A beautiful and easy hike in Watkins Glen, NY.
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.
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.
The next waterfall is called the 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.
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. Looking for more hiking opportunties in Watkins Glen? Check out my guide to Watkins Glen for nature lovers.
Here’s a video that we compiled from our visit to the Watkins Glen Gorge: