Watkins Glen State Park can not be missed on a trip to the Finger Lakes. With 19 spectacular waterfalls, a flowing glen, and steep cliffs, a trip to Watkins Glen State Park is like an ethereal dream. Hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen State Park is a truly magnificent experience. The Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen leads you to Rainbow Falls, which is the most iconic spot in the park. The Gorge Trail follows Glen Creek, up stone staircases, and over idyllic bridges. And throughout the entire hike, you are rewarded with views of some of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Finger Lakes. Quite frankly, Watkins Glen is one of the most beautiful places in New York.
As one of the best State Parks in New York, Watkins Glen attracts approximately 1 million visitors each year. This includes New York residents, people from all over the United States, and even international tourists. Watkins Glen is a popular stop on New York tours and should be included on any New York State road trip.
Because of its immense popularity, you will want to follow the tips outlined in this guide for hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail.
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Where is Watkins Glen State Park
Watkins Glen State Park is located within the village of Watkins Glen, in the Finger Lakes region of New York. You can walk to the main entrance of Watkins Glen State Park from almost anywhere in town. The park’s Main Entrance is located on the main road in town and is nearby plenty of restaurants.
Watkins Glen is located on the Southernmost tip of Seneca Lake. Glen Creek flows through the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail and into Seneca Lake.
How to Get to Watkins Glen State Park
Due to its central location, Watkins Glen State Park is within driving distance from almost everywhere in New York State and many surrounding states. You will need a car to get to and around the region. If you don’t have a car, be sure to book your rental.
I do not recommend taking a bus to Watkins Glen State Park. Busses run pretty infrequently in this part of New York. It will end up taking you a long time to get to Watkins Glen from whatever city you are coming from, and then you will be stuck without the means to get around. There are so many things to do in Watkins Glen and the Finger Lakes region that you will want a car to explore.
If you are flying into the region, here are the closest airports to fly into. Be sure to check flights using Skyscanner.
- Rochester International, NY – 87 miles (1h 35m)
- Syracuse International, NY – 90 miles (1h 40m)
- Buffalo Niagara International, NY – 138 miles (2h 20m)
- Newark, NJ – 231 miles (4h 00m)
Don’t forget to book your rental car to pick up at the airport when you arrive.
Parking and Entrance Fees at Watkins Glen State Park
Watkins Glen State Park and hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is free. However, you will need to pay an $8 parking fee at the designated lots. If you’re planning on visiting multiple state parks in one day, your parking pass is good for the entire day for any New York State Park. Check out these other incredible waterfalls in the Finger Lakes!
Consider purchasing an Empire Pass, which gives you unlimited entry to most of New York State Parks.
As Watkins Glen State Park is one of the most popular state parks in the United States, finding a parking spot can be difficult on weekends and busy holidays. Try to arrive early to beat the crowds and to get a spot if you’re visiting on a busy day.
Alternatively, if you want to avoid paying the parking fee, there are a couple of options.
Park on a Side Street
There are no parking meters in town, so you can park on any side street within walking distance of the park. I’ve done this on a weekday, then walked to the entrance to hike the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail. However, it will be hard to find street parking on a busy day.
Leave Your Car at Your Hotel
If you are staying at a hotel in Watkins Glen, you can leave your car at the hotel parking lot and walk to the park. Most hotels are within a short walk from the park entrance. The Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel is approximately a 10-minute walk.
About The Watkins Glen Gorge Trail
The Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is a 1.5-mile (one-way) trail along the Watkins Glen Gorge and is the best place to see the 19 waterfalls of the park. This trail has over 800 well-maintained stairs. While the Gorge Trail has a lot of stairs (800!), you don’t need to be an expert hiker for this trail. While climbing 800 steps can seem daunting, there are so many beautiful views at Watkins Glen that chances are you will make plenty of stops on your hike and won’t become too tired. I stopped every few feet to take in the view and to take photos. With frequent stops to take in the view, you won’t even notice the climb.
The first time I hiked the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail was before I started hiking more frequently, and I had no problem with the trail. Since then, I have visited with my parents, and the trail didn’t pose a problem for them either. As long as you are in moderate shape, you should be able to hike the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail.
Trail Difficulty: Moderate
Trail Length: 1.5 miles (one way)
Hiking Watkins Glen State Park
Typically, there are several options for hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail. These options allow you to choose how you would like to hike the Gorge Trail and are dependent on your skill and the length of the hike. Currently, however, there are only two options for hiking the Gorge Trail. In order to promote social distancing, the trails are one way.
P.S. there is a seasonal shuttle that makes the one-way hiking options viable. Alternatively, if you are traveling with a group and have two cars, you can always park one car at the Main Entrance and one car at the Upper Entrance.
While there are various options for hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail, I would almost always recommend hiking up, from the Main Entrance. Walking up the 800 stairs at Watkins Glen State Park may seem like a difficult feat, however, walking up the Gorge Trail means that the waterfalls will be in front of you the entire time. This makes for a better experience because as you ascend the stairs you will be rewarded with the beautiful waterfall views.
On the other hand, hiking down the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail means that the views will be behind you the entire time. In order to take in the waterfall views, you will have to keep stopping and turning around. It is still a great way to experience Watkins Glen State Park, yet it takes away some of the *wow* moments that you get climbing up the Gorge.
From the Main Entrance (One Way)
If you only have time to hike in one direction, you can hike up the Watkins Glen Gorge from the Main Entrance. Once you reach the Upper Entrance, you can take the seasonal shuttle back down to where your car is parked.
From the Upper Entrance (One Way)
From the Upper Entrance, you can hike one way down the gorge. When you hike down the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail, the views are behind you. So I would only recommend this option if you physically cannot walk up all the stairs at Watkins Glen State Park. Once you get to the bottom of the gorge, you can take the seasonal shuttle back to where you parked your car.
Out and Back the Gorge Trail
Hiking out and back the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is my favorite way to experience the park. With this option, you are hiking up the Gorge Trail, then back down. This way, you get stunning gorge views on your entire hike. And on the way down, you can stop to take in views that you may have missed on the way up.
Gorge Trail and Indian Trail Loop
Currently, the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is only allowing one-direction traffic. Since you cannot hike out and back the Gorge Trail, you will need to do the Gorge Trail and Indian Trail Loop. This means that you are hiking in the Gorge Trail and back on the Indian Trail.
Watkins Glen Gorge Trail
Begin your journey through Watkins Glen Gorge Trail at the Main Entrance. The Main Entrance starts at the base of the gorge, and you will need to work your way up to several sets of stairs throughout the park. As you hike up through the park from the Main Entrance, the waterfalls and views will be in front of you. Waterfalls and beautiful views will beckon you to continue your upward climb.
Upon entering the park, the views are immediately breathtaking. The glen cuts through the center of the cliffs in a small stream, and the water flows smoothly, cascading over the cliffs.
Walking through Watkins Glen State Park, you may think it couldn’t get prettier. But it does! The trail follows the gorge and the 18 waterfalls of Watkins Glen. Continuing along the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail, you will pass through the narrows and caverns of Watkins Glen. The beauty and diversity of this park is astounding.
Hiking through Watkins Glen State Park will ultimately lead you to Rainbow Falls, the park’s most iconic and photographed spot.
Entrance Tunnel and Sentry Bridge
Upon entering the Watkin Glen Gorge Trail, you will be immediately blown away. The entrance to the gorge is a tall, narrow crack. Passing through this entry will make you feel like you are stepping into some mythical land. You will see some flowing water and a stone bridge overhead.
But first, you must climb up a spiral staircase before reaching the stone bridge, Sentry Bridge. Reaching Sentry Bridge marks your entry into the Watkins Glen Gorge.
From the bridge, you will be able to look directly down to a narrow part of Glen Creek. The way the creek cuts through the rocks, creating waves seems otherworldly.
Cavern Cascade and Spiral Tunnel
The sheer beauty of Watkins Glen State Park is evident once you reach Cavern Cascade. While it is not the iconic Watkins Glen Rainbow Falls view, it is beautiful in its own right. This thin veil-like waterfall falls delicately into the gorge.
One of my favorite moments hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge is getting to walk behind Cavern Cascade. In order to continue the hike, you must walk behind this waterfall. Many people will stop behind Cavern Cascade to reach out and touch the water. At this point, you may start getting a little wet.
After passing behind Cavern Cascade, you will round the corner to Spiral Tunnel. Spiral Tunnel is a set of stairs leading to the next part of the hike.
The Narrows and Glen Cathedral
Continuing along the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail, you will pass through the narrows of Watkins Glen. The beauty and diversity of this park is astounding, and the narrows really showcase that. This section of the Watkins Glen Gorge is hidden from sunlight, so it tends to be cool and moist.
In juxtaposition, Glen Cathedral is the sunniest part of the gorge. The towering cathedral wall puts you deep inside the gorge. This area is wide and open and may be the only time you feel the sun blazing down at you.
At 60 ft, Central Cascade is the tallest waterfall at Watkins Glen State Park. This waterfall is phenomenal, with a stone bridge at the top of it. You can view Central Cascade from every angle as you make your way up the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail stairs and over the bridge.
Once you reach the bridge above Central Cascade, you will see the small plunge pools that flow from Glen Creek to this waterfall. The site of these plunge pools indicates that you are about to reach the iconic spot in Watkins Glen State Park, Rainbow Falls.
This view is one of the most beautiful spots I have ever seen. The waterfalls cascade effortlessly down the gorge into the emerald plunge pools. It is no surprise why Rainbow Falls in Watkins Glen State Park is such an iconic spot. It is truly mesmerizing.
Rainbow Falls begs to be photographed. It is truly one of the most beautiful places in New York. Scratch that, Watkins Glen State Park is one of the most beautiful places in the world! This view of Rainbow Falls should be enough to persuade you of Watkins Glen’s beauty.
After spending ample time photographing Rainbow Falls and taking in the view, duck under the small waterfall spilling out over the walkway. Here, you’re going to get wet. But it’s worth it to continue along exploring the Gorge Trail and viewing the small plunge pools.
One waterfall even flows into a heart-shaped basin. Nothing has ever represented my fondness for nature quite as acutely.
Spiral Gorge and Mile Point Bridge
While Rainbow Falls is the showstopper on the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail, continue your hike through the Spiral Gorge. You will see more plunge pools and small waterfalls along this portion of the Gorge Trail. And you will continue to get your workout in with plenty of steps.
Each inch of the Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen State Park is truly magnificent, and the Spiral Gorge is no exception.
Once you reach Mile Point Bridge, you can either turn around to hike back down the Gorge Trail or connect to the Indian Trail.
Return to Main Entrance Via Indian Trail or Back Down the Gorge Trail
The Indian Trail follows the North Rim back to the Main Entrance of Watkins Glen State Park. While it is a nice hike, the scenic part of your hike is behind you after you’ve left the gorge.
There is a suspension bridge on the Indian Trail, which offers a view of the Watkins Glen Gorge below. Hiking Indian Trail back will perhaps be the quicker route, as there are not as many people crowding the trail; I would suggest hiking back down the Gorge Trail. The Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is incredibly scenic, so you will surely enjoy the experience of hiking it again.
Tips for Hiking Watkins Glen Gorge Trail
These tips for the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail will ensure you have the best possible experience.
Bring Rain Gear
Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail tends to be wet and cool all year round. You may get hit by the mist of the waterfalls, and it can be very muddy. On a cooler day, bring a rain jacket to keep yourself dry. But don’t worry; you will not get soaked! This is not the Cave of the Winds! Also, make sure to wear a pair of shoes that you don’t mind getting muddy.
Avoid the Crowds
It can get very crowded at Watkins Glen State Park. To avoid the crowds, arrive early or during shoulder seasons. Most tour groups visit during the afternoon, on the weekends, or on holidays in the summer months.
Take your Time
If you’re hiking out and back the Gorge Trail, it is a 3-mile hike (1.5 miles each way) and will take about an hour to complete. Yet, give yourself two hours for this hike to relax and enjoy the scenery. If you take your time, you will be able better to appreciate the beauty of Watkins Glen State Park, and you won’t be as tired from the hike.
Use the Shuttle
If you don’t have time or energy to hike out and back the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail or the Gorge Trail and Indian Trail Loop, consider taking the shuttle. A seasonal shuttle is available that goes to and from the Upper Entrance. That way, you only need to hike in one direction.
Best Time to Visit Watkins Glen State Park
The Best Time of the Year
The Gorge Trail is only open seasonally, between mid-May till late-October. That means that you only have a short window of time to visit. I’ve visited in all three seasons that the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is open, and I don’t think any season is necessarily better than the other.
The Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen is set to reopen on Memorial Day Weekend 2021. Check the official New York State Parks page for updates.
The Watkins Glen Gorge can be cold and damp, so I recommend visiting on a warmer day.
The Best Time of the Day
If you have the opportunity, visit Watkins Glen State Park as early in the day as possible. The earlier, the better! The afternoons can get very busy with tour buses and day trippers. However, evenings at Watkins Glen State Park can be quite pleasant once the day-trippers clear out.
Watkins Glen State Park Hotels
Looking for Watkins Glen State Park Hotels? There are a variety of hotels within walking distance of Watkins Glen State Park which will make hiking the Gorge Trail a breeze. I stayed at Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel, which was a great base for exploring Watkins Glen State Park. Not only is this an incredible hotel in Watkins Glen, but it is also one of my favorite hotel stays ever! Read my full review!
Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel
Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel is hands down the best hotel to stay at in Watkins Glen. This hotel is located at the Seneca Lake Harbor, and the lake is only steps away from the hotel. Not only does the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel have amazing views of the lake, but it is also within walking distance of Watkins Glen State Park. This is the perfect place to wind down after hiking the Gorge Trail.
Things to do Near Watkins Glen State Park
Aside from hiking the Gorge Trail in Watkins Glen State Park, there are many incredible things to do in the area. There are plenty of things to do just in Watkins Glen, New York, to keep you busy for an entire weekend. You can also venture farther throughout the Finger Lakes region to explore more waterfalls, wineries, and cute towns.
Check out this Watkins Glen Travel Guide for more things to do in Watkins Glen, such as wineries, lakeside activities, and more waterfalls. Also, consider visiting the other incredible waterfalls in the Finger Lakes.
Watkins Glen Gorge Trail Wrap Up
This wraps up the guide to hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail. Watkins Glen State Park is truly one of the most beautiful parks in New York State and one of my favorite places. Leave a comment below if you have any more questions about the Gorge Trail or want to share your experience!
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