Watkins Glen State Park is a fantastic destination for just about anyone looking to hike and see some waterfalls. There are around 19 hikes and waterfalls in the area, along with a wide variety of additional, including some family-friendly, activities. There are picnic facilities, scheduled summer tours, an annual spring run, an Olympic size pool (with hot showers), rustic cabins, and excellent fishing opportunities for rainbow trout and a number of other species. Park staff are knowledgeable and friendly. The Watkins Glen State Park is well known for its historic preservation efforts, and the awe-inspiring natural beauty of the park will always be leaving visitors spellbound.
You will find the Watkins Glen State Park in Watkins Glen Village. This is in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State, in Schuyler County, in the town of Dix.
To get to Watkins Glen State Park when you travel from Thruway, you will take the Geneva/Lyons exit 42. Remain on the Rt14 going south. Continue until you have gone through Geneva and have passed Seneca. This should be around 33 miles until you reach Watkins Glen Village. You will see the Watkins Glen State Park entrance on the right in the middle of the village. Parking areas will be on your left.
If you are planning on hiking the Gorge Trail you will need to park at the main entrance, but there are also two other parking areas to choose from. Parking at the main entrance allows for about 100 vehicles. The lot is off N Franklin St. There is also an overflow area just to the north of the main entrance. At the south entrance there is parking for another 100 vehicles in two lots by the swimming pool and the main pavilion. At the north entrance there is a small lot that allows only 25 vehicles by the playground.
Watkins Glen State Park at a Glance
Watkins Glen State Park is known for its waterfalls and hiking trails; in fact, there are around 19 waterfalls scattered across the park. The variety of waterfalls is quite impressive. They range in height from a few feet to over 60 feet. And you can find just about anything in between, chutes, plunges, punchbowl, dripped curtains, cascades, or small staircases.
The best time to visit Watkins Glen State Park is on fall and spring mornings on weekdays. Spring does not bring large groups of visitors, but the surrounding flora is painted in beautiful bright hues and the waterfall flow is high. The park is far more popular in the summer months. There is an overflow of tourists, high humidity and temperatures and low water flow from the falls. The fall has milder weather, breathtaking fall colors, and occasionally good water flow. In the winter, some areas of the Watkins Glen State Park will close, including the Gorge Trail. However, there are lots of other opportunities for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, if that is more your speed.
Watkins Glen State Park is open year-round, but a portion of the park does close down during winter, as mentioned above. That portion of the park usually opens again towards the end of Spring, unless there is major damage caused by snow and ice. You can access the main entrance between mid-May to late-June from 9 am to 5:30 pm. Between late June and early September from 8 am to 8 pm, and from early September to mid-October from 9 am to 5:30 pm.
The north entrance is open on holidays and weekends between mid-May and late June from 9 am to 5:30 pm, every day between late June and early September from 9 am to 5:30 pm; and holidays and weekends again from early September to October from 9 am to 5:30 pm.
The south entrance is open between mid-May and late June from 10 am to 6:30 pm, late June to early September from 9 am to 5:30 pm, and holidays and weekends between early September and October from 9 am to 5:30 pm.
The vehicle entrance fee you can expect to pay will include access to the Olympic size pool at only $10. There is some handicap access within the park, including the Olympic size pool, the majority of the pavilions, restrooms, and the gift shop. However, the Gorge and Rim trails will not be accessible.
There are certain areas of the park where pets are allowed on a leash, but that excludes the swimming pool and the Gorge Trail. You are expected to keep your pet on a leash at all times and to clean up after your pet throughout the duration of your stay. Heed the signs as bringing pets on restricted access trails will endanger the pet and other hikers.
Strictly no swimming is permitted in the Gorge. There is an Olympic size swimming pool that is open to park-goers between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend. Admission to the pool is included in your vehicle entrance fee. If you are spending the night, please note that the pool area will close around 7 pm.
There is an expensive campground within the park that is fully equipped. A total of 10 rustic cabins and 283 tent and trailer campsites are open between late May to Mid-October, and it is essential to book your spot in advance. Furthermore, there is cross-country skiing in the winter, playgrounds, a swimming pool, several pavilions, hiking trails, grills, picnic tables, drinking fountains, vending machines, gift shops, snack bars, fishing opportunities, restrooms, hot showers, and trailer campsites scattered across the park. There are several restaurants, hotels and shops in the village as well, especially along N Franklin St.
What to Expect in Watkins Glen State Park
Although situated in Upstate New York, Watkins Glen is far better suited to a spot in a fantasy film. There are plains of eerie isolation, rare plants, unworldly stone formations, and cavernous mossy pathways. That Finger Lakes region is no stranger to state parks, and the hanging valley of Watkins Glen is the oldest state park in the region. It is carved out of an escarpment on the southern slopes of the nearby Seneca Lake. The upper entrance leads you to a part of Watkins Glen State Park is less known, but dotted with recreation areas, camping spots, and picnic facilities. The lower part of Watkins Glen State Park is better known and is carved out of limestone and deep shale.
The Gorge Trail is not a particularly long hike, spanning only 1.5 miles, but it starts from a dramatic, dark tunnel that has been carved from the side of the cliff itself. This tunnel delves visitors into an ocean of gentle breezes, flowing water, and natural stone.
Although there are many other attractions, the Gorge Trail is what Watkins Glen State Park is defined by. The Gorge is protected by environmental conservation efforts that can inspire any of us to make our own contribution to conserving the natural wonder of the surrounding park. The Gorge path winds along the heart of Upstate New York leaving visitors spellbound with its dramatic landscapes and breathtaking views.
There are several trails within the park. The Rim trails overlook the lower Gorge, nearby Seneca Lake and Catherine Creek are great for picnics but also excellent fishing spots. There are several fantastic waterfalls, including the Cavern Cascade which can be viewed from the Gorge Trail. While you are visiting, stop by some of the amenities, like the Olympic size swimming pool or enjoy their scheduled summer tours. Nearby Catherine Creek is also known for the annual spring run among other attractions.
Hiking and Walking Trails
Finger Lakes Trail / South Rim Trail
This is an easy to moderate hike of 4.5 miles one-way. There are white blazes marking the trail that runs through the Southern Rim of the Glen. The South Rim Trail is only a small portion of the much larger Finger Lakes Trail which spans 900 miles. Of the many Rim trails this one starts in Franklin St by the Amphitheater, passes the campgrounds, South Pavilion, Punchbowl Lake and ends at Hidden Valley. If you would like to see more you can keep going to Twin Falls.
This is an easy trail that goes one-way for 1.5 miles. If you want to take it as a loop you can combine it with the Gorge Trail, in which it becomes a 3-mile loop. The trail is marked by stonework walkways and several signs. In our opinion, it is best not to combine the trails, however, as it means taking the Gorge trail backward. Rather use this trail on its own to get back to the Amphitheater.
If you are not looking for a particularly strenuous climb up the Gorge then you can start looping back at Mile Point Bridge. There are some obstacles, rocks, and roots on this trail and a significant portion of it is over-packed earth. The occasional gradient occurs, but nothing worth writing home over, and the trail has a spectacular view of Rainbow Falls. There is another stop at Central Cascade overlook which gives an amazing view of Central Cascade and Folly Bridge.
You can pass Glenwood and St. Mary’s Cemeteries. Glenwood is the oldest major cemetery in the Watkins Glen area, and there is a huge Winter Crypt that still stands. Some of the stones in the cemeteries date back to the 1840s, and just after the cemeteries, is one of the trail shelters. The Suspension Bridge was built in 1873 and the nearby Lover’s Lane offshoot is a popular secluded path that leads to the Gorge Trail.
At the south end of the glen is a bridge; once over it you keep left past the Lily Pond and continue to Couch’s Staircase past the old Glen Mountain House. Finally, there are stairs down to the Gorge Trail once you reach Glen Alpha. You cross the Sentry Bridge and go through the tunnel to get to the parking area.
The Gorge Trail is on the moderate to difficult side. It goes 1.5 miles one way and is marked by stonework walkways and several signs. The Gorge Trail is the very reason that most visitors even come to this park in the first place. The Entrance Tunnel marks the start of the trail, after which you cross Sentry Bridge into Glen Alpha. You will pass the Heart-Shaped Pool and Minnehaha Falls on the south and then take the stairs to Cavern Cascade.
You will climb up the Spiral Tunnel into Glen Obscura which is a narrow trail with jagged cliffs. You will then pass Whispering Falls and then go through a tunnel that leads to Diamond Falls. Once you have gone through The Narrows you reach a switchback that leads to Lover’s Lane – this is not the path you should take, so carry on. You will be able to hear the Sylvan Rapids, and where the glen opens you will reach Glen Cathedral. There is another stairway next to Baptismal Font that goes up to Central Cascade and Folly Bridge.
When you cross the bridge, you will be on the right of the creek at the south end. Once you come around the bend you will see Triple Cascade, Rainbow Falls and several pools. You then go under Rainbow Falls, over the creek, and over Triple Cascade then through Shadow Gorge. The Pillar of Beauty stands on your left, which is the start of Glen Arcadia. You will pass Pluto Falls, and take some stairs to see the Pool of Nymphs.
The Indian Trail and the Gorge Trail meet at Mile Point Bridge where it runs over Arcadia Falls. You should not cross it, but rather continue on to the Glen Facility sections. The path widens at Lover’s Ramble and the creek tapers off significantly. You walk on until you get to the bottom of Jacob’s ladder. Climb up the ladder where you can find a snack bar and part of the Indian Trail. There is a shuttle that comes by every 15-20 minutes that can take you back to the entrance.
Winter at Watkins Glen
Remember that these state parks (Watkins Glen and other Finger Lakes State Parks) are in New York State, which means lots of ice and snow during winter months. Notably, the Gorge Trail will be closed for winter. The Rim trails, however, as open and offer some views of the waterfalls. Entering restricted areas without permission during the winter is extremely dangerous and should not be attempted.
The Great Flood
In 1935 there was a rather famous, but extremely devastating flood that destroyed large parts of the park, including the original Gorge Trail. After this disaster two damns were built to direct the glen. You can see these dams from the Finger Lakes Trail. These are the Glen Creek Dam which is packed with stone and silt, and the Punchbowl Lake Dam which can be quite photogenic when the water level is high.
Hope’s Art Gallery
While the original Hope’s Art Gallery no longer operates, it is worth mentioning as the building of the original gallery can still be seen. A self-taught artist by the name of Captain James Hope who spent years painting Civil War battles came to Watkins Glen in the 1870s. He loved the place so much that in 1872 he moved his studio from the city to this area.
The next 20 years saw multiple paintings, photographs, and sketches done by James Hope of Seneca Lake and the Glen Creek area. His gallery was a fan-favorite attraction for many years. When he passed away many of these works were moved to the main entrance souvenir shop where most of it did not survive the big flood.
When you take the Gorge Trail you will climb a total of 789 steps, of which 200 are Jacob’s Ladder. It is so grueling that there are benches along the way to alleviate some of the strain from climbers.
The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Finger Lakes State Parks Department laid out several stonework bridges and trails along the Gorge Trail in the latter half of the 1930s. The original walkways made of iron and concrete were destroyed in the flood. Natural cut platforms, ladders, and wooden stairs used to be the way of this state park, but most of those are not in use anymore. In early Spring there are usually quite a few repairs to be done as the winter weather causes no small amount of damage to the trails.
The Gorge becomes pitch dark after sunset, so as a means to ensure something special for visitors during off-hours the Timespell Light and Laser Show opened in 1983. Visitors pack downstream of the Cavern Cascade which is wide enough to accommodate around 400 people. A laser show is then projected 100 feet high on the cliff. Surrounding attractions are illuminated while music is played. Unfortunately, the show had to close down in 2003, but it was a testament to the Watkins Glen and Finger Lakes areas’ fantastic geological history.
Old “Indian” Trail
In the past the Indian Trail started at a stairway leading above the gift shop and snack bar up along the parking area. Over the years, erosion made this climb extremely dangerous, so it was closed off.
Whether you are coming to walk through Rainbow Falls or catch some Rainbow Trout, this New York State Park has something for everyone. There are campsites with dumping stations, and a plethora of waterfalls and hiking trails to sample for the day. Choose your parking lot according to which trails and falls you wish to see. Bring along your furry friend to some areas of the park – strictly on a leash and with written proof of up-to-date rabies inoculation.