Watkins Glen State Park in the Finger Lakes region of New York is known for its majestic, deep gorge and stunning waterfalls. Make the most of your visit with these tips!
By: Alisha Trenalone
If you visit the Finger Lakes region of New York, you’ll have no difficulty finding things to do.
Between wineries, orchards, hiking trails, museums, and adorable villages, the challenge is to narrow down the list!
But there’s one outdoor experience that should be near the top of the list, even if you’re not an avid hiker, and that is Watkins Glen State Park.
The deep ravine and breathtaking 19 waterfalls at Watkins Glen are well worth the time it takes to walk through the park.
Getting to Watkins Glen State Park
Watkins Glen State Park is located in the village of Watkins Glen on the southern edge of Seneca Lake.
As of summer 2021, the cost is $10 per vehicle to enter.
You should allot at least a couple of hours to see the highlights, but if you want to stay and explore more fully, there’s a large campground and lots of other amenities. Visit the park website for details.
Looking for other state parks in western New York? Evangola State Park offers beautiful lake views and a sandy beach.
Before You Go
You’ll definitely want to wear close-toed shoes, not sandals, for this experience.
There’s so much water around that you can count on getting a bit wet and muddy at some point.
In fact, if there’s been too much rain, the park might even temporarily close.
Check out Sarah’s recommendations for women’s hiking shoes and boots!
Some kind of walking stick, like these Kelty trekking poles, may come in handy too.
Now, about the trail itself.
For the best view of the beauty spots and waterfalls at Watkins Glen, you’ll be walking the Gorge Trail.
Is the Gorge Trail difficult?
No. But also — yes.
The trail is only about a mile and a half long, and there’s no rock scrambling or anything crazy.
But there are stairs. Hundreds of stairs. And some are quite steep.
If that doesn’t pose a problem for you, then great! Just park at the main entrance and head straight up the Gorge Trail.
If you have limited stamina for that kind of exercise, though, you’ll need to make a plan before you go. You can still enjoy the park, but you may need to make some modifications.
Read on for my tips about how to avoid some (but definitely not all!) of the stairs.
Which Entrance Should I Start From?
There are three entrances to the park.
The upper entrance is not the best place to start because you’d be facing away from the waterfalls as you walk.
Most people start at the main entrance and walk through the gorge in one straight shot.
We opted for the south entrance, which offers a little more flexibility in avoiding some of the steep staircases.
The only problem with this south approach was that it was all too easy to get turned around. So maybe this trail guide will help you navigate it more confidently than I did!
Hiking to the Watkins Glen Waterfalls
A beautiful pavilion sits at the south entrance of Watkins Glen. (There are restrooms on the lower level.)
Simply walk down behind the pavilion and follow the signs pointing you toward the Gorge Trail.
The trail at this point is a pretty gentle downhill trek.
The trail levels out as you pass this lily pond.
Next, you’ll cross the suspension bridge. Take a moment to marvel at your first sight of the extremely narrow and deep gorge dropping to the creek 85 feet below.
It’s amazing to think of the water cutting away at all that rock down through the millennia.
After the suspension bridge, you have two choices for getting to the main trail.
Again, it’s easy to get turned around, so watch the signs closely!
If you or anyone in your group is concerned about climbing all the stairs, take a sharp left past the bridge to go downhill on Lover’s Lane. You’ll soon join the actual Gorge Trail.
Once you reach the Gorge Trail, the majority of the Watkins Glen waterfalls await you straight ahead. There will still be stairs, but they’re not too intense.
Your other choice? Cavern Cascade!
Detour to Cavern Cascade
There’s only one big waterfall you’ll miss if you head down Lover’s Lane. It’s an awesome one, though, so it might be worth a detour.
If you decide you can power through all the additional stairs to see the jaw-dropping Cavern Cascade, turn right after the suspension bridge. Technically, at this point, you are on the North Rim Trail for a few minutes.
Soon you’ll make a hairpin turn by going down the steps at Point Lookout.
At the foot of the stairs, you’ll come to the Gorge Trail. Turn left and head downhill.
You’ll come to the adventurous looking Spiral Tunnel, hand-cut through the rock decades ago.
You’re now just feet away from Cavern Cascade.
When you emerge from the Spiral Tunnel, you’re immediately greeted by the rushing of the waterfall. Walk behind it, taking note that there may be pooling water on the path.
The further you walk away from Cavern Cascade, the better perspective you get on its size and beauty.
As you descend more stairs and then look backwards, you’ll get an even better view. The waterfalls just keep going!
Nice detour, right? Now it’s time to turn around, retrace your steps, and tackle the rest of the gorge.
When you get back to the point where you turned from Point Lookout, just keep going straight ahead.
Back on Track: Heading Up the Gorge Trail
As you progress along the Gorge Trail, you’ll have tons of opportunities to check out the beautiful layers of sculpted rock.
Central Cascade, a 60-foot waterfall, is another remarkable beauty spot on the Gorge Trail. It’s spanned by a scenic rock bridge.
One reason Watkins Glen is so appealing to the eye is the way the stone paths and bridges blend harmoniously into their surroundings. They were designed that way in the 1930’s.
The curved, pool-like formations in the rock, as shown below, are so unique!
One of the most exciting (and most photographed) vistas in the park is coming up.
As you head towards the next bend in the path, you’ll start to see a curtain of water falling straight down the cliff face.
As you get closer, the multiple levels of waterfalls are impressive.
When you round the bend, Rainbow Falls will finally become visible, with its picturesque bridge over top.
You can walk on toward these falls to see the rest of the gorge, past more scenic bridges and cliffs.
If you continue, you’ll end the trail at the rather arduous 180 stairs of “Jacob’s Ladder.” This takes you to the upper entrance, where bathrooms and picnic facilities are available. As with any of the entrances, a shuttle bus can take you back to your vehicle for $5 per person.
Or you can double back at any point, avoiding those stairs and making the hike whatever length you are comfortable with.
And that’s the Gorge Trail! It’s hard to believe how many waterfalls are packed into this short hike.
Watkins Glen has several other trails to explore, so we are already thinking about what route we’ll hike when we go back! It’s quite the gem among state parks.
About Alisha Trenalone
I’m Alisha and I live in eastern Kentucky. Discovering good food is one of my joys in life, but you will also find me doing lots of reading and dreaming of travel. Having worked at a local newspaper for several years, I’m avidly interested in the written word and the art of sharing stories. Now I help Sarah out in various ways here at Champagne Tastes!