and do the rest of the gorge trail in the opposite direction. This will take you to all the main overlooks. This path also has the same elevation structure – where you’ll be climbing up on your way out, and going down on your way back.
If you’re looking for recommendations beyond the gorge trail, some of my other favorites are below:
The Highbanks trail (green #20) has excellent views, including of the Hogsback overlook (which is my favorite one). This is an easy trail for a total of nearly 5 miles one direction. No need to do the entire trail, and in fact at the northern most part it becomes a little overgrown. But you can start at the Cabins and head up to the overlook, dam, and back for some great canyon views.
The St. Helena trail (purple #13) is an great trail for those with younger kids. It’s flat, easy, and runs through the riverbed providing plenty of rocks for kids to throw into the river. There is also a picnic area to eat lunch or snacks. This trail is 1.25 miles one way.
The Fingerlakes trail (yellow FLT) is the longest trail in the mark at 24 miles one way, but that’s because it’s a section of the much larger, 580-mile Finger Lakes Trail that extends from the NY/PA border to the Catskills. There aren’t a ton of unique views here, but if you’re looking to hike a section (or all) of the FLT then this is a great trail to check out.
Visiting the Morris Dam
The Mount Morris Dam is located in the North End of the park, closest to the Mt. Morris Entrance. It’s a pretty large Dam, and was constructed in the 1940s by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to reduce flooding in the downstream cities (including Rochester).
If you’re just looking to catch a glimpse of the Dam, there is an overlook area (with gift shop) at the north end of the park, accessible by the Mt. Morris Entrance (or from driving up Park Rd. from the south). However, if you want a more immersive experience you’ll actually need to leave the park, cross the river, and enter at the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers entrance.
At this entrance there is a visitors center, and is also the starting place for the regular Dam tours that occur each day starting at 10am. You do need tickets for this tour, which you can reserve here. As of August 2022 they are free (with a $1 processing fee if booking online). You can reserve in person, but need to get there at least 20 minutes early. During the tour you actually get to go inside the dam and learn more about the history of the structure.
This is a great, historical activity for the entire family and is also a great way to beat the heat should you be visiting on a particularly warm summers day.
Letchworth Swimming Pool
Sitting in between the campgrounds and the Morris Dam sits the Letchworth swimming pool and recreation center. The Harvey Pool is open to everyone who paid the entry fee into the park (or is camping/lodging there) for no additional cost.
This is a massive pool where there is plenty of room to swim even on the most crowded days. Lifeguards are present and do an excellent job of looking out for kids and swimmers in the water. There is also a deep in and diving area for those looking to jump into the water vs. just walk and wade.
Surrounding the pool is plenty of areas to lay out in the sun, and surrounding those is a massive pool house with a snack bar, bathrooms and showers. Visiting the pool is an excellent way to cool down after a long day of sight-seeing or hiking.
Hot Air Balloon Rides in Letchworth State Park
Hot air balloon rides are one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that you can’t experience everywhere, but you can experience it at Letchworth State Park. Balloons Over Letchworth offers hot air balloon rides over the park, allowing you to get a very unique and individualized view of the falls, overlook, and the entire park.
These trips start at $365 per person and last for about 45 minutes in the air (although they say to plan for 3-4 hours for the entire trip). It is a bit pricey, but when else will you get a chance to go into a hot air balloon?
White Water Rafting From Letchworth State Park
White water rafting is for the adventurous among us (aka not me) but if that’s your thing, then you can absolutely find that in Letchworth State Park. Adventure Calls Outfitters operates out of the park and offers white water rafting trips from April – October for $50 per person (that’s in addition to the $10 car fee for entrance into the park). These trips are around 2.5 hours and are for Class I and II rapids.
If you’re looking for longer trips, or add-ons they do have them available for an additional cost (they even have an overnight trip). I suggest checking out their site and reserving early if you plan to white water raft while visiting the park.
Winter Activities in Letchworth State Park
Just because it’s cold and snowy, don’t write off visiting Letchworth State Park in the winter. There is plenty to do here, and you get the added benefit that entrance to the park is free in the winter!
Now, with traveling here in the winter you should be aware that some roads inside the park, and some entrances are closed. I’d recommend calling ahead to make sure you have the full lay of the land of what will be open when you’re visiting so that you aren’t surprised.
Now when visiting, the views of the falls are incredible in the winter. Expect lots of frozen water, icicles, and several inches of snow. Other activities available in the park include snow tubing, cross country skiing, and snowmobiling. You can even hike (or really snow-shoe), if you have the right equipment (none is available for rent).
The main trail for these activities include the main park rd (that is open for driving in the summer), as this takes you by the overlooks and even the falls. The Highbanks Recreation area, near the northern end of the park, is the main hub and warming center for all outdoor winter activities.
Food Options Inside (or Nearby) Letchworth State Park
One thing I loved about Letchworth State Park is that you never need to worry about food while in the park. There are several food places inside the park, from snack bars near the pool up to full sit-down restaurants at the Glen Iris Inn.
If you’re looking for food, go to any major landmark and there will be a center there with some type of food available (and typically gifts as well). The lower falls, upper falls, dam, pool and campsites all have a facility offering food and gifts. Many of these places also include Perry Ice Cream (which is absolutely delicious)!
For most of these places, the average cost of a meal is $10-$15 depending on what you get and if you want extras/drinks on top of just the food. The Glen Iris Inn is more expensive as it’s a fancier sit-down place and you should expect to pay $20-$60 for a meal, depending on what all you decide to order.
If you decide you want to head out of the park, my recommendation is to head towards Nunda, NY. It’s a short drive a way, but I think it’s worth it to get something a bit different. If you do want to head this way I’d recommend stopping by the Whistling Farmer Pub. I had an excellent lunch here one day and we loved their farm to table options.
Other Tips to Remember if Visiting Letchworth State Park
Letchworth State Park is consistently ranked as one of the best state parks in New York. The activities combined with the natural beauty of this place is unparalleled and is definitely a park you don’t want to miss.
Since it is such a popular place to visit, expect to be around people at least for portions of your trip, and if you do want to make reservations be sure to do so early.
Overall, I highly recommend this park to anyone looking to get a fantastic State Park experience and hope you find time to make it out there for a visit!
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