The Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is an incredible place to go hiking at Watkins Glen State Park. You’ll be continually amazed by every stunning scene around every turn. Towering cliffs covered in moss and greenery, picturesque rock bridges, and a seemingly endless river that’s carved out the rocks over thousands of years. And I haven’t even mentioned all of the waterfalls yet!
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For nature lovers, Watkins Glen State Park is a must visit. Nestled within the Finger Lakes region of New York State, this is an awesome road trip to anyone living in New York, Toronto or Ontario, Pennsylvania, Michigan, or anywhere in the northeast USA.
Visiting Watkins Glen State Park
I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited Watkins Glen State Park on numerous occasions. I first visited back when I was very young. The only thing I remember from back then was the fact that the park used to put on a laser lights show at night. Images of dinosaurs were projected onto the rock walls of the gorge!
Even though the days of lights shows at night are long gone, Watkins Glen State Park is such a treat to explore by day. I’ve returned on numerous occasions, even though it’s about a four hour drive from Toronto. What can I say – I love hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail and visiting the Finger Lakes region so much.
Justin and I traveled to Watkins Glen back in 2014 when I originally wrote this blog post. I’m updating it with new photos and information since I’ve returned to Watkins Glen twice since then (once in 2016 and once in 2018).
Getting to the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail
The main street in the town of Watkins Glen, North Franklin St./South Franklin St., leads directly to the Watkins Glen State Park. The entrance is very easy to spot. While it is free to walk into the state park and free to hike there, it costs $10 to park your car.
Watkins Glen State Park opens on the Memorial Day weekend each year and closes for the season in the winter. However, it’s always a good idea to stay up to date because the park can expectedly close from time to time due to flooding. Download the New York State Parks Explorer app to get updated details before you head out.
Hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail
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.
There are a few different hiking trails at Watkins Glen State Park. The main one is called the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail. This path 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!
I’ll describe some of the main features along the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail, including the Watkins Glen waterfalls that you’ll see on the way. It’s very easy to follow the trail – it’s the main path that follows the edge of the gorge. You won’t get lost!
The Entrance Tunnel
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!
The image above shows a view of the Sentry Bridge from down below. Once you emerge from the entrance tunnel, you’ll find yourself right at the Sentry Bridge. From the Sentry Bridge, you’ll witness your first images of the gorge itself.
These are outstanding, memorable views. The sculptured rocks are so smooth, as the flowing water has cut into the rocks for over thousands of years. You’ll likely want to stand here for a little while to take in the gorgeous scenery. But, the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail offers amazing scenery the entire way, so let’s go!
Hiking to the Cavern Cascade
We continued our walk along the trail, marveling at the breathtaking views of the water flowing through the carved rocks. There are a series of steps leading up. Then, you’ll walk across some flatter sections on massive, flat rocks. There are lots of stairs for a workout, but you likely won’t get out of breath from them. I love how there are lots of flatter sections between each staircase.
We approached the Cavern Cascade, one of two waterfalls along the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail that you walk behind. As I mentioned before, there are a whopping 19 waterfalls at Watkins Glen State Park.
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.
Hiking to the Suspension Bridge
From here, we continued to on the Watkins Glen hiking trails up some more stairs, surrounded by tall rocky walls. Then, 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 Watkins Glen 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 sunlight can come through. The gorge walls were vast and wide open 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 are from my photos, but they stretch far up into the sky.
As we continued to hike the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail, we gradually ascended 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 crossed a bridge over the Central Cascade towards the Glen of Pools area, where the creek forms deep and rounded “plunge pools” in the rock.
Watkins Glen Rainbow Falls
The next waterfall is called the Rainbow Falls. This is the second waterfall that you can walk underneath. Even on the sunniest of days, water can pool beneath this waterfall, so you’ll likely have to splash through a few puddles to get across.
In 2018, I visited after a travel blogging conference (TBEX Finger Lakes). It was a rainy day at the park. The water at Rainbow Falls was pretty intense, and I had to run through quite a bit of water (both from the waterfall and puddles on the trail) to get to the other side! It’s all part of the adventure.
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 at Watkins Glen State Park that runs between the Upper and Lower Entrance for those who wish to take a shorter walk just one way.
Hiking the Indian Trail
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 walked across the Suspension Bridge across to the South Rim Trail, down the Couch’s Staircase towards the main Entrance Tunnel.
Plan Your Visit to Watkins Glen State Park
We had such an amazing time exploring the gorge at the Watkins Glen State Park! Here are a few helpful tips for your hike. I also suggest you take a look at our blog post about what to pack for a day 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.
- There are no restrooms along the trails. You can find the restrooms at the Upper and Lower Entrances.
- No swimming in the water is permitted, and please do not pick any wildflowers. Leave no trace!
The Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is open from the end of May to the end of October, from dawn to dusk. When Justin and I visited in 2014, the Gorge Trail was closed due to flooding a week before our trip. We were very thankful that they opened the trail for the beginning of June.
There are also places to camp at the park that can be reserved online or by phone. There are 305 campsites at Watkins Glen State Park. I advise booking early because this is a really popular place to go camping in New York.
Where to Stay in Watkins Glen
Looking for where to stay in Watkins Glen? There are lots of awesome hotels in Watkins Glen and vacation rentals. I’ve gone glamping in Watkins Glen at Seneca Sol and highly recommend the experience. It’s a beautiful property where you’ll be able to immerse yourself in nature while maintaining many comforts of home.
Not so much into glamping? Don’t worry, there are tons of places to stay in Watkins Glen, NY. Browse the map below to compare prices and locations to find an amazing accommodation.
Things to Do in Watkins Glen, NY
There are so many awesome things to do in Watkins Glen aside from hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail. Here are some must visit spots and top things to see when you go to the Finger Lakes:
- Take a Finger Lakes wine tour around Seneca Lake from Watkins Glen
- Eat vegan ice cream at Great Escapes Ice Cream Parlor (perfect after your hike!)
- Visit the rescued farm animals at Farm Sanctuary (and even stay the night at their B&B!)
- Have lunch at Glen Mountain Market (we did this before our hike at Watkins Glen State Park)
- Have dinner at Rooster Fish Brewing (and try the beer, too!)
If you’re visiting the Finger Lakes region, here are even more amazing things to add to your travel itinerary:
- Take a glider plane ride at Harris Hill
- Try all of the craft breweries on the Finger Lakes Beer Trail
- Wander around the Corning Museum of Glass
- Explore Robert H. Treman State Park in Ithaca, NY
- Marvel at the most beautiful waterfall at Taughannock Falls State Park