The gorge at Watkins glen state park.

Guide to Watkins Glen State Park

Nestled in the heart of the Finger Lakes region of New York, Watkins Glen State Park stands as a testament to the breathtaking beauty of nature. A true gem among the state parks, Watkins Glen invites visitors to embark on a journey through lush landscapes, enchanting waterfalls, and ancient rock formations.

Watkins Glen State Park gorge with waterfall

This state park is a nature lover’s paradise and a photographer’s dream come true. The Gorge trail, the park’s main attraction, will take you on a journey through the park’s rocky landscape, where you’ll be right next to the waterfalls, surrounded by cliffs.

In addition to the gorge trail, you can enjoy activities like hiking, swimming, picnicking, and camping. It’s a great place to spend a day or a week with family and friends, making memories.

Don’t miss an opportunity to visit Watkins Glen State Park and see for yourself why it’s such a popular destination for hikers, nature lovers, and photographers.

Similar to Taughannock Falls State Park, Watkins Glen boasts an extensive trail system that meanders alongside the gorge. Hiking enthusiasts will be in heaven with the park’s well-maintained trails, making it suitable for both seasoned hikers and casual strollers.

In addition to the gorge, Watkins Glen is home to 19 waterfalls, each with its own unique character. You’ll see waterfalls of varying heights while you hike along the gorge. You’ll be captivated by the sheer power and beauty of it’s nature.

Watkins Glen State Park gorge with waterfall
Photo Credit: Yayimages.

How the Gorge Formed

The Watkins Glen Gorge stands as a stunning testament to the raw power of nature. Like much of the Finger Lakes region, it was carved over millennia by the forces of glaciers and water. The park’s centerpiece is a narrow, winding gorge that stretches for over 400 feet deep.

Visitors enter the park and are greeted by the timeless beauty of sedimentary rocks, their intricate layers telling the story of the Earth’s ancient past.

Watkins Glen State Park gorge.

Hiking the Gorge Trail

There are three main trails at Watkins Glen, the Gorge Trail, the North Rim Trail and the South Rim Trail. The Gorge Trail stands out as a must-see experience. The trail, which spans 1.5 miles and climbs 500 feet, allows you to see the powerful forces of the water that carved the gorge.

The paths are mostly stone and include over 800 steps, making for a moderately difficult hike. But don’t let the elevation change deter you since you will want to stop and take plenty of photos, giving you rest time.

One highlight of the trail is the Cavern Cascade waterfall, which spills directly over the trail, offering a truly unique photo opportunity. A little further up the trail, Rainbow Falls awaits, considered by many to be the crown jewel of the park. Standing at 101 feet tall, the trail goes right under this waterfall.

As you continue on the trail, the walls of the gorge tower above you, and the path narrows, leading to Jacob’s Ladder — a final 180 steps that take you to the upper park entrance.

Watkins Glen State Park gorge with waterfall
Photo Credit: Yayimages.

Tip to Make the Hike Easier

During the summer season’s height, a shuttle bus runs between the park entrances at the top and bottom of the gorge. This means you can park at one entrance, hike up (or down) and then take a bus back to your car.

Hiking the entire gorge is spectacular, and it is also quite a workout. So if 1600+ steps sound like too much, the shuttle bus is the perfect solution. Cut your journey in half, take in the breathtaking views, and save some energy for later. There is a small fee, but it can be worth it!

Watkins Glen State Park gorge with waterfall.

Other Things to Do at Watkins Glen State Park

Watkins Glen State Park has plenty of other activities for visitors to enjoy, in addition to hiking.

  • Swimming: There is absolutely no swimming in the gorge because it is too dangerous. But the park has a large swimming pool open to the public during the summer.
  • Picnicking: Picnic areas are scattered throughout the park, making it a great place to enjoy a meal outdoors.
  • Fishing: The park has several streams and a large nearby lake where you can fish if you have a NY state fishing license.
  • Camping: The park has a campground with over 200 campsites available for overnight stays.
  • Birdwatching: A wide variety of birds live in the park, making it a great place for birdwatchers.
Watkins Glen State Park gorge.

Off Season

Watkins Glen State Park is open year-round, but there’s one catch — the gorge trail is closed from around the end of October until mid to late May. The exact opening and closing dates can vary depending on the weather, so it’s always a good idea to check with the park before visiting during the late fall or early spring.

But why is the trail closed? It’s simply not safe during the winter. The spray from the waterfalls freezes and causes significant ice buildup on the stairs.

And once the ice melts, the spring snowmelt increases the water flow, which can cause damage and erosion. As a result, parts of the trail need to be repaired or rebuilt in the spring.

But don’t let the closed trail discourage you from visiting the park. There are winter-only activities like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. There is truly something to do in every season.

Watkins Glen State Park gorge.

Things to do Near Watkins Glen State Park

Watkins Glen is not only known for its stunning state park, but it also offers a range of activities and attractions in the surrounding area.

  • Seneca Lake Wine Trail: Explore the world-famous wineries along Seneca Lake. The region is renowned for its vineyards and winemaking, and you can enjoy tastings and tours at various wineries.
  • Watkins Glen International: If you’re a racing fan, check out Watkins Glen International. This historic racetrack hosts various motorsports events throughout the year. You might even be able to catch a race during your visit.
  • Finger Lakes National Forest: Enjoy the tranquility of nature at the Finger Lakes National Forest. Hike or bike through scenic trails, and don’t forget to bring a picnic to savor amidst the beautiful surroundings.
  • Corning Museum of Glass: Located about 30 miles from Watkins Glen, the Corning Museum of Glass offers a fascinating look at the art, history, and science of glass. You can watch live glassmaking demonstrations and explore a vast collection of glass art.
  • Montour Falls: Just a short drive from Watkins Glen, Montour Falls is home to the beautiful Shequaga Falls. Take a stroll through the village and enjoy the picturesque waterfall.
  • Watkins Glen Village: Explore the charming Watkins Glen village itself. The downtown area is filled with unique shops, boutiques, and restaurants. It’s a great place to unwind, grab a meal, or pick up some souvenirs.
  • Taughannock Falls State Park: While somewhat similar to Watkins Glen State Park, Taughannock Falls State Park offers its own unique charm. Explore the trails and witness the impressive Taughannock Falls, which plunges 215 feet, making it even taller than Niagara Falls.

Whether you’re into outdoor adventures, cultural exploration, or simply relaxing in a beautiful setting, the Watkins Glen area has something to offer for every type of traveler.

Watkins Glen State Park gorge with waterfall.

Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or just looking for a peaceful place to relax and unwind, Watkins Glen State Park has something for everyone. The sound of the water rushing over the rocks, the cool mist on your face and the lush vegetation all around make for a truly magical experience you won’t forget.

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