Your Complete Guide to the Gorgeous Watkins Glen State Park

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We are blessed to have lots of beautiful scenery in the United States. Julie and I are doing our best to see as much of it as possible.  

Some places are unique but give you the sense that one visit is enough. Others are so alluring and peaceful that you desire to return. Watkins Glen State Park is one of those places.  We will cover everything you need to know about the gorgeous Watkins Glen State Park so you can make the most of your visit.

Watkins Glen State Park

Julie waving from Sentry Bridge in Watkins Glen State Park
Sentry Bridge

Although relatively small, the 778-acre park is bursting at the seams with beauty.  Watkins Glen State Park revolves around a 400-foot-deep gorge. Glen Creek courses so swiftly through the narrow curves of the canyon you can practically see it carving deeper into the shale.  

The park has 200-foot cliffs and an astonishing 19 waterfalls. You will trek along stairs, stone bridges, and tunnels as you make your way. As beautiful as the shale cliffs and stone bridges are, they pale compared to the waterfalls and the gorge.  

God’s handiwork surrounds you every step of the way. You will have spectacular views from above, below, and behind waterfalls. Gorge Trail puts you so close to the action that water splashes on your skin, inducing contentment.

Where is the park?

Watkins Glen State Park is located south of Seneca Lake in New York’s scenic Finger Lakes region. As luck would have it, Seneca Lake is littered with a plethora of wineries. After exploring the park, you can sample delicious wines while viewing lush vineyards and a vast lake under an infinite blue sky. It is the perfect setting for a relaxing getaway.

If you are looking for a more active getaway, there are several other wonderful state parks in upstate New York. Two of the more popular New York state parks are relatively close.  

Letchworth State Park, often called the “Grand Canyon of the East,” is about 1.5 hours away. Niagara Falls State Park is a 3-hour drive. With so much beautiful scenery in the area, these drives are a joy rather than a chore.  

You can use the interactive map to obtain directions to Watkins Glen State Park.

Operating Hours and Seasons

Watkins Glen State Park is open daily from sunrise to sunset. The most popular attraction, Gorge Trail, is typically closed from early November to mid-May for possible icy conditions and falling rock.  

Entrance fees

The park charges a vehicle entrance fee of $10.

Parking

Couch's Staircase in Watkins Glen State Park
Couch’s Staircase

You will find a parking lot at each entrance. Within the park, exploration by car is not an option.

You will need to park the car and explore on foot. Trust me. It is a good thing. When you feel waterfall mist on your face, you will be grateful for the opportunity to walk through this paradise.

Pro Tip: Free parking is available on a few streets near the park entrances. If you do not mind walking a bit more, it is worth a quick look for open spots on the road.

Entrances

The park has three entrances:

  • Main Entrance – 1009 N. Franklin St, Watkins Glen, NY 14891.
  • South Entrance – 3530 Route 419, Watkins Glen, NY 14891.
  • Upper Entrance – 3310 Route 409, Watkins Glen, NY 14891.

Each entrance area has restroom facilities. You will not find restrooms on the trails.

The Main and South Entrances put you at the bottom of the gorge. The Upper Entrance places you at the top of the canyon. Gift shops and snacks are available at the top and bottom of Watkins Glen Gorge.

The South Entrance is adjacent to a playground and swimming pool. It also provides access to campgrounds.

Hiking Gorge Trail from the Upper Entrance is more leisurely as you will go downstairs on your journey. 

If appropriate for you, we strongly recommend you hike up the gorge. Yes, you will be going up a lot of stairs. You must climb over 800 stone steps. However, the views are more impressive from this direction.

Shuttle

The park provides a shuttle bus service that runs between all three entrances every 15 to 20 minutes. The cost is $6 per person each way.

The shuttle operates:

  • Weekends only from late May to July 4.
  • Daily from July 5 through Labor Day.
  • Weekends only from Labor Day to late October.


Things to Do

Walking beneath a waterfall in Watkins Glen
Walking behind a waterfall

Hiking

For many visitors, hiking is the main attraction. Hiking is the best way to experience the park since it centers on the breathtaking gorge. There are two primary trails: Indian Trail and Gorge Trail.

Indian Trail

The Indian Trail, or Rim Trail, tracks along the gorge from above. You will have access to a few overlooks where you can see some waterfalls. Indian Trail is 1.5 miles each way. The trail has a steep section near the end, but overall is considered easy.

Gorge Trail
On the Gorge Trail in Watkins Glen
On the Gorge Trail

Do you prefer to be close to the action? Gorge Trail puts you right next to Glen Creek and the flowing waterfalls. The hike is also 1.5 miles each way. This hike is a workout as you will navigate over 800 stairs. Because of this, the trail is rated moderate.

Gorge Trail is one of the best hikes we have ever experienced. It is so rewarding.  

You do not need a microscope to inspect the shale’s cleavage, as the cliff walls are next to your face. Exquisite stone bridges guide you over the effervescent creek. You will pass through short tunnels to find more treasures waiting for you. 

The view never grows stale as the creek takes you to waterfall after waterfall. The trail wraps around them so you can graciously admire the waterfalls from different perspectives. One of the most thrilling vantage points takes you behind the scenes. You can peer into the gorge through the waterfall as spray stretches your cheeks with a wide grin.

To see the rim and the gorge, you can take Indian Trail in one direction and Gorge Trail in the other. Although more difficult, I recommend hiking Gorge Trail out and back. Aerial glimpses of the falls on the Indian Trail are not extraordinary. Being so close and personal, views on Gorge Trail are superior. The extra effort to hike Gorge Trail in both directions is unquestionably worthwhile.

You have an option to shorten the Gorge Trail hike to 2.0 miles by going to Mile Point Bridge and then heading back to the entrance. Many scenic highlights are before the iconic bridge, so you will see tons of God’s handiwork even if you elect to take the shorter hike.

Here are highlights of the Gorge Trail that you will not want to miss:

  • Sentry Bridge – A beautiful stone bridge and overlook can be found near the Main Entrance. You can survey the gorge and a round flume hole for water diversion to a mill in the 1800s. 
  • Couch’s Staircase – Looking to tally more steps on your fitness watch? You can climb up 120 stone stairs adorned in lush green ferns.  
  • Point Lookout – You have an outstanding view of the winding creek. 
  • Cavern Cascade – This may be the most popular spot in the park as you walk behind a waterfall in a narrow section of the trail. Is this heaven?
  • Suspension Bridge – The bridge towers 85 feet above the creek.
  • Lover’s Lane Lookout – The poured concrete lookout is the lone survivor of the old trail destroyed by a flood in 1935.
  • Glen Cathedral – You will see magnificent horizontal layers of sandstone and shale formed by ripples in the water millions of years ago.
  • Central Cascade – You will gaze upon the highest waterfall in the park, plunging more than 60 feet below.
  • Rainbow Falls – Plunge pools sit in the creekbed. With sunlight, you will discover stunning rainbows.
  • Frowning Cliff – The gorge is so narrow here that it is difficult for plants to grow from the lack of light. Ice tends to remain on this portion of the trail through late spring.
  • Mile Point Bridge – The charming stone bridge marks the one-mile point of the trail.
  • Jacob’s Ladder – To finish the hike from the lower gorge, you must climb 180 stone stairs to reach the Upper Entrance. After ascending the steep steps, your legs will scream, but sheer bliss from the journey will fill your soul.
Julie on the suspension bridge in Watkins Glen State Park
Julie on the suspension bridge

Swimming

Watkins Glen State Park has an Olympic-size pool that is typically open from July 1 through Labor Day.  

Regular hours of operation:

  • Weekdays 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm.
  • Weekends 11:30 am to 7:00 pm.

Camping

Camping season in Watkins Glen State Park typically runs from late May to early October. The park offers 305 campsites and has restrooms, hot showers, dumping stations, and firewood for sale. You may have two sleeping tents or one camping unit with one tent on your campsite.

There are a few campground rules to note:

  • Only two pets are allowed per campsite.
  • Check-in is 3:00 pm.
  • Check-out is at 11:00 am.
  • Quiet hours are from 10:00 pm to 7:00 am.
  • Generator hours are from 9:00 am to 11:00 am & 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm.
  • Pick up your trash.

To obtain more information or to make reservations, go to Reserve America.  

Nearby Attractions

If you plan to extend your getaway beyond a couple of days, there is no shortage of things to do in the area. With easily more than 100 wineries in the Finger Lakes, the wine trail will keep you busy for days.  

You can drive to Ithaca in 30 to 45 minutes. The city offers waterfalls, Cornell Botanic Gardens, and a great farmers market.

Do you seek out-of-the-ordinary adventures? Here are a couple of ideas. The Corning Museum of Glass is a quick half-hour drive. The museum showcases the art, history, and science of glass.  

If you love parks but want something unique, try Kinzua Bridge State Park. Although in Pennsylvania, the park is less than three hours away. You can walk on a 225-foot platform and view remnants of the tornado damage to what was once the tallest and longest railroad structure. The park features a rare combination of natural beauty, an engineering marvel, and history.

When to Visit

As you can imagine, Watkins Glen State Park is popular. It gets busy most days, especially on weekends and in summer. If possible, visit on a weekday. To beat the crowds, arrive as early as possible.

Although the weather is likely wetter and colder, early to mid-October is a great time to go. The waterfalls should be flowing with more vigor than in the summer months. Mother Nature will paint the valley with vibrant orange, gold, and crimson strokes.

The Indian Trail is open in winter. You may have an opportunity for an exceptional view of the gorge decorated with a blanket of snow and dangling icicles. Crowds are much lighter this time of year.

What to Bring

Watkins Glen State Park in the autumn rain
Exploring Watkins Glen in the autumn rain

There are a few essentials when planning a trip to Watkins Glen State Park.

  • Hiking boots – With so many stairs to climb, you need good traction and support. The trail can get slippery from waterfall spray and rain. Bring your hiking shoes or boots.  
  • Rain jacket – You get wonderfully close to the waterfalls. They will splash you. It is best to pack a rain jacket or waterproof windbreaker to keep dry. I love my Columbia jacket. It is lightweight and durable. I take it on all of our adventures. We have encountered quite a few wet and chilly conditions. It has not let me down. You can order your Columbia jacket here.
  • Camera – You will want to take pictures and video with a 400-foot deep gorge, 200-foot cliffs, and 19 waterfalls. We use a DJI Pocket 2 camera. It is fantastic. The camera is small and light. It has a built-in stabilizer and takes high-quality video and pictures. We can’t recommend it enough. You can order your DJI Pocket 2 here.
  • Waterproof phone pouch – One of the best purchases we have ever made is a waterproof phone pouch. If you take pictures with your phone, this is a must-have item when chasing waterfalls. The case is clear and allows you to take quality photos and video. It keeps your phone safe and dry. This is another item that we carry with us everywhere. You never know when it might rain, or you may be in a unique position behind a waterfall. You can get your waterproof phone pouch here.

Wrap Up: Watkins Glen State Park

Watkins Glen State Park sits in Schuyler County in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Although small, the park packs more natural treasures than your mind can comprehend. Whether you want to relax or be active, the gorgeous Watkins Glen State Park and the surrounding area have plenty to offer. You will likely find yourself wanting to visit more than once.

About the author

We are Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.

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