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History and Facts About Letchworth State Park

Letchworth State Park is my go-to spot for family vacations. The kids and I love it and always look forward to our next adventure there.

If you’re considering taking your family to Letchworth, you might be looking for more information before booking your stay.

This article will explore the park’s illustrious history and share plenty of fascinating facts!  

Where It All Started: The History of Letchworth State Park

Letchworth State Park is a gorgeous, sprawling park of more than 14,427 acres, but have you ever stopped and wondered how it came to be? So did I, so I decided to do some digging into its history. Here’s what I uncovered.

William Pryor Letchworth, the park’s namesake, gave up the land that was to become Letchworth State Park in 1906. Soon after, the state governor, Charles Evan Hughes, made the park official.

William’s only conditions? He wanted to live there for life and insisted the American Scientific and Historic Preservation Society custodially oversee the land.

Letchworth himself was a philanthropist and retired businessman. William’s Glen Iris Estate, which spans 1,000 acres, had been a passion project for over half a century. The land sits on Western New York’s Seneca territory. Its location is atop a cliffside, where it has optimal views.

From the home, one can see the Genesee River traveling through the Seneca-named Sehgahunda Valley and Letchworth State Park’s Middle Falls. The home is named after the Greek goddess of rainbows.

The Seneca had once occupied these lands, but after the events of the American Revolutionary War, they were forced to vacate. William saw a golden opportunity and jumped on it.

William Webster, a famed landscape architect, designed there roadways and paths around the park. It wasn’t William Letchworth’s idea to plant bushes and trees around the area, but his architect’s. That’s why you can enjoy the sights of dogwoods, oaks, and red and white pines there today.

The tract that leads to the estate is considered the heart of the park. You can still visit the Glen Iris Inn when you come to the park.

Fun Facts About Letchworth State Park

You can keep the kids entertained in the car on the ride to Letchworth State Park for a few minutes by informing them of its rich history. Why not throw in these fascinating facts as well to get them excited about the vacation?

It’s nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the East

You’d have to go all the way southwest to see the real Grand Canyon in Arizona. Why do that when you can pack up the car and take the family to Letchworth State Park instead?

You might wonder why Letchworth is known as the Grand Canyon of the East. That’s simple!

The deep gorge that cuts through the center of the park (and extends 550 feet deep in some parts) is reminiscent of the Grand Canyon.

It’s one of the best hiking spots in the state

If you love a vacation where your heart rate pumps and you work up a good sweat, you’ll sincerely enjoy Letchworth State Park. The hiking trails here comprise more than 65 miles of the park, which isn’t even that much considering its gargantuan size!

The park has more than 20 trails, and one is a secret trail. The other trails are numbered so you can easily find them on a map and traverse them.

One of the longest is the Letchworth Finger Lakes Trail through the Mount Morris Dam, which is over 52 miles long. You won’t want to hike that one with very young kids, and even if you do tackle it, you need adequate prep, such as hydration, snacks, and comfortably fitting hiking gear.

Don’t be intimidated, as most of the trails at Letchworth aren’t nearly as demanding. That’s one of my favorite parts of the park, how it has trails for all difficulty levels.

Some trails are well under a mile long, like the one-mile Trout Pond Trail Loop, so even the little ones can feel like experienced hikers!

Few New York state parks are bigger

With over 14,000 acres to its name, Letchworth State Park beats out many New York state parks in the size department. However, it’s not the largest.

The Minnewaska State Park Preserve is an impressive 22,279 acres, but the biggest state park is Allegany State Park, which is 64,800 acres.

By comparison, the State Park at the Fair in Onondaga County, which opens when the Great New York State Fair comes to town, is the smallest state park. It’s only an acre!

You just might find a blessing

Blessings are all around you at Letchworth State Park, and no, I don’t mean the mystifying nature. If you venture onto any of the hiking trails, you might just spot a rolled-up dollar bill on the ground.

This is no accident. Hikers here actively participate in the Dollar Blessings ritual. They’ll write a message blessing the recipient and attach it to the dollar bill, then roll the whole thing up and leave it for someone to find.

You can leave your own inspirational messages if you wish. You might just make someone’s whole vacation.

Waterfalls, waterfalls everywhere

Letchworth State Park has dozens of falls from the flowing tributaries on the park grounds. However, people clamber to see the three starring falls: Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls.

You can reach any of the falls by the park’s main road, but make sure you pack a raincoat. You and the kiddos could get wet depending on how the falls flow!

It was once declared the country’s best state park

In 2015, USA Today ran a poll seeking the best state park in the country. The people resoundingly voted Letchworth the top spot.

The Portage Viaduct is named after Portage Falls

Portage Falls is a historically important part of Letchworth for more than being home to the main three waterfalls. This was also the tract of land William Pryor Letchworth purchased and where he eventually decided to get the Glen Iris Estate built.

The Portage Bridge or Portage Viaduct is the unofficial moniker of the Genesee Arch Bridge.

The Genesee Arch Bridge is the third iteration

Speaking of the park’s famed bridge, it’s not the one that existed during William Letchworth’s time.

The first bridge was erected before he owned the land. It was built from timber and burned in a fire in 1875. The second bridge was sturdier with an iron construction.

The most current Genesee Arch Bridge was built in 2017. The bridge still transports the Norfolk Southern Railway’s Southern Tier Line trains to and fro.

You can (and should) visit all year long

New York is a beauteous state that experiences all four seasons. Although you might plan a getaway to warmer climes in the winter, I’d argue that Letchworth is even more fun in the winter.

The vast hills and mountainous cliffsides become focal points for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling.

You will also contend with fewer crowds but be forewarned that you can’t access every park entrance in the winter.

When the cold thaws, Letchworth comes alive with swimming, kayaking, whitewater rafting, guided tours, performing arts and history programs, and nature programs. You can even see hot air balloons drifting peacefully through the air, which my family had a blast doing when we visited.

You can learn about Native American history

Remember, William Pryor Letchworth bought and developed land that belonged to the Seneca tribe. That history isn’t forgotten or paved over at all.

In fact, the William Prior Letchworth Museum showcases Seneca artifacts. You also shouldn’t miss the Mary Jemison statue, an ode to a frontierswoman who was kidnapped and later acclimated into the Seneca tribe.

I wrote a detailed guide about the statue here. Give it a read if you plan to add a visit to the statue to your travel itinerary.