Watkins Glen State Park Guide
Updated July 7, 2020
Covid-19 Update: Face masks and coverings must be worn on Gorge trail. Camping allowed only with reservations. I highly recommend going first thing in the morning as the park does and will get crowded.
Watkins Glen State Park is located in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York and is one of the most beautiful and unusual parks in the state of New York. Formed by ancient glaciers during the Ice Age, you can wander through its famous gorge, caves, 19 waterfalls, steep cliffs and caverns.
The dramatic setting makes for stunning photos, and indeed this is how I first learned of Watkins Glen State Park – on social media. I had seen images on Instagram and was captivated by its unique beauty. It looked like a completely different kind of place to explore with friends, or with my kids. I decided that after seeing all the photos, that my kids would love it so earmarked it for the next time we found ourselves upstate.
You see, Watkins Glen State Park is about a 5-hour drive from New York City (4 hours from where I live in the suburbs), so it’s not really day trip material. It certainly makes for a good overnight trip, or stop along the way somewhere else. And that’s exactly what we did – we dovetailed it with a family trip to Niagara Falls in Canada, and it proved to be the perfect spot to stop along the way. It’s just a few hours from Niagara.
Alternatively, if your destination is the Finger Lakes, then Watkins Glen is a must visit. The park is nestled right in the town of Watkins Glen, and doesn’t take all that much time to explore. It’s not that big – 1 ½ miles long – so you can easily see it in half a day. But don’t let its small size fool you! Its landscape is incredible, both to look at as well as to explore on foot.
There are a few entrances – the Main Entrance, the Upper Entrance and the South Entrance. We went to the South Entrance which is where GPS led us, but don’t follow me! By all accounts, the Main Entrance is where you want to start. Firstly, it’s located right in the town of Watkins Glen, so it’s convenient. Secondly, everyone says the flow from the Main Entrance (which is the lower entrance) up to the Upper Entrance is how the park should be hiked.
You may also be interested in: Guide to New York’s Letchworth State Park
There are three trails that run along and through Watkins Glen State Park – the Gorge trail, the Indian trail and the South Rim trail. The Gorge trail is the one you want to take, for this is the one that goes right along the massive 400-foot deep gorge, which was cut through rock by a stream, the Glen Creek. It’s an amazing site to see, and apparently was left hanging this way due to the glacier formations from ancient times, creating the gorge as well as the waterfalls and caverns.
Upon entering the Main Entrance you will soon come to the Entrance Tunnel, followed by the towering Sentry Bridge. You will soon realize you are no longer in a cute little Finger Lakes town, but a world all its own! Especially once you get to the Cavern Cascade and can really see how unusual the land and river formation is, and how sort of other-worldly it looks. Here you can find the first of two waterfalls that you can stand behind. It’s one of the coolest and most picturesque parts of the park, and great fun for the kids as well.
From there you will continue on to the Spiral Tunnel and Suspension Bridge, a magnificent 85 foot bridge over the stream. It’s located near the South Entrance, and this bridge was actually one of the first things we came to, and I will say, it’s a little scary! If you have vertigo, don’t go too close to the edge. However, it provides a beautiful birds-eye view of the park. It’s near this bridge and by the South Entrance where you can find an Olympic size swimming pool, playground and picnic area. So if you have kids, this is a good place to stop and regroup.
Continue on the Gorge trail and you will come to what is called the Narrows, where the Gorge has its own microclimate. It’s shady, cool and moist most of the time, seeming like a rainforest. Continue some more and you will come to the complete opposite at the Glen Cathedral, full of sun in almost desert-like conditions.
You ultimately will reach Rainbow Falls, the second waterfall that you can stand under, Spiral Gorge, a narrow and dark pathway with various pools and dripping water, and onto Mile Point Bridge, where the famous Jacob’s Ladder steps are located and take you on up to the Upper Entrance.
There is a lot to see in Watkins Glen Park, despite its small size. I think the coolest thing about the park is that one minute you’re in the town itself, and the next you’re transported to a world full of caverns and caves and mystical looking waterfalls. It’s very adventurous and fun for any type of age and group and I highly recommend a visit!
Things to Note:
Watkins Glen State Park is open year-round, but the Gorge trail typically opens mid-May.
Make sure to check the website before you go to make sure all of the park is open – when we went part of it was closed due to flooding. It didn’t really matter because that was the day we had to visit, but if you’re able to be flexible, it helps to know information such as that.
The park gets very, very crowded and it is advisable to go first thing in the morning when the park opens.
There is no entrance fee, but there is an $8 parking fee.
There are no restrooms in the park, except for at its main entrances.
There is no food or concession stands, except for at the Main Entrance by the town.
To read more about Watkins Glen State Park, view the website here.