In the wilds of New York, every so often a rare white deer is spotted. The white deer are so rare and so rarely seen that there is a legend that surrounds them. As the tragic tale goes, a beautiful young Seneca bride named Mon-a-sha-sha lived with her husband near the Middle Falls in what is now Letchworth State Park. After a particularly bad day of hunting and with no meat to bring home to his family, Joninedah, would not even look at his wife. Mon-a-sha-sha felt he no longer loved her and waited until he was fast asleep. She took their child and stole away into the night in their canoe never to be seen again. When Joninedah awoke in the morning and found Mon-a-sha-sha missing, he followed her trail to the Middle Falls. A white doe and fawn darted by and Joninedah believed they spoke of death. Grief stricken, he plunged a knife into his own heart to join his bride and child in death. Now when the white deer are spotted, people believe they are the spirit of Mon-a-sha-sha.
I didn’t see any white deer on my own visit to Letchworth State Park, but there is plenty of other beauty to take in. The Genesee River carved out a 17 mile long gorge with rock walls rising up to 550 feet, giving the Letchworth Gorge the moniker “The Grand Canyon of the East”. There are three large waterfalls along the river and more than fifty smaller waterfalls found along the tributaries that flow in to the Genessee. Letchworth State Park is a hiker and camper’s paradise with over 66 miles of trails.
The park is named after William Pryor Letchworth, who as a young industrialist, fell in love with the canyon and land around it. Walking along the river banks, Letchworth came across a two-story frame house with a spectacular view overlooking the Middle Falls. He never this was the very spot he wanted his own country retreat and bought the house and immediately began renovations in 1859. And of course there is a legend! The Seneca Indians had named this spot “An-de-ka-ga-kwa”, meaning place where the sun lingers. The Indians believed that when the sun passed over, it lingered just a little bit longer in this spot to marvel in awe at the great Middle Falls. Letchworth was inspired by the tale and chose the name Iris, a synonym for the word rainbow, dubbing his estate the Glen Iris Inn.
The Glen Iris Inn sits literally a stone’s throw away from the largest of the waterfalls, the Middle Falls, crashing down 107 feet into the river below. There is an easy paved trail and viewing points to the Middle Falls and they are lit up at night.
The Gorge Trail (1) follows the river upstream for about half a mile to the horseshoe shaped Upper Falls and the Erie Railroad High Bridge. Here the Upper Falls cascade 71 feet down in to the river and at points the overhang is a sheer vertical drop to the river below. The iron bridge is striking, standing 234 above the Genesee River. The original was wooden and burned down in 1875.
The Lower Falls is reached by following the Footbridge Trail (6A) west and descending 127 steps down in to the gorge. The Lower Falls have changed dramatically in appearance since the 1950s (you can see historical photos in the Inn) because of flooding and erosion. The Lower Falls only have about a 15 foot drop as the power of the Genesse River rushes downstream.
There are many other smaller falls worth spending the time to hike to and you can pick up a map at the Inn.
Know Before You Go
- Letchworth State Park is open daily from 6am – 11pm, though camping season is from mid-May to mid-October. There is an $8 per vehicle entrance fee to the park.
- Glen Iris Inn is open from Good Friday – the first weekend of November. It has 12 standard double rooms and 4 suites. Double rooms are $100 per night.
- Glen Iris Inn is also open for lunch and dinner daily and even has a picnic menu you can take to go and enjoy along the trails.
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