Each time I finish a blog post, I think that our next stop can’t possibly be as good as the last. And each time, I’m proven wrong.
We left northern Vermont and crossed the bridge over Lake Champlain into upstate New York, known locally as the North Country. As I said in a previous post, it’s amazing that we never visit the places close to home, but are quick to jump on a jet and travel hours to the other side of the planet when there is SO much to see right in our own backyards. This proves the point.
How did I not know that the “thousand islands” and the St. Lawrence River was so spectacular? Or that Letchworth State Park even existed??? Both are such an easy drive from central Connecticut!
We started in Grass Point State Park campground, which is right on the St. Lawrence River nestled among the 1,000 islands. The islands are fascinating, having been formed at the end of the last ice age by glacial runoff that filled what is now the St. Lawrence River. Thousands of islands were left exposed. There are 1,864 islands, to be exact. In order to be considered an island, the land that sticks above the water must have two features: it must remain above the water all the time, never being flooded over, and it must have at least one tree. The islands range in size from 30,000 acre Wolfe Island to the smallest at 1/13th of an acre, an island called “Just Room Enough Island” which was just big enough for a small house.
One of the islands was purchased by George Boldt, the man who founded the Waldorf Astoria hotel empire. A self-made millionaire who immigrated to the United States from Prussia, Boldt owned several hundred acres of land and a home on nearby Wellesley Island. He and his family would spend summers there, and in 1900 he purchased an island, hired an architect and hundreds of workers to begin work on a gift for his wife, Louise: a six story, 120 room castle complete with tunnels, a powerhouse, boat house, Italian gardens, a drawbridge and a “play house” for the children. Unfortunately, in 1904 Louise died unexpectedly. Boldt sent word to the construction crew to cease work immediately. The castle was never completed and Boldt never set foot on the island again. The island lay dormant for 73 years until the State of New York bought the property and eventually opened it to the public for tours.
On our drive toward the Thousand Islands area, we passed an old gas station with an interesting sign out front. It was called “Dick’s Country Store and Music Oasis.” Well, anything calling itself a “Music Oasis” turns our heads. I grabbed my phone and did a quick search online, revealing that Dick’s started as a small gas and grocery business several decades ago, and over the years they added guns and guitars to their shelves. The business took off, expansion was necessary, and now this is a well-known store for regional musicians as well as those passing through, who will occasionally pull together a random jam session in the store (we were not lucky enough to witness that). The store was so interesting … all the way up here in New York’s north country, a thousand guitars, a thousand guns … and a few groceries. Oh, and if you saw the 2012 film “Promised Land” with Matt Damon and John Krasinski and remember “Rob’s Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas,” this was the basis for that characterization as they visited the store while filming in the north country.
Next stop, after the Thousand Islands, was a Harvest Host location for one night. Prison City Brewery in Auburn, New York, is pretty new, having just opened their first location in 2014. Since then, they bought a farm in town and started building a new brew facility and taproom, which opened in mid-pandemic December 2020. Somehow, they managed to stay afloat (maybe their great beers had something to do with that), and their new facility is large and awesome. Not only did we enjoy a flight of brews and get a good night’s sleep in their parking lot, but we met a great RVing couple, Lauren and Jeff. They are of similar age to us, live in upstate New York and are seriously considering full-time RV life. They’ve been traveling for a few winters now, so we exchanged lots of thoughts, ideas and laughs.
Finally, we arrived at Letchworth State Park. I never knew about Letchworth, but a few months ago a Facebook friend, Sharon, posted some pictures of incredible waterfalls that she had stumbled across. It was Letchworth State Park, also known as The Grand Canyon of the East. What??? I’ve lived in Connecticut my entire life and never heard of the Grand Canyon of the East. Bob had also never heard of it. Well, this park turned out to be a great Father’s Day gift to my husband!
This is one of the largest state parks we’ve ever visited, and by far the most beautiful. USA Today called Letchworth the #1 state park in the entire country. From small things that we usually take for granted, like the pristine roadside landscaping, to the grand things like the three impressive waterfalls, this park does not disappoint! There is a huge campground with almost 400 sites, but it is very well planned with multiple smaller loops so that you feel like you are in a small campground, yet there is a camp store, playground, and even a laundry facility in the middle accessible to all. There are hiking trails everywhere, as well as mountain biking and horseback trails. Bob described the gorge best: it is a blend of Niagara Falls and The Grand Canyon. The waterfalls are spectacular! For accommodations there’s the campground, three different areas of camping cabins, a handful of historic private homes for rent, a rustic lodge and the historic Glen Iris inn … they have given you every opportunity to visit. At only 6 hours from the Hartford area, there is no reason why anyone in New England should not see this park.
The local Seneca Indians were fond of saying that once a day the sun would pause in the sky and smile when it saw the waterfalls. William Letchworth, a very successful entrepreneur and humanitarian, spotted this gorge during a train trip, purchased 1,000 acres and an old house here in the mid 1800’s and turned it into a beautiful lodge, a place where he could escape from the city and grinds of business. Never married and worried that the gorge would not be protected after his death, he donated the property to the State of New York just after the turn of the century. His home, Glen Iris, is now an inn and restaurant within the park.
Way down river at the northernmost edge of the gorge is a large dam constructed and maintained by the Army Corp of Engineers. We took a tour of the dam and learned that it’s a dry gravity dam, constructed of 22 different vertical concrete sections. It boggles the mind, really, to think of how it was built with poured concrete, pouring the odd-number sections in place first, and after those were thoroughly cured the even-numbered sections were poured. Inside the dam is a series of tunnels, stairs, ladders and doors making it possible for personnel to move from one side of the dam to the other no matter what the situation. Being a dry dam, under normal circumstances you do not see the dam holding back water, it’s purpose is to control flooding down river. During those flooding events, which happen about once a year, the water level increases on the up-river side of the dam. The weight of the water pushes against the concrete structure causing the front of the dam to “dig in” and hold the water back. A series of conduits and baffles at the bottom of the dam allow water to escape in a controlled manner so that towns and farms are not flooded. Pretty darn interesting!
In the interesting people department, we met a pair of sisters on the dam tour. Helen and Cathy are retired nurse and teacher from Long Island, New York. They love hiking, kayaking, skiing and pretty much just being active. We had a great conversation with them about travel and our previous careers but had to part ways. When we returned to the campground, we met a fellow named Mike while walking our dogs. When asked about his beautiful senior golden retriever named Luke (who looked amazingly like the golden we had years ago), he mentioned that he had received Luke years ago as payment for guitar lessons. Yes, he taught guitar for many years so, of course, we invited him to bring his guitar over and “jam” with Bob.
We finished up five fabulous nights at Letchworth State Park with dinner at the Glen Iris Inn. I can’t wait to see what the next leg of our journey has in store!