Watkins Glen State Park: A Hiking Guide to this Magical Spot in New York

As if wine and charming towns weren’t enough reason to visit the New York’s Finger Lakes region, there’s an entire magical park with waterfalls and beautiful views. It’s called Watkins Glen State Park, and this is a short hiking guide to the area!

After TBEX, I decided to drive up and see Watkins Glen before making the drive over to Providence. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect besides that I’d be able to see some waterfalls. I kept hearing about how pretty this park was, and my friends over at Bobo + Chichi mentioned it looked like something out of Fern Gully, so I definitely had to go!

Trust me, if you’re visiting the Finger Lakes, you do not want to skip Watkins Glen. It reminded me of a smaller Taroko Gorge with lush, beautiful scenery and very pretty waterfalls. You can easily do everything in under 2 hours, and even the laziest of travelers will be able to do the mile-long trail.

Travel Tips for Watkins Glen State Park

Wear Sturdy, Waterproof Shoes

It’s very slippery down in the gorge, so you definitely want to wear waterproof shoes. I was breaking in my hiking shoes, so I wore those and was completely fine.

Cell Service

This is silly, but I think I’m just used to not having very good cell service in big parks, so I was pleasantly surprised by how well connected I was. I have TMobile, by the way, which a lot of people say can lose service in more remote areas.

Bathrooms in the Park

There are bathrooms at the entrances but not in the park, so pee before you start walking. It’s only a mile-long trail, but a half-mile hearing rushing water can be pretty torturous if you need to go!

You will get a little wet

You’re in a gorge, which means there’s water dripping from everywhere, and you’ll definitely walk under a waterfall at one point. You won’t get drenched, but if you’re worried about your hair or something getting wet, then here’s your warning.

Bringing pets

You can bring pets to the park, but they’re not allowed on the Gorge Trail as it’s too dangerous.

Watkin Glen State Park Hiking

The Trails

All the trails basically start from the Main Entrance and go to the Upper Entrance. Near the Main Entrance is the South Entrance, which is where all the campgrounds are. If you’re coming from Franklin Street and the Village of Watkins Glen, the South and Main Entrances are right next to each other.

Indian Trail

Facing the trails from the Main Entrance, the Indian trail runs along the right side above the gorge. Parts of it were closed off when I went.

South Rim Trail

The South Rim trail runs along the left side and is fairly quick compared to the Gorge Trail. It’s not very scenic, but if you want to get from one end of the park to the other, you may want to use this one.

Gorge Trail

The trail that you’re most likely going to want is the Gorge Trail. While the other two run along the top of the park, this one, as the name suggests, runs right through the gorge. It’s slippery, will take you under the falls, and up close to the best sights in Watkins Glen!

Hiking Along the Gorge Trail: Major Sites

Now, I was a bit dumb and parked in the South Entrance instead of the Main Entrance. It’s fine, especially because it’s where the campgrounds are and might have better parking, but I’m terrible with directions, so it turned me around a bit. I was messaging my friend Megan, who had been with her husband early this summer, in total confusion for the first 30-minutes, trying to figure out where I was going wrong!

I basically went backward and went from the South – Main Entrance instead of going through to the Upper, so  I’m going to start this guide from the Main Entrance to make it easier!

Main Entrance

There’s a little info center and gift shop at the Main Entrance as well as a nice park area with stands of information about the park’s geological history and the culture of the area. My favorite bit was seeing paintings of the gorge about 200+ years ago compared to what they look like now.

Entrance Tunnel

Once you get through the park, you’ll reach the Entrance Tunnel, which is like a little doorway that’ll take you up some stairs and across the Sentry Bridge.

Cavern Cascade and Spiral Tunnel

The first big site is the Cavern Cascade and the Spiral Tunnel. You’ll walk under the waterfall and then up a spiral staircase. (Or it might be reverse — up a staircase and then the waterfall. This is the part I was turned around at!)

Lover’s Lane

I remember walking past a sign for Lover’s Lane, but I didn’t go up because I saw a couple sitting there and didn’t want to be that stranger ruining a lovey-dovey moment.

Suspension Bridge

If you’re on the Gorge Trail, you’ll walk underneath the Suspension Bridge, 85 feet above. If you want to, you can climb up to it and get this view of the gorge from above:

Since I came from the South Entrance, I actually walked across the bridge. Apparently, there used to be a 3-story resort right next to the bridge in the 1800s!

The Narrows

The Narrows are a slightly shadier, cooler area of the park.

Glen Cathedral

The Glen Cathedral was in a pretty open area. I’m still not sure why it’s called Glen Cathedral even after visiting and reading the brochure on it! I guess the rock formations along the cliff look a bit like a cathedral topping?

Central Cascade

This is the tallest waterfall in the gorge.

Rainbow Falls

This is the big sight to see, and the one you’ll see photos of everywhere. It’s quite beautiful, and you’ll eventually walk underneath it. It gets its name because on a sunny day, you’ll see the sun reflect off the falls in rainbow colors. I went on a slightly cloudy day, so I didn’t get the rainbow effect, but it was still stunning!

P.S. For photographers, there’s a ledge where you can rest your camera if you want to practice your silky waterfall shots without a tripod! It’s a little wet/damp, but my DSLR was fine.

Mile Point Bridge

The Mile Point Bridge does exactly what its name suggests – marks a mile from the Main Entrance into the park. You can keep going to the Upper Entrance + Jacobs Ladder or turn back on the South Rim or Indian trails.

Looping Back

I looped back from Mile Point Bridge because the only thing left was Jacob’s Ladder, which sounded awful for someone who hates stairs! If you want to keep going, you can.

There are shuttles that run from the Upper Entrance back to the Main Entrance during the summer from 9 am – 6 pm. I didn’t have any money on me nor was I sure the shuttles would be running in mid-September on a weekday, so I turned around.

You could walk back along the Gorge Trail, but I walked back along the South Rim Trail just so I could see if it was different. It’s definitely a quicker trail that goes to both the Main and South entrances. It’s not very scenic, though, so if you have time, go back along the Gorge Trail.

The Indian Trail seems like the same thing as the South Rim Trail, only along the other side of the gorge. Part of it was also closed from construction.

Nearby Things to Do + See

Parks

I didn’t visit these, but they’re listed in the brochure, so I thought it was worth adding in case you’re planning a big, outdoorsy trip! All the parks are around 30-40 minutes by car:

  • Allan H. Treman Marina
  • Buttermilk Falls
  • Robert H. Treman
  • Newtown Battlefield
  • Taughannock Falls

Corning + the Corning Museum of Glass

I went straight from CMoG to Watkins Glen, and it took around 30-minutes. Definitely stop over in Corning if you’re in the area. The Corning Museum of Glass is quite beautiful, and downtown Corning is a cute area with its own restaurants. There’s also the Rockwell Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, a short walk from CMoG. I only went to a cocktail hour there, but I wish I had more time to wander around the different exhibits!

Owego

About an hour away is Owego, which is where I did my Pre-BEX tour! That town is so stinkin’ cute, I had to add it, even if it was a little far to be considered nearby.

Where to Eat Near Watkins Glen

Megan recommended stopping by Harbor Hotel if I had time to eat as it was a nice restaurant with pretty views, so I stopped there for breakfast. It’s a nice area, especially the patio, and my breakfast was delicious. They even give you these cute jam jars to choose from.

While you’re waiting for your food, you can walk along the dock.

There’s also Wagner Vineyards nearby. Megan really liked them, and they gave everyone at TBEX a bottle of Reisling wine, so I thought they deserved a mention even if I didn’t get a chance to go myself!

Where to Stay Near Watkins Glen

Since I was on in Watkins Glen for the morning and stayed at Corning, I’m not too sure on lodging! I mean, if Harbor Hotel’s rooms are as nice as their food and views, then I’m going to assume you’ll be well taken care of while you’re there.

And, as I said earlier, the South Entrance is for campgrounds, so you can always plan to go camping!

How to Visit Watkins Glen State Park

Addresses

  • 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

Costs

The park is free to enter, but if you want to take the shuttle back, it’ll be $5. The shuttle runs on the weekends only, except for June 23 – Labor Day, when it’ll run daily.

Best Time to Visit Watkins Glen

I went in mid-September in the morning, and it was perfect — not too crowded and fairly cool. In the summer months, it can get more crowded towards the afternoon. I imagine it’s quite pretty in October when fall foliage starts to appear!

I should also note, the park is completely closed in the winter, from around October to May.

How to Get to the Park

The easiest way to get to Watkins Glen is by car. As far as I know, parking was free, especially at the South Entrance. Honestly, just download Google Maps or Waze to guide you from wherever you’re coming from!

Side note on the shoes: I noticed this girl was wearing flip-flops and I guess she walked parts of this barefoot just fine, so it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have proper shoes!

Tours to Watkins Glen

There aren’t really specific tours for Watkins Glen State Park, but it is included on a number of longer tours around the East Coast.

Have you been to Watkins Glen or somewhere similar? I’m really hoping to visit more places in PA, NY, + RI while I’m home. I can’t believe I never knew this park existed!

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2 Comments

  1. Fafa
    August 21, 2020 / 1:14 pm

    Thanks Sam! This was insightful

    • Samantha
      Author
      August 23, 2020 / 5:46 am

      I’m glad it was helpful! :)

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