If the Grand Canyon holds a spot on your family travel bucket list and you’re waiting for the forces of time and budget to align, Letchworth State Park in western New York may be the temp fix for you. When researching the trip, it’s hard to miss the fact that in 2015 Letchworth won the top slot in USA Today’s national readership poll of the best state park in the U.S. (the accolade is widely referenced on every website). And when you visit, it’s easy to see why it earned that distinction.

photo: Chris Waits via Flickr

Yeah, It’s “Gorges”
Dramatic, stunning, awe-inspiring, and even mind-boggling are adjectives that leap to mind when describing Letchworth State Park. Letchworth straddles 17 winding miles of a great gorge that the mighty Genesee River created over tens of millions of years. The cliffs that line the river reach 500 feet high, offering breathtaking views of the park’s three magnificent waterfalls and other river vistas. And unlike its sister canyon in Arizona, Letchworth is thickly forested and verdant, making for cooler hikes even on hot days.

Hikes and Views Abound
Taking in one-of-a-kind views is what you do at Letchworth, and the crew that maintains the park’s 66 miles of trails makes trekking easy for hikers of all ages and experience levels. With 17 miles of gorge to explore, we drove to specific trailheads and designated scenic views and explored from there. (Parking is included in a budget-friendly $10 park permit.)

Flat, paved or gravel paths run near the rim of the gorge and from many of these, you can take stone stairs or well-maintained dirt or paved paths closer down to the river. These offshoots can be steep—and some 100 steps or more—but from our experience, all sets of stairs had railings to hold onto. The signage throughout the park is great—informing visitors of direction, history, and the natural landscape along the way.

photo: Peter Hoffman via Flickr

East Meets West — In One Spot
Currently there is only one stone footbridge that connects the western and eastern halves of the park. It is located near the Lower Falls and from mid-span, you get terrific views all around. From the parking area, it takes about an hour at an easy pace to reach the bridge. The Middle and Upper Falls can be done from the same parking area, although you should allow yourself time for a break between the two. Pack a picnic or dine on freshly-prepared concession fare and ice cream at the nearby kiosk.

Human and Natural History Intertwined
As you wander through the park, you can’t help but wonder how it all came to be—both by nature and man. Two terrific facilities—the William Pryor Letchworth Museum and the new Humphrey Nature Center—are there to give you the scoop and help you understand why Letchworth was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

The small, eclectic, and well-curated museum dates back to 1913. It contains ample background on the life and times of William Pryor Letchworth—an iron magnate who donated the parkland to the state in 1906—as well as a fairly random but interesting collection of Native American artifacts, historical curios from the Genesee Valley, and archeological finds including a gigantic mastodon skull with horns that Letchworth purchased in 1876. It is well worth a visit.

photo: Trisha G. via Yelp

A Brand New Nature Center 
The 5,000-square-foot nature center, which Governor Cuomo opened in July, is full of hands-on, multimedia exhibits designed to teach children (and their parents) about the area’s insects, wildlife, trees, geology—and the importance of conservation.

Guides are on hand to answer questions about any display, or to pull out a box of animal pelts or skulls that is sure to draw in the little ones. Wending around the surrounding woods is the Story Trail. Displays of colorful book pages invite children to hike along a wide, flat path and solve the mystery of whether a girl named Melanie is a mammal.

Thanks to Mr. Letchworth’s appreciation for history and his ability to purchase important artifacts, the park is also home to an original Seneca Council House where Native American leaders once held court as well as the cabin, statue, and gravesite of Nancy Jemison a white woman who was raised since childhood by a Seneca tribe.

photo: Cheryl and William de Jong-Lambert

Fall for Letchworth (and Winter, and Spring)
Letchworth is an all-season park. The combination of the tree varieties and climate of the park make it simple stunning in autumn, and in winter, designated areas are open for snow tubing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. Some cabins have heat and are available to rent all year round. Numerous events are held within the park, including the legendary Red, White and Blue Balloon Rally each spring.

One seasonal note: Ordinarily rafting and kayaking are signature experiences at Letchworth, and available through late October. However this year, due to the past winter’s light precipitation these activities ceased in July. For future seasons, reservations must be made through Adventure Calls Outfitters; visitors cannot bring their own craft.

photo via: Letchworth Park Facebook page

Camping and Logistics
There are five cabin areas in the park—A through E—with lodgings of different sizes and amenities, such as indoor plumbing and screened-in porches. All have outdoor barbecue grills and fire pits, and indoor electricity, stoves and apartment-sized refrigerators.

Prices range from $33 per night to $128. Seven-day stays are required during peak summer season but the daily rate is discounted to $133 to $512 per week. We stayed in Area D on the less-traveled eastern side of the park, which is home to more rustic hiking trails to the various falls and viewpoints in the gorge, and it includes the Parade Grounds where troops trained before joining the Civil War.

The outhouse building had seven private full bathrooms and was new and pristine. Check in and pick up the key to your padlocked abode at the Visitor Center; the park entrance fee is $10 but it is refunded if you camp.

Glen Iris Inn photo: Jane B. via Yelp

To Stay in Style
Other lodging options include numerous tent sites, the Glen Iris Inn—Mr. Letchworth’s former home—located inside the park, and several hotels around the outskirts. If you camp, you can get provisions at the Save-A-Lot grocery store in nearby Mount Morris, but if you have favorite marinades, salad dressings, dips, and cereals, you should pack them. And while you can’t dip into the Genesee River, there is a swimming complex with an Olympic-sized pool that gets up to four feet deep and a separate 10-foot-deep pool with two diving boards.

Online: nysparks.com

What is your favorite state park for camping, hiking, and history? Tell us in the comments below!

— Cheryl deJong-Lambert

Your daily dose of joy and connection
Get the Tinybeans app