Gorge at Watkins Glen State Park, New York

For my 32nd birthday, we took a road trip across the border to a destination that was about four hours away from home. The primary purpose of this getaway was to stay overnight at Farm Sanctuary, an incredible charitable organization that I strongly support. One of their farms where they rescue animals from factory farms is located in Watkins Glen, New York. While we were looking forward to spending time with the animals and touring the farm itself, there were plenty of places that attracted us to the Finger Lakes region of New York. Watkins Glen State Park was one of those places for its beautiful gorge.

We arrived midway through the afternoon, and after enjoying a satisfying lunch in town, we drove down the street to the park’s entrance. And really, it was just down the street. The main street in the town of Watkins Glen, North Franklin St./South Franklin St. leads directly to the Watkins Glen State Park itself and the entrance is very easy to spot. We paid $8 to park our car there, and the parking pass is good to use at any of the state parks in the area for the duration of the day. The landscape itself completely changed once we made that turn into the parking lot. Moments earlier, we were driving past small shops that lined the main street in town, and suddenly as if out of nowhere, immense cliffs completely surrounded us. Usually to reach these types of interesting natural environments, we would have to drive quite a distance from a downtown area, but not in Watkins Glen!

The dramatic landscape at Watkins Glen is very structurally unique, as you can see each layer of rock jetting out unevenly. This area was completely shaped by water and ice over the past 10,000 years. The most recent glacier in this region moved through shallow river valleys creating deep troughs. When the glacier receded north, water poured into these newly created troughs creating the 11 Finger Lakes (including Seneca Lake, by Watkins Glen). The water of Glen Creek continues to flow down the steep cliffs at the gorge towards Seneca Lake, creating many spectacular waterfalls, and gradually carving the rocks in its path. This slow, on-going process of flowing water has formed the rugged terrain at Watkins Glen State Park.

The entrance to our hike at Watkins Glen State Park.

Hiking the Gorge Trail

There are a few different hiking trails, but the one you would want to take first is the Gorge Trail. This path runs offers the best views of the 19 waterfalls, Glen Creek, and the gorge itself as it flows between the cliffs. On the way back, you can take the Gorge Trail again, or one of the neighboring routes, such as the Indian Trail or South Rim Trail.

There are over 800 steps from bottom to top of the gorge on a very gradual incline. This path is great for all fitness levels, as you’ll be taking it slow while you take in all of the amazing views. There will be some staircases, and some sections can be slippery as you’ll be walking behind waterfalls. Be sure to wear running shoes or hiking boots – not fancy sandals or heels as I actually saw some women wearing!

To access the gorge, you will walk through the Entrance Tunnel and up a flight of stairs. The tunnels in the gorge were actually hand-cut into the rock in the early 1900’s. You’ll be surrounded by rock as if inside a small, well-lit cave!

We walked across the Sentry Bridge after emerging from the tunnel (which can be seen in the first image of this blog post). Our first glimpses of the gorge itself were outstanding – the sculptured rocks were so smooth, as the flowing water has cut into the rocks for over thousands of years.

We continued our walk along the trail, marveling at the breathtaking views of the water flowing through the carved rocks. We approached the Cavern Cascade, one of two waterfalls along the Gorge Trail that you walk behind.

As you can see, you might get a little bit wet when you walk behind the waterfall! If it’s a hot day outside, take the opportunity to cool down a bit here. After walking underneath the waterfall, you’ll climb up some more steps through another enclosed area called Spiral Tunnel.

From here, we walked beneath the Suspension Bridge. On the way back, if you take the Indian Trail or South Rim Trail, you can cross the suspension bridge and look down below. Or, if you’d like to go up to the bridge, just take the Lover’s Lane path up to it. I recommend coming back down and continuing along the Gorge Trail for the rest of the hike! The suspension bridge is 85 feet above the creek. During a flood in 1935, the water from the creek rose to within five feet of it!

Through the next tunnel and staircase, we reached a section of the trail called the Narrows. In this area, the gorge seemed to have its own “micro-climate” as it is very shady, cool, and moist. There are many ferns and mosses growing here, reminiscent of a rainforest.

Next, we approached the Glen Cathedral. Completely opposite to the Narrows, the Cathedral was a completely open space where the sun was shining brightly overhead. The gorge walls were quite dry here, with wildflowers, grasses, and shrubs growing around. From here, you can continue along the Gorge Trail (recommended), or venture off to Lover’s Lane and up to the Indian Trail. You can also stand on some rippled stones in this area. These stones were once on the bottom of an ancient sea bed that is no longer submerged in water. While we were walking the trail, we saw many informational plaques describing the natural phenomena with interesting details.

It’s difficult to grasp how tall these cliff walls were, but they stretched far up into the sky! As we hiked the Gorge trail, we gradually climbed higher and higher to the top of the canyon.

We reached our next waterfall, the Central Cascade. This is the highest waterfall in the gorge, plunging over 60 feet down below. We got to cross a bridge over the Central Cascade towards the Glen of Pools area, where the creek forms deep and rounded “plunge pools” in the rock.

Central Cascade

Glen of Pools

The next waterfall is called the Rainbow Falls.

Rainbow Falls

This was the second waterfall that we were able to walk underneath. We found that this one had some water pooled beneath it, and we had to run through a few puddles to get across. A couple of weeks before we visited the Gorge, it was closed to the public due to flooding. I think that this water wouldn’t normally be as prevalent if you visited during the summer months. With that said, we preferred visiting in June because the weather wasn’t too hot, and the trail wasn’t very busy as school wasn’t out for the summer yet. We didn’t find that jumping through the puddle even got our feet very wet, so it totally wasn’t a problem!

We crossed another bridge on our way toward Spiral Gorge. This area was darker than some other parts of the trail with water dripping down from the cliff edges above. Ferns and mosses grew all around. There were many sculpted pools here.

View of Rainbow Falls from up on the bridge.

We continued walking along the Gorge Trail until we reached a staircase at the end of the trail. We hiked up the staircase and reached the Upper Entrance. I suppose you could start at the Upper Entrance and descend down towards the village of Watkins Glen, but I think it’s best to hike the trail going up, and then you can make your descent on the way back when you’re more tired out. In the summer season, there is a shuttle bus that runs between the Upper and Lower Entrance for those who wish to take a shorter walk just one way.

On the way back, we hiked the Indian Trail from the Upper Entrance, which was a very scenic hiking trail without the impressive views of the gorge. We walked beside a cemetery at one point, where I met a very friendly chipmunk who did not appear to be bothered at all by our presence!

From there, we hiked across the Suspension Bridge across to the South Rim Trail, down the Couch’s Staircase towards the main Entrance Tunnel.

We had such an amazing time exploring the gorge at the Watkins Glen State Park! Here are a few helpful tips for your hike:

  • Bring proper footwear. Some sections of the gorge can be wet and slippery, so please consider wearing running shoes or hiking boots.
  • Bring a bottle of water with you as there are no fountains along the path. You will find water at the gift shops of the Lower Entrance and Upper Entrance if you need to buy any. Of course, please do not litter – please take any empty plastic bottles with you on your way.
  • There are no restrooms along the trails. These can be found at the Upper and Lower Entrances.
  • No swimming in the water is permitted, and please do not pick any wildflowers.

The Gorge Trail is open from the end of May to the end of October, from dawn to dusk. I highly recommend visiting the Watkins Glen State Park website before you travel here. The Gorge Trail was closed due to flooding a week before we visited here, so we were very thankful that they were able to open the trail to visitors by the first week of June! There are also places to camp at the park that can be reserved online or by phone.

The official address for the Lower Entrance is 1009 N. Franklin Street, Watkins Glen, New York, 14891, USA.

Here’s a video that we compiled from our visit to the Watkins Glen Gorge!

Have you ever visited Watkins Glen or the Finger Lakes region before?

66 Responses

  1. Karyn @ Not Done Travelling
    | Reply

    This place looks gorgeous! I would love to go see it but I won’t be in the area until December! Do you know if any part of the park is open over wintertime?

    • Justin and Lauren
      | Reply

      Unfortunately this section is closed over the winter as they don’t maintain the path and I’m sure it gets really icy. That’s too bad! I hope you are able to go back sometime. However, there are some nearby places in Ithaca that you could probably visit in the winter instead – I’ll be posting about this over the next week or so!

      • Karyn @ Not Done Travelling
        | Reply

        Awesome, looking forward to it!

  2. slightly astray
    | Reply

    Wow, such a gorgeous place! I love all the waterfalls and little pools. I love scenic hikes like this. But… what I’m really interested in is reading about your Farm Sanctuary experience!!!

  3. Marissa Sutera
    | Reply

    I love hiking, and these photos are gorgeous! Going to have to add this to my list!

  4. Corinne Vail
    | Reply

    Justin and Lauren, Watkins Glen is gorgeous! Love your photos!

    • Justin and Lauren
      | Reply

      Thank you so much! It was such a beautiful place, we happily spent hours there!

  5. FrankAboutCroatia
    | Reply

    I haven’t heard about Watkins Glen State Park before, but it looks absolutely gorgeous. I like the fact that taking the Gorge Trail you can actually see all the highlights of the park (I don’t like the fact that you have to climb 800 steps in order to do so πŸ™‚ ).

    • Justin and Lauren
      | Reply

      The steps are really spread out enough so you don’t really notice them being strenuous at all! Plus when you’re walking through tunnels and stuff, it doesn’t seem too much like exercise πŸ™‚ It is beautiful there, if you find yourself in the region be sure to check it out!

  6. CarmensTravelTips
    | Reply

    I never heard of Watkins Glen State Park. We visit New York every so often. I’ll have to check out this place. My kids would love it. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Justin and Lauren
      | Reply

      It is a great place to bring your kids for the day! I first came here when I was a kid, that’s how I knew about it πŸ™‚ A great day outdoors with family!

  7. Alli Blair
    | Reply

    Wow those images are stunning! I love how lush and green everything is and my favourite detail in the images are the rock formations!

    • Justin and Lauren
      | Reply

      Thank you, Alli! The rocks were super cool, like nothing I’ve ever seen before!

  8. Ashley Hubbard
    | Reply

    Oh man, I’ve been wanting to go here ever since I first heard of it! Beautiful photos! Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler!

    • Justin and Lauren
      | Reply

      Thanks, Ashley! You should visit here when you can, it’s beautiful!

  9. Chris Boothman
    | Reply

    Wow, this looks really stunning and definitely a place that we would love to explore! I have been to NY a couple of times but never ventured to this part of the state so will definitely add this to the bucket list. Always love exploring gorges and state parks that have waterfalls.

    It is so great when you come across such hidden gems that most people have never heard of and then you can encourage folks to visit them! Thanks so much for sharing this, definitely look forward to checking this out for ourselves.

    • Justin and Lauren
      | Reply

      You should definitely add it to your bucket list – the Finger Lakes region is gorgeous in terms of its natural scenery! I’ll be writing soon about places we visited in nearby Ithaca very soon – great to combine Watkins Glen and Ithaca since they’re pretty close together!

      • Chris Boothman
        | Reply

        Also would like to add our thanks for linking up to this week’s #WeekendWanderlust on our website! This is certainly a spot that folks would do well to take note of and consider for a weekend getaway!

  10. Hannah Logan
    | Reply

    Wow that looks beautiful, definitely somewhere I would be interested in seeing for myself! And what a perfect day (from the look of it) for a visit! Love the waterfalls especially, but can’t imagine anyone climbing those stairs in heels or sandals! Thanks for sharing πŸ™‚

    • Justin and Lauren
      | Reply

      It was a perfect day for it! Although I think it would be nice to hike here even on really hot days during the summer as there are enough shaded locations. And yeah, I don’t know why anyone would wear heeled shoes or fancy sandals here! It was way better wearing appropriate shoes πŸ™‚

  11. Emily Luxton
    | Reply

    Wow, awesome photos! Looks like such a cool park πŸ™‚

  12. Suryabhattacharya
    | Reply

    Superb pics!! I’ve only been to one gorge before, in Slovenia, so I can feel your excitement. So beautiful!

  13. Dave
    | Reply

    They’ve done a great job ensuring that the steps and bridges match the surroundings – everything looks so natural. It looks like early summer is the perfect time to visit this park. Great shots, too!

    • Oh yes, everything is incredibly natural here and I would highly recommend visiting in June as school hasn’t let out yet and most families aren’t on vacation. It does get more crowded in July and August.

  14. The Crowded Planet
    | Reply

    Absolutely stunning place, and an amazing hike! Usually when you think ‘New York’ city images come to my mind, I forget that New York state has some stunning nature. I should visit one day!

  15. Karen Warren
    | Reply

    That hiking trail looks fabulous. Yet another for the bucket list…

  16. Raphael Alexander Zoren
    | Reply

    Great photos Justin (plus Lauren) πŸ˜€

  17. Rachel
    | Reply

    What a magical, beautiful place. Like something out of Lord of the Rings!

  18. Amy
    | Reply

    Great post! I love Watkins Glen! I only live about an hour or so from there and (shockingly) had never visited until a couple years ago. It’s such a gorgeous park! Only tip I’d add is to either go really early or later on in the day. It can get very crowded on nice days.

    • I’m glad that you made it out there! Lots of people around here (Southern Ontario) haven’t even heard of Watkins Glen, and it’s only a few hours away!

  19. Brianna @ The Casual Travelist
    | Reply

    I grew up in upstate New York and these pictures take me straight back to my childhood.

    • Oh, that’s wonderful! I’m glad you’ve been here before. I went here when I was a kid too and I was so happy to return! It’s amazing how many people around here, north of the border, haven’t heard of Watkins Glen! I’m always singing its praises for a road trip!

  20. Bianca @ItsAllBee
    | Reply

    Stunning place! Reminds me of the falls in Hocking Hills of Logan County in the USA. I love the shot of the rock formations.

    Floating in Israel’s Dead Sea

  21. Michael Huxley
    | Reply

    That looks like an awesome hike! I love waterfalls that you can walk under too! It’s hard to believe that this is still New York! Thanks for highlighting the less than obvious places for outsiders like me!

    • I know, it doesn’t seem like a place that would be in New York, but the whole area is quite amazing – lots of hills, lakes, rocky terrain, it is very unique and so pretty.

  22. Bob R
    | Reply

    Thanks – Looks like an excellent spot for a day trip.

  23. Christina
    | Reply

    Gorges are great places. Last year on our trip to Southern France we had an awesome time at the Gorges of Verdon and de lΒ΄Ardeche but the Gorge Watkins seems to be like a great place too.

  24. TravellingWeasels
    | Reply

    Looks like a great birthday!! Beautiful!

  25. Sabina
    | Reply

    This looks lovely! Totally reminds me of a different place very far away – Villa Gregoriana in Tivoli, near Rome. You’d porbably love it there πŸ™‚

  26. Antonette Spaan
    | Reply

    wow – great piece of nature … seems so pieceful. Love the matching sunglasses btw!

    • Oh LOL yeah we didn’t used to have matching sunglasses….but then I tried on these ones in a store, and Justin said he really liked them…and then I looked at him when we were in the car and said “Yes you liked them because they are matching to yours!” haha. So now we have very closely matching sunglasses!

  27. Anna Tillmann
    | Reply

    How great it would be to take a dive into the pools πŸ™‚ Waterfalls are just great, and I totally love your pictures! And (btw) your sunnies, too πŸ˜‰

  28. Rachel
    | Reply

    Wow, it looks like its worthy of Lord of the Rings or something! Those pools and sculpted rocks are beautiful. Looks like a magical place. See any fairies? πŸ˜‰

    • Oh, I wouldn’t be surprised if I did – it did seem quite magical there! Very beautiful. I could just look around there all day, really.

  29. Adelina | Pack Me To
    | Reply

    Wow this park is stunning! I’ve never heard of it, but it sounds like there is a lot to look at and hike through. I’d definitely would like to check it out if I’m ever in the area. Those rock formations are so unique. I’ve always wanted to walk behind a waterfall for some strange reason. It seems just too cool!

    • It is such a beautiful and unique area! I hope you get to see it sometime! Great for a hike, plus there are many other areas to hike in the region as well (will be writing about them soon!)

  30. darci
    | Reply

    im going to Ithaca this weekend and can not wait to see Watkins Glen. how long did your hike take? wondering how much time to alot. thaks

    • The hike took about 2-3 hours for us – you could spend longer or less time there depending! We were stopping a lot to take lots of photos, so we took a bit longer than others I think! Have a fantastic time! We’re going to be blogging about our time in Ithaca soon, too – I would highly recommend checking out Taughannock Falls in Ithaca as well as Robert H Treman State Park.

  31. Annika -Live Laugh Explore
    | Reply

    Looks so pretty! Thanks for this, always nice to see travel tips for close to home too πŸ™‚

  32. Tamara @ We3Travel
    | Reply

    Beautiful! I haven’t been but I’ve now added it to my list. It reminds me a bit of Flume Gorge in New Hampshire. Your pictures are lovely and so large. How do you get them to load so quickly?
    Tamara @ We3Travel recently posted…10 Ways to Enjoy Fall Foliage in the NortheastMy Profile

  33. […] my birthday in June, we took a trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York State and hiked the Watkins Glen State Park and Gorge. […]

  34. Vicky
    | Reply

    Hi there
    We are 3 fairly active pensioners coming to the USA next Spring to visit the east coast + niagara. Just happened upon Watkins Glen on the map when planning the route then found your page. Looks a brilliant place to stop off on route. We are thinking of getting the shuttle to the top entance and walking down. Do you think this is ok for three late sixties females and about how much time should we allow?
    Many thanks for your help

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