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Time Out: The Grand Canyon of the East

Letchworth State Park, to many Rochesterians, is a place to have a picnic, take a hike or stare at giant waterfalls on a lazy summer afternoon.
But to international travelers en route from New York City to Niagara Falls, Letchworth is a convenient-and breathtaking-overnight destination.
“We see people from all over the world. It’s amazing how many people know of Letchworth State Park,” says Maureen Tillotson, innkeeper and general manager of the park’s historic Glen Iris Inn. “Germans love to hike; people from England love the countryside.”
Letchworth lies in rural Livingston and Wyoming counties. Its northern entrance in Mt. Morris is a 45-minute drive from Rochester. The Genesee River winds through its heart, chiseling the gorge over thousands of years on its way to Lake Ontario. The park stretches from Mt. Morris to Portageville, the hamlet that anchors the southern end 17 miles away.
Anyone who has witnessed the magnitude of the Grand Canyon in Arizona might scoff at Letchworth’s nickname, the Grand Canyon of the East. But in a region of rolling farmland, the 600-foot-deep gorge is a jarring, dramatic sight. Brilliant orange, yellow and red leaves blanket the gorge walls and rims in autumn; hawks float in circles. The river spills over three thundering waterfalls-Upper, Middle and Lower Falls-and numerous overlooks bring visitors close enough to feel the mist.
The park has three distinct areas: The wider, more open gorge and Mt. Morris Dam at the northern end; the flats in the center, where Mary Jemison, a white woman raised by Seneca Indians, lived; and the south, which boasts the waterfalls and the deepest gorge.

Up, up and away

For amazing views from April to October, Sean Quigley will take you up in a hot air balloon and fly right over it all. Flights take off at sunrise and sunset only, when thermal activity is at its lowest.
“People have the misconception that it’s going to be like a Darien Lake ride,” says Quigley, owner of Balloons over Letchworth. “But it’s very calm and gentle. They think the basket’s going to swing and sway and it doesn’t. … If you’re flying level, you could light a candle and it wouldn’t even flicker.”
Balloon rides, by reservation only, take 45 minutes to an hour. Plan on 2 1/2 to three hours from start to finish, including champagne and hors d’oeuvres before a drive back to your car at the launch site, a picnic area between the Upper and Middle falls.
Letchworth is popular year-round, with two swimming pools, 66 miles of hiking trails that hug the gorge and wind through the woods, and paths for horseback riding, biking, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. The park has programs in nature, history and the performing arts; guided walks; and a summer lecture series. Adventure Calls Outfitters offers whitewater rafting and kayaking trips on the Genesee.
The park is busy in the winter, too, with ice skating, snow tubing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and horse-drawn sleigh rides. Admission is $6 per car on weekends (extends to weekdays May 21 through Oct. 23).

Stay the night

The park has overnight accommodations for a variety of budgets and tastes, from quaint inns and guest houses to rustic cabins and campsites. Most of them are located at the park’s southern end.
The jewel of the park is the Glen Iris Inn, perched above the thundering 107-foot Middle Falls. Glen Iris once was the home of William Letchworth, a businessman from Buffalo who bought the house for a country retreat in the mid-1800s. Before he died in 1910, Letchworth bequeathed the inn and surrounding acres to the people of New York as a permanent park. The state added more acres over time.
Today the Victorian inn is owned by the state and operated by Rich Products Corp. of Buffalo. Glen Iris has 12 standard rooms and four suites, all newly redecorated with private baths and air conditioning. The inn’s luxury suite, the Cherry Suite, has a whirlpool tub and a private balcony with a sweeping view of the gorge and Middle Falls.
Just above the Glen Iris is Pinewood Lodge. Renovated four years ago, the seven units have a woodsy feel but resemble hotel rooms with a television, VCR, small refrigerator, microwave and coffee maker.
Three homes in the park are great for family reunions and other groups. These are popular and tend to fill up quickly. The Stone House, just across the street from Inspiration Point, is a four-bedroom, 21/2-bath home that can accommodate up to eight.
The Chalet, with its first- and second-floor wraparound porches, is off the main road at the top of Eagle Hill. Meticulously restored, the historic, four-bedroom home is opening this spring; prime slots are still available, Tillotson says.
The smaller Caroline’s Cottage is a three-bedroom house tucked behind the Chalet. Letchworth also has rustic cabins and campsites.
For both overnight guests and day-trippers, Caroline’s at the Glen Iris offers breakfast, lunch, dinner and picnics. A veranda menu of specialty drinks, appetizers and desserts is available whenever Caroline’s is open. (Snack bars and picnic areas with charcoal grills also are located throughout the park.)
Guests who stay at the inn and Pinewood Lodge can take advantage of spring getaway packages through May 19 each night, and from Monday to Thursday from May 23 to June 16. The package includes one night’s accommodations plus dinner and breakfast for two. A summer package is available Monday through Thursday Aug. 22 to Sept. 15.
Year-round residents say the Grand Canyon of the East is awe-inspiring all year.
“Letchworth is a crown jewel,” says balloon pilot Quigley. He lives near the park’s Castile entrance, and “sometimes, on a quiet night, you can hear the waterfalls at the Glen Iris.”
-Sally Parker

04/29/05 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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