It is one of the shining jewels of the state parks system and owes its existence to a 19th century Buffalo industrialist and ardent conservationist. Letchworth State Park is a world-class leaf-peeping destination right in our own backyard.
Dubbed the "Grand Canyon of the East," Letchworth may be much smaller than Arizona's canyon and is largely unknown outside New York State, but it is still a spectacular gorge.
It is here that the Genesee River runs fast and deep between towering rock walls, forming a 17-mile gorge with three major waterfalls.
The park is named after William Pryor Letchworth, who rescued and preserved the area. The park's creator first spotted the area while returning from a trip to New York City on the Erie Railway. A newsboy came through the cars with handbills touting the upcoming bridge as "the longest and highest wooden bridge in the United States, if not in the world; and one of the grandest views on the Western continent."
Letchworth was overcome by the scene. A perfect rainbow arched over the waterfall. He saw the beauty in spite of the lumber operations that had scarred the river's banks and all but devastated the area.
He soon set about buying a large house he had seen near the gorge and as much land as he could. Letchworth liked the word iris, a synonym for rainbow, and named his estate Glen Iris. He continued to buy land in the valley and eventually had 700 acres.
From the beginning, Letchworth not only shared the beauty of Glen Iris with family, friends and the public who journeyed by train, but during the summer he brought children from Buffalo orphanages for two-week stays in the fresh air. He always intended Glen Iris as a place where the public would be welcome.
Letchworth retired early from business and devoted himself to social reform. His efforts bettered the lives of thousands of Indians, the poor, juvenile delinquents, prisoners, epileptics, the blind and the mentally ill.
He was an early conservationist and transformed the once scarred landscape into a place of unspoiled beauty. Nearly every species of North American tree grows here, thanks to Letchworth.
Millions of years of geological history are evident in the rock formations throughout the park, where shale and sandstone formed during the Devonian period under the shallow interior seas. Tens of millions of years of erosion wore great depths of rock, forming river valleys. Glaciers deposited large masses of material blocking the original valleys. The 17 miles of winding, deep canyons and valleys of the Genesee Gorge are a product of glacial blocking of an early river bed. Each year the river cuts deeper into the dramatic cliffs, some of which are already 600 feet high.
The history of the lands and Letchworth is told through a slide show, artifacts, books and displays in the William Pryor Letchworth Museum. The park now comprises 14,350 acres of magnificent scenery: dramatic cliffs along the Genesee that rise to 600 feet in places; three waterfalls (one 107 feet high); lush forests, many planted by Letchworth; a perfect country inn and restaurant, the Glen Iris (Letchworth's former home); and three houses available for rent, as well as cabins and campsites.
It's often possible to see the rainbow that so enchanted Letchworth just beyond Middle Falls. Although every season has its special charms, most visitors agree that the park is at its best on a fine fall day when the colors are at their peak. The Glen Iris, which started life as a simple frame home in the 1820s, is usually booked two years or more in advance for fall weekends. It boasts a wonderful wraparound pillared porch filled with rocking chairs.
The park has swimming pools, guided nature walks and a stocked trout pond. Animals abound. But this is not a preserve; the animals are wild and the park is open for hunting in limited areas in the fall; a special permit is required.
Pick up a trail map at the inn's front desk and put on your walking shoes. You'll return eager for a fine meal in the spacious dining room.
For a special treat and an extraordinary view of the park and the park's wildlife, take a ride over the park and surrounding countryside with Balloons Over Letchworth. Because the balloons are so quiet, they don't disturb wildlife, and it's commonplace to see whitetail deer lopping along, seemingly taking you on a tour of their park.
The balloons go up only when weather conditions are ideal during early morning or early evening, when the winds are the lightest. In the French tradition, each flight ends with champagne. The champagne tradition developed as a way to calm French farmers who were upset when balloons landed in their fields.
The 10-passenger balloon is launched at the Middle/Upper Falls picnic area, 1,000 feet south of the Glen Iris Inn under the direction of pilot/owner Sean Quigley. He likes to recall that he became fascinated with hot air balloons as a 10-year-old reader of Popular Mechanics. In 1987 he bought his first hot air balloon and is still enchanted with ballooning and the park.
One of the highlights of the fall season is the Letchworth Arts & Crafts Show and Sale. This year will be the 30th annual show and, as always, it will held during Columbus Day weekend, Oct. 8-10.
Other Letchworth adventures include ranger-led hikes, horseback riding, sleigh rides and rafting and canoeing.
The park's creator was also determined to preserve the region's rich Indian lore. In 1871, he relocated the last remaining Genesee Valley Seneca council house near Glen Iris. After months of planning, Letchworth conducted the Last Council of the Genesee to rededicate the Council House on Oct. 1, 1872. No such council had been held for 70 years and none has been held since.
Letchworth extended invitations to descendants of Indian leaders. Spectators included former president Millard Fillmore and a descendant of the famed Indian leader, Red Jacket.
After the ceremony, the Indians had a surprise for Letchworth -- they wanted to adopt him into the Seneca Nation, the highest honor they could give him. In a solemn ceremony they named him Hai-wa-ye-is-ta, "the man who always does the right thing."
Letchworth then had the remains of Mary Jemison -- the legendary White Woman of the Genesee -- moved from a cemetery in Buffalo to the council house grounds. As a young girl, Jemison had been kidnapped by a Shawnee war party and was later adopted by the Senecas. She lived out her long life as a Seneca in the shadow of the gorge. Letchworth had a statue erected marking Jemison's final resting place. She is depicted with long braided hair and with her baby strapped to her back.
In 1906, he deeded his land and home to the state. He died four years later at his beloved home and is buried in Buffalo's Forest Lawn.
> Mapping it out
For park information, call (585) 493-3600 or visit www.nysparks.state.ny.us.
Other useful Web sites are www.wyomingcountyny.com or www.letchworthadventure.com There are 270 campsites in the park which are $19 per night and $3 extra on weekends. Some cabins are open year-round and are $28-$85 per night and include an electric stove, refrigerator, cots and tables and chairs.
For information or reservations for the Glen Iris Inn, call (585) 493-2622 or visit www.glenirisinn.com. The inn is open until Oct. 30 and reopens in March. The 16 rooms in the inn are $80-$175 for doubles and the seven units in the nearby Pinewood Lodge are $85. The inn also operates three houses in the park that are open year-round. The houses are Caroline's Cottage, $185 per night for up to six people with a kitchen, living room, bathroom and three bedrooms; the Stone House, $285 per night for up to eight people with a living rooms, fireplace, sunroom, patio, kitchen, 2 1/2 bathrooms and four bedrooms; and the Chalet; $285 per night for up to eight people with three bedrooms, kitchen, living room and bathroom.
Balloons Over Letchworth: (585) 493-3340, www.balloonsoverletchworth.com. The cost is $199 per person.
Adventure Calls Rafting operates rafting and canoeing in the park; (888) 270-2410.
Wolcott Farm operates horseback riding and sleigh rides in the park; (585) 786-3504, www.wolcottfarms.com.
Take the Thruway to Route 400 Aurora Expressway;
Take the East Aurora exit
Turn left on to Route 20A East and follow 20A to Warsaw;
At main intersection, turn right on Route 19 south;
Continue to Route 19A to Denton Corners Road. There will be signs for Letchworth State Park;
Turn left on Denton Corners Road and that will lead you into the Castile entrance. Follow signs to Glen Iris Inn and other park attractions.