Orleans County is in the Niagara Frontier region of New York. This rural county sandwiched between the 'big cities' of Buffalo and Rochester may not have the amenities or marquee attractions of its neighbors, but it makes for a serene and convenient getaway for travelers to Western New York.
With several creeks and streams perfect for fishing, quaint 19th-century villages, a long Lake Ontario shoreline, and a number of well-maintained historical attractions, often-overlooked Orleans County can be a surprising re-discovery for intrepid travelers.
Villages and hamlets
- 1 Albion — the county seat and largest village, home to Historic Courthouse Square and Mount Albion
- 2 Childs — a tiny hamlet with an excellent restaurant and the Cobblestone Museum
- 3 Holley —
- 4 Kendall —
- 5 Lyndonville —
- 6 Medina — a thriving canalside village with a fantastic railroad museum
- 7 Waterport — fishing and boating on Lake Alice and at Point Breeze
- Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge — also known as the swamp
- Lakeside Beach State Park — fun in the sun
Orleans County is largely rural, comprising mainly farmland and light forest (the "Oak Orchards" commemorated in so many place names throughout the area), dotted with a few villages and hamlets. There may not be much to do in any one location, but the county as a whole offers a variety of recreational and historical attractions, all within easy driving distance of each other.
The county owes much of its tourism to the Erie Canal, which runs east-west through several communities, and to Lake Ontario, which lies to the north. Orleans County's many creeks attract fishing enthusiasts from throughout the region.
Albion, the county seat, is located close to the middle of the county, and it makes a great jumping-off point for day trips. Albion and Medina are the largest villages; both have quaint 19th-century canalside downtowns, with light commercial strips farther out. The other villages and hamlets are much smaller but have a number of hidden gems.
Unlike other areas of Western New York, there were very few—if any—permanent Native American settlements in this region. Certainly they used the high Ridge (now State Route 104) as a major transportation route, and they hunted and fished here, but the swampy land led to illness for anyone who tried to settle down.
Early European settlers also stayed away until well after other areas like Canandaigua and Batavia were prosperous and thriving. In 1796, the area was included in the Holland Purchase, an enormous swath of land encompassing every part of the state west of the Genesee River. The land office in Batavia sold off parcels throughout the Purchase, which became known as Genesee County. The other counties of Western New York were split off from Genesee in turn, with Orleans being the second-to-last in 1824.
The major impetus for the settlement of the area north of the Oak Orchard Swamp was the construction of the Erie Canal. The westernmost stretch of the canal opened in 1825, and that opened up eastern markets for the products of Orleans County farms. Only a few years later, high-quality sandstone was discovered to exist under the topsoil in the region, and Medina sandstone was soon being quarried and exported throughout the state.
Manufacturing has never been as important here as in neighboring counties, due to the low population and lack of readily available power. Instead, farming remains the county's major industry.
The vast majority of visitors come to Orleans County by car. Long-distance travelers from the east and west can take the New York State Thruway to exit 48 (Batavia) or 48A (Pembroke), both in Genesee County. From there, you'll join the folks from the Southern Tier heading north and take State Route 98 from Batavia to Albion, or Route 77 to Route 63 from Pembroke to Medina.
From Buffalo, taking the Thruway would work, but you could also take I-990 towards Lockport, then pick up State Route 31 which parallels the Erie Canal. From Rochester, State Route 104 is the most convenient route, although the Lake Ontario State Parkway is quicker and more scenic if your origin or destination is farther north. From Niagara Falls, Routes 104 and 31 are your best bets.
You could also arrive by boat, if you've got one available. If you're coming in via Lake Ontario, there's a small marina in the Oak Orchard State Marine Park at Point Breeze, the mouth of the Oak Orchard River. If you come in via the Erie Canal from the east or west, you can tie up right in the heart of the county's three canalside villages: Medina, Albion, and Holley.
While there are a number of rural airstrips scattered around the county, the only public airport is Pine Hill (FAA: 9G6) southwest of Albion and southeast of Medina. Even there, don't expect much; it's got a half-mile asphalt runway, no scheduled commercial flights, and very few services. You can fly in on a private single-engine plane, but that's about it. Genesee County Airport (FAA: GVQ) to the south is bigger and can accommodate small jets, but still has no commercial service. For commercial air service, you'll have to fly into Rochester (ROC IATA), Buffalo (BUF IATA), or maybe Niagara Falls (IAG IATA), then rent a car and drive in.
There's no passenger train service to Orleans County. The nearest terminals are in Rochester, Buffalo, and Niagara Falls.
As noted above, you'll probably want a car to get around the county. If you need to rent one, there's an Enterprise branch in Albion, but you're probably better off renting at the airport or train station where you came in.
RTS Orleans, a subsidiary of the Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority, does offer weekday bus transportation around and between the villages of Medina and Albion ($1 within a village; $2 between; halved for seniors and children 6-12; kids under 6 free with adult), but if you're going any farther afield, or interested in traveling at night or on weekends, you'll need a car.
Fortunately for drivers, the county is criss-crossed by an array of well-maintained state routes. Routes 18, 104, 31, and 31A travel east–west, while routes 63, 98, and 237 are the main north–south routes. 104 is the primary highway, with only a few speed zones to slow you down, while 18 is a scenic lakeside route. 31 parallels the canal through Medina, Albion, and Holley, while 31A bypasses those villages to the south.
Off the state routes, roads are usually paved, but they're often narrow and sometimes completely devoid of markings—even on what are nominally "major" connecting roads. Nonetheless, traffic is light enough that you shouldn't have any problems. Deer will probably pose a greater hazard to you than other motorists.
The major creeks of the county are not well-suited for boat navigation, though the stretch of Oak Orchard River immediately upstream of the dam—an area known locally as Lake Alice—is fairly placid. The canal, on the other hand, is eminently navigable, with only a few lift bridges and no locks to delay your voyage.
Orleans County boasts what is almost inarguably the best Mexican food in Western New York (yes, even better than what you'll find in Buffalo and Rochester!), thanks to the community of immigrant farmhands that has coalesced in the region. Medina and Albion each have a combination grocery store and taquería that do brisk business selling to local Mexicans even as they remain well off the radar screens of big-city foodies, which means that what's served there is the real deal, not bastardized for the American palate.
Albion has a small but serviceable motor lodge, and Medina a vintage 19th-century hotel restored to boutique status in the 2010s. There are also a handful of bed-and-breakfasts around, but information about them can be hard to find. And of course you can always rent a campsite at Lakeside Beach State Park. If, though, you'd prefer to stay at a chain hotel or motel, the closest options will be in Lockport, Batavia, and Brockport.
The county is entirely within Rochester's 585 area code, which was split off from Buffalo's 716 years ago. There are full-service post offices in Medina, Albion, and Holley, with smaller offices in Lyndonville and Kendall. The hamlets of Kent and Waterport have tiny post offices located in converted houses. Welcome to rural New York!
The daily newspaper of record is the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, but coverage of these rural towns from the big city is limited and often perfunctory. For more comprehensive coverage, the Batavia Daily News is delivered six days a week to Genesee, Wyoming, and Orleans Counties. The Lake Country Pennysaver and Albion Advertiser are free weekly publication focusing on ads and coupons, but with some public notices and brief news items.
The online-only publication OrleansHub.com launched in April 2013, intending to provide free daily news for the entire county.
Travelers looking to expand their horizons beyond Orleans County have a number of options:
- Rochester – a mid-sized city to the east with a small-town charm; serves as the gateway to the scenic Finger Lakes wine country
- Niagara County – Orleans County's western neighbor, most famous for Niagara Falls, while Lockport showcases the canal in a way few other communities can
- Genesee County – Orleans County's southern neighbor, boasts the small city of Batavia, the Darien Lake amusement park, and a whole lot of farmland
- Buffalo – a mid-sized city to the southwest, slightly bigger than Rochester, with plenty of cultural attractions and the Bills and Sabres major-league sports teams