Watkins Glen is a model of what New York State Parks has to offer and it lives up to its reputation leaving visitors spellbound. In only two miles, Watkins Glen encompasses nineteen waterfalls! We could not resist the geology, lush green setting and the waterfalls we had been seeing on the internet. This became a bucket list item we brought to fruition this summer.
This state park has been managed by The Finger Lakes Region of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation since 1924
The main attraction of this park is the narrow 400’ deep gorge created by Ice Age glaciers that had cut through the rock deepening the Seneca Valley. The area rocks are sedimentary of Devonian Age and consist mostly of soft shales, with harder sandstone and limestone layers. The different rates of erosion from the stream and its powerful torrents have created a variety of waterfalls, cascades, plunge pools and pot holes.
The amazing stone work in the park was mostly created by the Civilian Conservation Corps from 1935-1941. Park buildings, trails, stonework, bridges and other projects were created to help civilians through the Great Depression. The stonework is phenomenal and blends into the landscape as if Mother Nature had put it there herself.
- Watkins Glen features three trails which are open from dawn to dusk. The Gorge Trail is open seasonally (mid-May to early November) and the rim trails are open year round.
- These trails connect to the Finger Lakes Trail, an 800-mile system of trails within New York State, if you’re in need of a larger adventure.
- There are no restrooms along the trails.
- For your safety, wear proper shoes and stay on the trail.
- Guided tours are available. Check the office for scheduled times.
This is a stone paved trail along the Gorge with stairs, short tunnels and unforgettable views. You will get wet, at least a little, from the misty spray of the waterfalls. You will cross over the stream on stone bridges and walk behind waterfalls. This is a short hike, but it has its challenges. There are over 800 stone steps from beginning to end on this three mile hike from the Main Entrance to the Upper Entrance. The gorgeous stone walkways and staircases are slippery when wet so wear sensible shoes. Unfortunately, dogs are not allowed on the George Trail. It’s not safe or comfortable to have them there so please understand and comply.
If you only had a couple of hours to spend in Watkins Glen, this is the place to be. This trail can not be missed. We had a high expectation of what we would find based on everyone’s social media posts. (This is one of the most picturesque waterfalls on the internet.) When we saw it for ourselves we were in awe. The popular photos of the area are a small portion of this gorge. Bring a camera!
Rim Trails— Southern Rim Trail & Indian Trail
These trails follow the gorge trail at a higher altitude. They are softly packed-dirt trails with hilly inclines and declines. The forest offers shade, but also shields a good portion of the gorge views. There are some overlook spots that give a great perspective of the stream and waterfalls. The two trails connect at the Mile Point Bridge, Suspension Bridge and Upper Entrance.
These are nice hiking trails that allow you to bypass parts of the Gorge Trail if needed for time, physical limitations, etc. We enjoyed that we could take the dogs on these trails and stumbled upon some interesting finds along the way. These trails offer some terrific high-point views of the gorge and waterfalls, but you will mostly have views of the surrounding woods.
Notable Points of Interest on the Gorge Trail
Cavern Cascade—One of two waterfalls you can walk behind in the gorge! Cavern Cascade leads to or from the Spiral Tunnel which makes it even more special. You feel like you are inside the gorge walls and waterfall.
Rainbow Falls– Plan your visit right for late in the afternoon on a sunny day and you will find rainbows reflected off the falls here. We visited on a cloudy day and we were still impressed even without the rainbows. This is also the second waterfall you can walk behind.
Suspension Bridge—This bridge sits eighty-five feet above the creek. Great views! During the flood of 1935, the water rose to within five feet of the bridge! Remember this when you visit so you can visualize how insane that must’ve been! It was a devastating flood for the area.
The Narrows—The park boasts it own “micro-climate” in this section which will make you feel like you are in a rainforest. The Narrows are shady, cool and moist most of the time. This is a great spot for finding the park’s Salamanders, but please do not disturb them. Our family ecologist couldn’t resist a quick study and, of course, no sally was harmed in this labor-of-love endeavor. If you like salamanders too, check her out on Twitter @EcoEvoElle
Glen Cathedral– The park states that compared to the Narrows, Glen Cathedral is like a desert. It certainly is the hottest part of the gorge when the sun hits so be prepared. The towering cathedral wall puts you deep inside the gorge with its widlfowers and drought resistant grasses basking in the sun’s rays.
Ancient Sea Floor– You can find this stone on the Gorge Trail where Lover’s Lane connects. This slab of stone has a rippled surface. At one time these ripples were sand on the floor of an ancient sea. Through time they turned to stone as part of the Paleozoic Era. (We didn’t get a picture because so many people sit or stand on this stone for better views. This should also help you find it too.)
Central Cascade—This beauty is the highest waterfall in the gorge at 60 feet!
Mile Point Bridge– Many people use this as a turn around point or opportunity to walk along the rim trails which intersect here.
Jacob’s Ladder– If you continue past the Mile Point Bridge for about a half mile you will reach the staircase to the Upper Entrance. This 180 step stone staircase is Jacob’s Ladder and it will give you a work out!
This is a terrific park to plan a camping trip. Tent, trailer and cabin sites are available. We rented a rustic cabin and had the best experience. Each site has a nice little parcel of land and enough shrubs and/or forest in between to offer some privacy. Water and bathroom facilities with showers are close by. We really enjoyed our stay here and the facilities were kept very clean. There’s firewood and a few small supplies available at the camp office for your convenience. We could’ve easily slept six people in our cabin so at three, we felt like we had a lot of room. The bunks were sturdy, clean, and included thick mattresses for sleeping. There’s no electricity or running water in the cabin, but this felt like a big step up from our tent.
Watkins Glen State Park
This is a full service park! There is a lot to enjoy here, especially during the summer months. Plan it right and you have the makings of a terrific family vacation. (Note: open year round, but not all facilities are available at all times.) During our visit there was a wedding reception at one of the main buildings. This is a great setting for a special event, especially if taking pictures!
Amenities & Activities
- Camper Recreation
- Dumping Stations
- Gift Shop
- Pavilions (Accessible)
- Picnic Tables (Accessible)
- Playing Fields
- Scenic Views
- Showers (Accessible)
- Olympic Size Swimming Pool (Accessible)
- Tent/Trailer Sites
- Fishing, Biking, Hiking, Hunting and Cross Country Skiing
- Watkins Glen State Park is the most famous of the Finger Lakes State Parks
- USA TODAY Reader’s Choice Poll for Best State Park in the U.S., chosen from more than 6,000 state parks —2015 3rd Place Winner
- The park is named for Samuel Watkins
- The Civilian Conservation Corp was started as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal to aid the country out of the Great Depression. They began the stonework you see today after the Great Flood of 1935. The Civilian Conservation Corp Camp was closed in 1941 as young men joined the military service after Pearl Harbor was bombed.
- Mark Twain once compared Watkins Glen to a Hawaiian waterfall in his book Roughing It. Basically, there’s no comparison. Rainbow Falls clearly made a grand impression on Mark Twain. (Check out cover photo again.)
- NYS Parks Website
- Vehicle Entrance Fee
- $8 per vehicle (includes pool), Non-commercial bus: $35
- Collection Hours—All Gates: Sunrise to Sunset, Mid-May to Mid-October
- Free entry with the Empire Passport
- Out of state resident fee for camping, per night: $5
- Cabins: Rustic Cabins (3 night minimum)
- Base Rate: $58.00 per night
- Out of State Fee: $7.00 per night
- Shelter/Pavilion – available May -October
- East – enclosed: $75
West – enclosed: $75
Loggia – open on one side: $75
Iroquois Lounge – enclosed: $150
- East – enclosed: $75
- Shuttle—$5 per person one way
Hours of Operation
- Park is open year round- Please check dates below for pool, camping, trail opening dates.
- Gift Shop open year round
- Trails Update: The Gorge Trail is open for the season.Trail status is dependent on weather conditions. With any questions, please call the park office at 607-535-4511.
- 2019 Swimming Season: June 15 – September 2, 11 am – 7 pm, daily*Dates and hours are subject to change. Visitors are strongly encouraged to contact the park office before your visit to confirm swimming is open.
- 2019 Camping Season: Due to park construction campgrounds will be open May 23 to October 13*Please note within the camping season time frame, some loops/sites may open later or close earlier. For more details, please call the park or visit http://www.newyorkstateparks.reserveamerica.com
Things to Know
- Trail Shuttle
- Service runs from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m
- The shuttle runs daily during the summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day, then weekends only from May 26-June 23 and after Labor Day.
- $5 per person each way
- Trail Shuttle runs between all 3 entrances:
- Main- 1009 N. Franklin St, Watkins Glen, NY 14891
- South- 3530 Route 419, Watkins Glen, NY 14891
- Upper- 3310 Route 409, Watkins Glen, NY 14891
- Busy traffic dates for this upcoming summer:
Wine Festival July 12-14th, NASCAR August 2-4th, Woodstock 50th Anniversary August 16-18th, and Vintage Grand Prix Festival September 6th
- Parking fee is for access to the entire park. The Gorge is outside of the park entrance, but still requires the fee which you pay in the parking lot using a parking meter. (This bit of info is super helpful!)
Family Adventure Rating ❤️❤️❤️❤️
Cost– This adventure is low cost even if you add an overnight stay at the park. A family of five can stay in a rustic cabin for three nights (minimum summer stay) and enjoy the entire park for $174 plus food and travel. (A campsite is only $18 per night.) You can bring your own food to save money and enjoy family fun around the fire ring. There are restaurants in the nearby village and your usual fast food chains twenty minutes away by the highways.
Parking & Transportation– There are parking lots at all of the park’s entrances and parking at the cabin and camp sites. If you have an Empire Passport or you are staying at the park, the parking is free. Otherwise the parking fee and the entry fee are the same. If you need some help with mass transit Watkins Glen Chamber of Commerce has a great list for resources on their site here.
Location– This adventure is centrally located in New York State making it pretty accessible from the Tri-State area and New England. The Finger Lakes Region has some of the most captivating finds in New York State due to its geological history. You would be hard pressed to find anything like this elsewhere in the world. This location makes this park a very unique adventure.
Day Trip or Overnight– This is a full day experience and the more you find, the longer you will want to stay. If you live within a three hour drive you can put in a full day from dawn to dusk. Our suggestion is to make it a nice weekend or longer if possible. We stayed two nights and already plan to go back for more.
Experience– This is a unique experience. If you love waterfalls, nature and/or geology than this is heaven. New York State is filled with beautiful waterfalls, but this one park alone has nineteen along with its amazing gorge, forest trails, and amenities. We especially enjoyed having a road trip that the dogs could enjoy too. (We timed our Gorge Trail hike with a nice pet grooming in town and then enjoyed the rim trails with them on a different day.)
Combination– Watkins Glen State Park is a vacation worthy adventure all on its own, but if you desire more than you’re in a great area. The park is right in the quaint village of Watkins Glen and close to the tip of Seneca Lake. Both Seneca Lake and Catherine Creek are known for their annual spring run of rainbow trout. Within quick driving distance you can check out Montour Falls which is a nearby town with three of its own distinct waterfalls. Have someone that is exhausted from your waterfall tour? The area is also known for its wineries and racetrack! Check out more: Finger Lakes Resources