Exploring the Gorge: A Guide to Watkins Glen State Park
Embark on an adventure of a lifetime at Watkins Glen State Park, tucked away in the breathtaking Finger Lakes region. From towering cliffs to waterfalls it is one of nature’s hidden gems. This is not just a hike, it’s an experience that will leave you speechless.
This park is a nature lover’s paradise and a photographer’s dream come true. The Gorge trail, the main attraction of the park, 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.
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 by ancient glaciers as they retreated at the end of the last ice age. The glaciers left behind streams that carved deep channels into the rocks and carved out a narrow gorge that takes your breath away.
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.
Tip To Make the Hike Easier
During the height of the summer season, there is a shuttle bus that 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.
While hiking the entire gorge is spectacular, 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!
What To Bring
It’s always a good idea to come prepared. Here are a few things to consider bringing with you:
- Comfortable walking shoes: The trails in the gorge can be rocky, uneven, wet and slippery. So it’s important to wear shoes that offer good support and traction.
- Water: Bring a refillable water bottle and fill it up at one of the park’s water fountains. It will be quite hot on a sunny summer day.
- Snacks: The gorge trails can be quite strenuous, so bring some snacks to keep your energy levels up. Pack some granola bars, trail mix, or other easy-to-carry snacks.
- Sun protection: If you’re visiting during the warmer months, don’t forget to bring sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses.
- A camera: The gorge at Watkins Glen is truly breathtaking, and you’ll definitely want to capture some memories of your visit. Don’t forget to bring a camera or phone to take photos.
Other Things To Do
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 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.
Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or just looking for a peaceful place to relax and unwind, the gorge at Watkins Glen 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.
Anne Jolly is the creator of the food blog Upstate Ramblings. She loves to cook with gadgets like an air fryer, sous vide or pressure cooker. In her free time she enjoys hiking, reading, knitting and spending time with her three kids.