There are tons of things to do in Letchworth State Park! Get outdoors, go hiking, chase waterfalls, and much more at America’s most popular state park in upstate New York.
Table of Contents
- 1 Things to Do in Letchworth State Park
- 2 Letchworth State Park Map
- 3 Drop by the Visitor Center
- 4 View the Mt. Morris Dam
- 5 Stop at Overlooks
- 6 Chase Waterfalls
- 7 Check Out the New Genesee Arch Bridge
- 8 Dine at the Glen Iris Inn
- 9 Visit the Letchworth Museum
- 10 Tour the Jemison Homestead and Council Grounds
- 11 Take a Hike
- 12 More Things to Do in Letchworth State Park
- 13 Design Your Own Upstate New York Road Trip
- 14 Map It!
- 15 We Would Love to Hear From You
- 16 Pin this Post!
Things to Do in Letchworth State Park
The opportunity to experience Letchworth was part of a two-week upstate New York road trip with my frequent sidekick Melody Pittman. Along the route, we sampled the Finger Lakes wine country, toured Civil Rights historical sites, explored haunted trails, encountered spirits at Lily Dale Assembly, drove the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway, and visited the site of the 1969 Woodstock Festival.
Melody and I were joined by our colleagues Elaine Warner and Vanessa Orr for select segments of our road journey, including our visit to Letchworth.
Our packed itinerary only allowed us a full morning and part of the afternoon to explore America’s #1 State Park, but we were determined to experience as much outdoor adventure as we could fit into our allotted time.
Letchworth State Park Map
Map Credit: Letchworth State Park
Located 40 miles south of Rochester and 60 miles west of Buffalo, Letchworth State Park is home to a natural wonder voted the Best New York State Attraction.
Dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East,” this 17-mile stretch of the Genesee River flows over three major waterfalls and through a rocky gorge with steep walls nearly 600 feet high.
There are six main entrances to the park. We arrived at the Mt. Morris entrance situated at the north end, and ultimately drove the full length of the west side of the park and back.
Let’s be perfectly clear. There are more things to do in Letchworth State Park than there is time in a single day. In this post, I will share highlights from our visit and conclude with a list of additional park features, activities, and lodging options to consider when planning a visit of your own.
Click the map image above to download a PDF copy you can enlarge for a closer look at select regions of the park.
Drop by the Visitor Center
The visitor center is typically my first stop when visiting state and national parks, but since we would be accompanied by a park naturalist, we got on with our tour.
Travel planners should note that the Letchworth Visitor Center is located near the south end of the park, closer to the Portageville and Castile entrances.
View the Mt. Morris Dam
The first stop on our drive through the park was to observe the largest concrete dam east of the Mississippi River from inside Letchworth.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed construction on the Mt. Morris Dam in 1952. Known as a dry dam, the primary purpose of the project is flood control, protecting downstream areas, including the city of Rochester, as the Genesee River winds its way north to Lake Ontario.
The viewing area for the dam inside the park features interpretive panels and a giant chair for photo ops.
Interested guests may want to exit the park and drive to the William B. Hoyt II Visitor Center located on the east bank of the Genesee Gorge for a free guided tour of the Mt. Morris Dam and Recreation Area.
Stop at Overlooks
Stopping for panoramic views along the Genesee Gorge is one of the best things to do in Letchworth State Park. The driving route includes multiple overlooks with pullovers or parking areas guaranteed to offer postcard vistas of the park’s natural features.
There is no doubt how the unique rock formation called Hogsback Ridge got its name. This peninsula composed of four layers of shale, juts like a knife into the canyon, forcing the river that eroded its banks to make an abrupt loop on its northern journey.
Letchworth State Park also has a rich human history. The Gardeau Overlook encompasses a view of nearly 18,000 acres of land once known as the Gardeau Reservation.
The region’s most renowned resident was Mary Jemison, a woman of Scotch-Irish descent who at age fifteen in 1758 was captured in a Shawnee raid during the French and Indian War. Adopted by the Seneca Nation, Mary assimilated into the native community, ultimately raising a family and becoming the respected “White Woman of the Genesee.”
Jemison’s amazing life story has been recounted in multiple biographical and fictional accounts, most notably in the 1942 Newbery Honor-winning novel Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison by Lois Lenski.
The overlook at Wolf Creek offers a mere peek at the ravine where the water plunges 225 feet to the river below in four cascades (Wide Expanse, Zig Zag, Block & Waggle, and Shower Curtain).
Sadly, there is no access to view the entire falls, except from below on a whitewater rafting trip during the warmer months.
Park guests may be consoled by a stellar view of the Genesee Gorge at Wolf Creek.
The overlook also has restroom facilities and a landline phone booth to compensate for spotty mobile phone coverage within the park.
Archery Field Overlook
The Archery Field overlook is the highest point in the park and features a grand view of the gorge as the Genesee River makes its most dramatic turn.
It seems that not all travel writers can read. While at the Archery Field overlook, I may or may not have encouraged one of them to pose for a mischievous picture. And one of them may or may not have been busted by a park maintenance worker.
It should come as no surprise that of all the things to do in Letchworth State Park, chasing waterfalls would rank at the top of my list.
The Letchworth website reports that within the 14,427-acre park there are as many as fifty waterfalls on tributaries that flow into the gorge. But without question, the three massive falls on the Genesee River itself are the stars of the park.
Park visitors can view the top of the 70-feet high Lower Falls by taking a short walk from the parking area.
A better option is to take the 127-step Lower Falls Trail into the gorge for a full view of the falls. The trail also provides access to the east side of the park by way of a stone foot bridge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1935.
At 107 feet, the Middle Falls are the highest in the park. Visitors can enjoy expansive views of the falls from various levels and angles at the site.
In my opinion, the Upper Falls is the most picturesque of the three main waterfalls in the gorge. Like the Lower Falls it measures 70 feet high.
Check Out the New Genesee Arch Bridge
Former park visitors may notice that the train trestle above the Upper Falls has a new look. Opened in December of 2017, the Genesee Arch Bridge replaced the 1875 Portageville Bridge.
I know what you are thinking. Yes, the arched bridge would provide a stunning view of the gorge, however the trestle is not accessible to foot traffic. A small parking area near the southern tip of the park does offer a great way to get up close and personal with the bridge itself.
Dine at the Glen Iris Inn
On day trips, Jerry and I typically pack a cooler for picnics and roadside pullovers. And picnicking definitely ranks among things to do in Letchworth State Park.
That said, I highly recommend that Letchworth first-timers consider making reservations for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner at the historic Glen Iris Inn.
Perched on a bluff above the Middle Falls, the Glen Iris Inn is the former country estate of William Pryor Letchworth, businessman and benefactor of the state park that bears his name.
The manicured estate grounds are beautifully landscaped, and in warmer months guests are met with an explosion of flowers in bloom.
The restaurant, Caroline’s at the Glen Iris Inn, is named for Caroline Bishop, Mr. Letchworth’s faithful assistant who became park superintendent following his death.
I typically do not publish this many photos of dishes, but I believe in this case seven pictures paint a thousand words. Soups, salads, sandwiches, comforting entrees, and desserts are served in generous portions, making a Glen Iris meal among the tastiest of things to do in Letchworth State Park.
The Glen Iris Inn also offers twelve standard guest rooms and four luxury suites for guests who want to stay the night.
Visit the Letchworth Museum
The William Pryor Letchworth Museum sits adjacent to the Glen Iris Inn. Prior to his passing, Letchworth made plans “for a museum to house his vast collection” of Seneca and Iroquois artifacts, geological specimens, and a mastodon skull unearthed in the local village of Pike.
Constructed in 1913, the museum is also home to Letchworth’s personal library.
Tour the Jemison Homestead and Council Grounds
William Pryor Letchworth was intrigued with the story of Mary Jemison. When approached by her grandchildren, Letchworth honored her memory by offering a final resting place for her remains in 1874. In 1910, he dedicated a granite marker and statue at the site.
Two historic log structures were moved to this location for preservation. One is an authentic Seneca council house and the other is a cabin originally built by Jemison at the Gardeau Reservation for her daughter Nancy in 1800.
Take a Hike
Nearly thirty hiking trails are listed on the official Letchworth State Park Map & Guide. Most of the trails are short and the difficulty is easy, making them perfect for daytrippers with limited time.
While it may be a time commitment, the 7-mile Gorge Trail offers the best way to experience the river, gorge, and waterfalls.
Select trails also accommodate biking, horseback riding, and in winter cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling.
More Things to Do in Letchworth State Park
During our visit, we barely scratched the surface of things to do in Letchworth State Park.
Attracting one million visitors per year, all with different tastes, Letchworth truly offers activities for everyone, including fishing, whitewater rafting, hot air ballooning, the new Humphrey Nature Center, and special events.
Park facilities boast various food outlets, gift shops, picnic tables and pavilions, grills, playgrounds, playing fields, a swimming pool, and conference centers.
Accommodation options include a lodge, cottages, cabins, as well as tent and trailer campsites with dump stations and showers. During our visit to the area we found lodging outside the park at the Country Inn & Suites by Radisson and the Allegiance Bed & Breakfast, both in Mt. Morris.
Most park facilities are accessible, and if you want to avoid the crowds, a little birdie told us September is a great shoulder season.
As you can see, there are plenty of things to do in Letchworth State Park, but before planning your visit, be sure it consult the park’s varying rates, fees, and hours of operation.
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We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever visited Letchworth State Park? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!