Letchworth State Park is located west of the Finger Lakes, about an hour southwest of Rochester, and about an hour and a half southeast of Buffalo. It is consistently named as one of the best state parks in the U.S., and rightfully so. For landscape and nature photographers, Letchworth State Park is a paradise with beautiful waterfalls and canyon views. It is sometimes referred to as the Grand Canyon of the East.
The park covers more than 14,000 acres and is about 17 miles long. The Genesee River flows through the park, creating a deep (more than 500 feet in some places) and beautiful canyon. The park features three main waterfalls, Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls, all on the Genesee River. There are a number of smaller falls in the park on tributaries that flow into the river. The park also features many scenic overlooks along Park Road.
In this article we’ll cover the details of the park so that you can effectively plan your own visit to photograph this amazing location.
All of the photos in this article have been processed using the Landscape Legend Lightroom Presets. Learn more about Landscape Legend here.
The Genesee River and the surrounding canyon create the centerpiece of the park. There are park lands on both the east and west sides of the river, but most visitors stick to the west side of the park, which is more developed. The east side includes some camping areas, but most of the points of interest are on the west side, or are accessible/visible from the west side.
Park Road on the west side of the park runs north and south and winds along with the river and canyon. There are a few different entrances that will lead you to Park Road. The southernmost entrance (the Portageville Entrance) is closed in the winter. The three main waterfalls and several other points of interest are in the southern part of the park, so it is generally best to enter at or near the south. The Castile Entrance is open year round and is conveniently located near many points of interest, so that is a good place to enter.
If you arrive at the Castile Entrance, when you hit Park Road you can make a right turn to head towards the three main waterfalls. The Genesee River flows south to north, so the Upper Falls are the southernmost falls. For this guide I will list several points of interest and they are arranged from south to north as you will access them along Park Road.
→ Related reading: Guide to Photographing Watkins Glen State Park
The Upper Falls are kind of horseshoe-shaped. Above the falls is an active railroad, so you may see trains go by while you are there. Although not as high as the Middle Falls, the Upper Falls are quite beautiful.
There is a parking area that provides access to both the Upper and Middle Falls. From the parking area you can take a paved walkway towards the Upper Falls. One of the nice things about this walkway is that you can photograph the falls from several different perspectives.
As you approach the top of the Upper Falls there is a small stream that flows into the river, and there is a small cascading waterfall within view from the walkway. You’ll see the bridge pictured below.
Go up to the bridge, look away from the river and you’ll see this small waterfall.
→ See more of the best places to photograph in New York
The Middle Falls is the biggest of the three main falls, and you can walk down to it from the same parking lot that accesses the Upper Falls. Follow the walkway and you can get several different vantage points of this beautiful waterfall. You can photograph it from the side, from a small observation area sort of in front of the falls, or from anywhere along the walkway.
Most of the views you will get from this location will include some plants in the foreground.
→ Related reading: 10 Tips for Fabulous Waterfall Photography
Inspiration Point is a lookout that provides an excellent view of the Middle Falls from a distance. With a telephoto lens you can capture the falls nicely, or with a standard or wide angle lens you can capture the whole scene, including the canyon and even the Upper Falls off in the distance.
If you’re not in a hurry you can walk from the Middle Falls up to Inspiration Point, but if you are trying to move quickly and cover a lot of ground in a limited time you can drive. There is a parking lot right at Inspiration Point.
To reach the Lower Falls you can continue north on Park Road and then follow signs to the right that will lead you down another road to a parking area for the falls. The view of the Lower Falls is not as good as either the Upper or Middle Falls.
To reach the Lower Falls you will need to take more than 100 stairs down to the trail.
There is also a sign that leads to an “easy view” of the falls rather than taking the stairs. When I was there this easy view was mostly obstructed, so if you want to photograph the falls you will probably need to take the stairs.
At the bottom of the stairs you can follow the trail to the Lower Falls. There is also a platform that provides a nice view down the river looking away from the falls.
You’ll also find more stairs that lead down to a foot bridge that crosses the river. This is the only place in the park were you can cross from the west to east side. The bridge also provides a view of the river and canyon in each direction.
Archery Field Overlook
From the Lower Falls you can head back to Park Road and turn right (north). In just a short distance you’ll reach the Archery Field Overlook. There is a an open field on one side of the road, and great views of the canyon from the other side of the road. This is one of the best places to photograph the canyon. It’s a very large overlook area and you can walk up and down the length of it to get different views.
Head north on Park Road a ways and you’ll come to a parking lot and picnic area at Wolf Creek. The parking lot is right next to the creek, and this is a great place to photograph.
Other Points of Interest
Aside from the points already mentioned and shown, there are a few other places that may interest you:
- Great Bend – The Great Bend Overlook is one of the major overlooks in the park. It’s located a short distance north or the Archery Field Overlook. I didn’t find the view to be as great as some other places in the park, but that is partly because it was very foggy. Visiting at another time you may find the view to be better.
- Hogs Back – Located towards the north end of the park, Hogs Back looks great in several photos that I’ve seen. When I was at the park the fog was very thick in this area and there was no view at all.
- Waterline Falls – This waterfall is accessible from the Gibsonville Trail (trail 19). Unfortunately, the water level was very low when I was at the park. I went to Waterline Falls but there was basically no waterfall to be seen at the time. In photos it looks quite nice, so I will try again on my next visit. You can find details about how to reach Waterline Falls here.
Best Places to Photograph Sunset
There are no epic sunset views in Letchworth State Park, at least not from my experience or research. The developed part of the park is on the west side of the canyon, so looking towards the sun works better for sunrise here.
However, I did find the sunset view at Inspiration Point to be worth photographing. If you’re at Inspiration Point photographing the Middle Falls the sunset will be off to the right. The sun may not be in your shot, but you should get some color from the sunset.
→ Related reading: Sunset Photography Tips
Best Places to Photograph Sunrise
If you research the best places to photograph the sunrise at Letchworth State Park you’ll find several different options including Great Bend and Hogs Back. I scouted along Park Road and decided to photograph from an unmarked area a short distance north of the Archery Field Overlook. There is no parking lot here, but you can pull off to the side of the road or park nearby and walk a little ways.
The canyon was very foggy and the sky was full of clouds, but the clouds eventually cleared to reveal a nice sunrise.
→ Related reading: Tips for Sunrise Photography
If you are interested in finding this location it is just north of where Denton Corners Road intersects with Park Rd. (the Castile Entrance). These GPS coordinates are not exact, but they should be very close: 42.6031, -78.03279
Where to Stay
There are a few different options for places to stay overnight. If you want to stay right inside the park, which is nice and convenient if you are going to be getting up for sunrise, you can camp, rent a cabin, or get a room at the Glen Iris Inn, which is where I stayed. The Glen Iris Inn was originally the estate of William Pryor Letchworth, who donated the land to the state for creation of the park. It is located right at the Middle Falls and also has a restaurant (there are some other restaurants in the park as well). As of this year, the Glen Iris Inn also has wifi access for guests. I couldn’t get a cell phone signal or data connection anywhere in the park, so the wifi access was a big deal.
When to Go
Letchworth State Park is open year round, although the Portageville Entrance at the south end of the park is closed in the winter. October is peak season for fall foliage, so it is a popular time in the park. Spring typically brings higher water levels, which can be good for photographing waterfalls and the river. It is a popular park, so summer days can bring big crowds.
In the Area
While you are visiting Letchworth State Park you may also want to visit some other destinations in the area:
- Stony Brook State Park is only about 30 miles southeast, and is another great location for photographers.
- Watkins Glen State Park is about 85 miles southeast.
- Niagara Falls is about 85 miles to the northwest.
Wide Angle Lens – A wide angle lens will be useful for photographing the canyon overlooks. You may also want a wide angle lens at the Middle Falls and Lower Falls where you may be photographing the falls from a very close distance.
Telephoto Lens – A telephoto lens will be helpful at Inspiration Point, or for capturing details of the waterfalls or from the overlooks.
Tripod – A tripod is a necessity for getting quality waterfall photos, and also for sunrise and sunset.
Polarizer – A polarizer can help to reduce glare coming off the water, and can also help to get more contrast in the sky.
Landscape Legend Lightroom Presets – Our own Lightroom presets can help you to process your photos quickly and effectively. Landscape Legend is the most comprehensive collection of Lightroom presets created specifically for landscape and nature photos.
The southern/Portageville entrance to Letchworth is closed currently (7/18/17) because a brand-new steel arch railroad bridge is being constructed over the Upper Falls. You can see the gradually extending arch suspended by cranes to each side from Inspiration Point. The old bridge is still there in front of the new one, but it will be taken down once the new bridge is complete. The old bridge is kind of quaint and rickety-looking, and we locals are sad to see it go; you sort of held your breath when you saw a freight train slowly crossing the frail-looking span.
The East side of the park does have some unique features; it’s much less traveled, so often you have the place to yourself. There is a sizable wetland area that looks great in autumn, and you can access the Lower Falls from a parking area via a steep stairway. There is also a long hiking trail that loops around the top of the huge rock ‘table’ at Big Bend seen in your last photo. On the other hand, the East side park road is gravel after the first few miles; one section washed out a few years ago and was crudely rebuilt. Some sections are eroded to the point of being a bit scary; using a 4-wheel drive vehicle with decent ground clearance is advisable.
Thanks for your comment about the bridge and the east side of the park. I’ve never been to the east side of the park, so I appreciate your insight.
Thanks for the tips! This is exactly what I was looking for before I drove 6 hours up there!
You’re welcome Deb! Have a great trip.
Hi! Is there a way to purchase these photos?
I’ll email you.
Marc – You have done a fantastic and selfless job of sharing your insights with us. So detailed and useful. Thank you so much.
Thanks for sharing the information, heading there in Oct for 5 days to photography
Beautiful photos. I am interested in possibly purchasing a photo as a gift. Can you please contact me? Thank you!