Complete Guide to Hiking Watkins Glen State Park (Spoiler: It’s Stunningly Beautiful!)

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If you’re looking for a breathtaking outdoor experience, look no further than Watkins Glen State Park in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. The park features 19 waterfalls along the hiking trails that wind through the glen and offer stunning views of Glen Creek.

Trails range from easy to moderate, so there’s something for everyone to navigate in the park, as long as you can navigate stairs! Be sure to bring your camera – you’ll want to capture the beauty of this park!

It has been named one of the most beautiful state parks in all of the United States, so it is one that you surely don’t want to miss!

Where is Watkins Glen State Park?

Watkins Glen State Park is located in the Finger Lakes region of New York and covers over 700 acres of land which can be accessed right from the town of Watkins Glen.

It’s just a few blocks from the southern point of Seneca Lake. The park offers a variety of hiking trails for all skill levels, as well as camping facilities, picnic areas, a swimming pool, playgrounds, and more!

How to Get to Watkins Glen State Park

Watkins Glen State Park is so easy to access from town that it’s almost easy to overlook! It’s only 0.5 miles from the southern tip of Seneca Lake, heading away from the lake on North Franklin Street.

The main entrance for Watkins Glen State Park can be found on the right side of North Franklin Street between 9th and 10th Streets heading south away from the lake. 

There is a parking lot here, but it is on the smaller side and does fill up early in the morning during peak visitation times. There is another larger parking lot just across North Franklin Street on 10th Street. 

Other options for parking include a large parking lot near the pool and picnic area just inside the south entrance and another parking lot on the opposite side of the park via the upper entrance. 

Hours of Operation

Watkins Glen State Park is open from sunrise to sunset for hiking and exploring. While the park is open year-round for exploring, you won’t be able to access all parts of it at all times of the year. 

The gorge trail does close for the winter as it is very dangerous to navigate with all the snow and ice cover during those cold months. You can still explore some of the other areas of the park during those times.

Typically, the whole park is open by Memorial Day, but be sure to check with park staff or social media announcements for current conditions when planning your trip.

Fees & Rates

As with all of the state parks in New York, there is a fee for vehicle entry into Watkins Glen State Park. This includes using the parking lots in the town of Watkins Glen. 

The fee for personal vehicles is $10 and for non-commercial buses is $35.

These entrance fees are collected from sunrise to sunset from mid-May to mid-October. There are pay stations at the parking lots in town. At the drive-in entrances, you must make your way through ticket booths where you can either show your park pass or pay your daily fee.

Watkins Glen Gorge Trail

There are multiple points of interest along the gorge trail. The park map is well marked, and many of these points have signage to keep you oriented. To be prepared for what you are going to encounter on your hike in Watkins Glen, these are some of the spots you’ll encounter along the trail.

We’ll list the points of interest in the order that you can plan to find them if you begin your hike on the gorge trail at the main entrance.

Entrance Tunnel and Sentry Bridge

Not far from the wide concrete pathways lined by decorative lighting, you’ll begin your trek by passing through the Entrance Tunnel. Navigate the semi-circular path through the carved-out pathway, and this will set the scene for the rest of your adventure. 

The stairs are wide and the tunnel isn’t very long. Don’t worry. There is also lighting in the tunnel, so you won’t need to worry about losing your way.

The main visitor center and the area surrounding the Sentry Bridge used to be the site of a mill during the 1800s.

Couch’s Staircase

Looking up the 120 steps of Couch's Staircase in Watkins Glen State Park

On this route, you’ll next pass the bottom of Couch’s Staircase. 120 steps make up this stone staircase, and it takes you from the bottom of the gorge trail up to the amenities at the South Entrance. 

Don’t take this route! Just admire the handiwork from the bottom of the staircase. Admire the dense greenery that grows around the staircase and be glad that you don’t have to climb those stairs!

Don’t worry, though. There are plenty more throughout the gorge trail.

Cavern Cascade and Spiral Tunnel

The tall and skinny Cavern Cascade Waterfall

When they say you’ll be hiking above, below, and through waterfalls on this trail, this will be your first experience!

The gorge trail in Watkins Glen passes right under the cavern cascade and directly into the longer spiral tunnel. Be amazed at the cavern cascade. It’s much taller than you’d think at first glance! You might get a little bit wet passing under the falls, depending on the wind and the time of year.

The spiral tunnel is a little longer than the one at the entrance. While you are walking through it, imagine being one of the workers who hand-cut the rock to form this tunnel in 1927. The thought of crafting the entire structure by hand is mind-boggling!

The Narrows and Glen Cathedral

As you pass through the gorge along glen creek, the next point of interest is the narrows. The water flowing through cuts a deep path, and the rock walls made of shale and sandstone are quite impressive.

This spot has been named as such because of its resemblance to a huge cathedral. The view here is breathtaking and a great reminder of the power of mother nature.

Central Cascade

Central cascade with the gorge trail tot he side and bridge over top

This is the tallest of the waterfalls in the gorge, and it drops about 60 feet.

This isn’t even the most photographed in the park, but you don’t want to breeze right by!

Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls in Watkins Glen State Park

When looking at any photos of Watkins Glen, you’ll probably see many of Rainbow Falls. This is a stunning spot on the trail, with an abundance of colorful foliage growing all around. It becomes especially beautiful in the fall!

You’ll pass by this waterfall on your hike, but you may not realize how close you are until you reach it. You’ll come around a bend in the trail, and all of a sudden, you have this fantastic view.

This spot can be quite busy with people taking photos and admiring Rainbow Falls during summer weekends, so you may want to plan the timing of your visit accordingly.

If you visit during an afternoon when the weather is sunny, you might even get to see why it is named Rainbow Falls! 

While there are 18 other waterfalls along the gorge trail in Watkins Glen, Rainbow Falls is one you’ll certainly remember.

Frowning Cliff

Frowning Cliff is another point where the gorge opens up and feels very imposing. Although the gorge is a little more narrow at this point, it’s a great demonstration of what sunlight does to help plants grow.

On one side of the gorge, there are plentiful sun-loving plants. On the other side, only plants that require very little sun can survive. Look back and forth, and you will notice that the plants growing from one side to the other are quite different.

More Gorge Views and Mile Point Bridge

a view up glen creek from mile point bridge

After passing all of those stunning views and waterfalls, you might think that there can’t possibly be more to see on this trail. You’ve seen all these sites in under one mile of hiking, though! 

Continue on along the gorge trail and you’ll see more tumbling falls and water features before you come to the mile point bridge. Appropriately named, this bridge can also be used to cross over to the South Rim Trail. 

If you’ve hiked from the campground or the south entrance parking, you could use this bridge to return to your start. 

You’d miss climbing the Jacob’s Ladder stairs to the upper entrance and the (slightly) more peaceful part of the gorge trail, but it’s a route option worth mentioning.

Jacob’s Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder is the last obstacle to navigate! There are 180 stairs here that you will have to climb to return to the upper entrance.

From here, you have options! There is a shuttle, and for $6, you can use it for a ride back to your car. We’d recommend hiking back on the North Rim Trail, though, if you are up for another 1.1 miles of hiking. This portion of the trail is mostly flat or downhill.

You’ll also get to see a few overlooks of the gorge, although the views from this trail for the most part are nothing like those that you can see deep down in the gorge.

Lover’s Lane and Lookout

Lovers Lane includes a stone staircase up to the rim trail

While this spot might seem like nothing special, for those who appreciate history, this is the only spot of the old trail that remains after floods destroyed much of the area in 1935.

Check out the staircase. You might just find the year stamped into the concrete when it was built!

This is also a spot you can use to either enter or exit the gorge trail for any reason.

Suspension Bridge

Shortly after passing by Lover’s Lane, you’ll pass by an old suspension bridge that was built in 1870. Imagine workers building that structure over the gorge way back 150+ years ago!

The gorge sits about 85 feet below the bridge, so it provides a great bird’s eye view of what you’ve just traveled through.

While you’re at the suspension bridge, cross over to the lily pond. This is the site of what used to be a private vacation resort in Watkins Glen called Glen Mountain House. It was quite a popular destination, although it did require a lot of effort for vacationers to reach.

Sadly, the resort burned down in 1903, and other than a few photos at the lily pond, there really isn’t any evidence of the structure remaining.

Point Lookout

a bird's eye view of Watkins Glen State Park gorge

This is your last chance to catch any sort of view of the gorge before returning back to the main entrance.

Take one last look at the breathtaking area, if you can. Sometimes later in the summer, the views can become obstructed by the greenery and tree growth.

Return to Main Entrance Via North Rim Trail

There isn’t much left of the trail, now. It’s just a short distance back to the main entrance, where you may have left your car. That’s the Watkins Glen gorge trail!

Tips for Hiking Watkins Glen Gorge Trail

If you’re looking for an easy hike that will take you about 2 hours roundtrip, then this is the perfect hike for you. The Gorge Trail is just over 1 mile long, and it takes you past all of the major water features.

There are plenty of places to stop and enjoy the views, and if you have time, you could even try to find the hidden waterfall nearby.

Bring Rain Gear

It may seem like a no-brainer, but bring rain gear if you’re going to be hiking in Watkins Glen. The weather can change dramatically here, especially in the spring and fall.

Be prepared for any conditions.

Even if the weather has been pleasant, the gorge can still be wet and slippery. Be sure to wear appropriate footwear with really good traction. 

Chacos or other hiking sandals would be just fine if you are used to hiking in them, but don’t plan to wear flip-flops on this one. 

The stairs and slick rock pathways could be a recipe for disaster.

Avoid the Crowds

The best way to avoid the crowds on the Watkins Glen gorge trail is to visit early in the morning, late in the evening, or during the middle of the week.

This park has been recognized as one of the best state parks in the entire country, so it is very well known. With that kind of recognition definitely comes higher visitation numbers. It is important to both manage your expectations and plan your visit at the right time

While you probably won’t be the only person navigating the trails at any given time, you can plan the timing of your adventure to go along with the number of other people you’d like do see while you’re exploring.

If you’re looking for solitude, then you may want to consider visiting the park earlier in the day or later in the evening.

When we visited the park, we were lucky enough to see only a couple of others, either photographers or runners, using the trails. We had no problem finding a secluded area to enjoy nature without having to worry about anyone else around us.

Bringing pets

Pets are welcome in some parts of Watkins Glen State Park, but the gorge trail is not one of those spots. Pets are not permitted on that trail. You can bring them to the campground and other park areas, though.

Pets are also not permitted in park buildings or on park playgrounds.

Your furry friends are required to be kept on a leash or crated while visiting the park, and there is a maximum limit of 2 pets per campsite. There are also restrictions in the day use areas. 

Swimming at Watkins Glen State Park

There is absolutely no swimming permitted in any of the waters of Glen Creek along the gorge trail. The water conditions can change much too rapidly and it can be quite dangerous. Wet rocks and undercurrents can be a recipe for disaster!

There are other spots where swimming is permitted nearby, though! Watkins Glen State Park has an Olympic-sized swimming pool available to park visitors.

Other Hiking in Watkins Glen State Park

While the gorge trail gets all of the attention in the park, there are other trails to explore. Don’t forget about these other options when checking out Watkins Glen.

North Rim Trail

The North Rim Trail is probably the easier of the two rim trails in the park. It is generally a wide path with fairly gentle grades.

The North Rim Trail in Watkins Glen is also known as the Indian Trail. You might notice that some of the signage might have it marked as the Indian Trail, also. Don’t be confused by the alternate names, but the park signage is being updated.

This trail is 1.1 miles in length, so combining it with the gorge trail creates a loop of under 3 miles.

You’ll pass through forested areas and also an old cemetery. There are a couple of overlooks along the trail, but these can become overgrown during certain seasons.

South Rim Trail

The south rim trail is the one you will use to access all of the other trails directly from the park’s campground. This trail is a little less than 2 miles long from point to point and takes you through beautiful forested terrain.

The South Rim Trail is also a part of the much larger Finger Lakes Trail and North Country National Scenic Trail. You can hike from the Pennsylvania border to the Vermont border, all the way across the state of New York!

You can use this trail to return to the parking areas and not retrace your steps.

Hiking Loop Options in Watkins Glen State Park

The main attraction of the park is definitely the Gorge Trail! On this trail, you’ll follow Glen Creek as it winds through the deep rocky walls, creating a wide variety of water features. 

From the Main Entrance (One Way)

This is the absolute best way to begin your Wakins Glen hike on the Gorge Trail. You’ll be headed upstream, so you’ll get to see all of the waterfalls and features head-on

While this route can be busy and parking lots fill quickly during summer weekends, this is most certainly the best hiking in Watkins Glen State Park.

This hiking route covers the entire Gorge Trail along Glen Creek, and you can see all of the star attractions.

*From the Upper Entrance (One Way)

This wouldn’t be our recommended route. If you head along the Gorge Trail, you might miss something because you’ll be heading in the opposite direction as the water flow. While you might be able to avoid some of the crowds early in the morning, this route should only be taken as a last resort.

You’d want to, instead, make this a loop by hiking one of the rim trails and using the gorge trail to return to your parking spot.

What Time of Year Should I Visit Walkins Glen?

Watkins Glen is an area that typically gets a lot of winter weather, so the Gorge Trail is closed during that time of year. If you want to get the full experience of the state park, you want to make sure that the trail is hikeable!

Typically the gorge trail opens sometime in mid to late May, and it closes sometime in early November. 

Just check with the park office or their social media prior to your visit. They will give you all the details on trail closures and conditions. 

Early summer is the best time to visit because Glen Creek will be flowing at its fullest potential, so you’ll get to see all of the waterfalls at their potential. It’s really a beautiful trail!

Where to Stay in Watkins Glen

While the places to stay in Watkins Glen are a little bit limited, there are great options for any budget and taste. The campground at Watkins Glen State Park has some great campsites that are relatively private with lots of tree cover for shade and a little more privacy.

For those who want to be right in the action and have more flexibility in their budgets, check out the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel. It is right on the edge of Seneca Lake! There are so many amenities and the location really can’t be beaten!

Things to Do in Watkins Glen, NY

If you’re planning to spend some of your time hiking in Watkins Glen, you should definitely take advantage of some of the other local attractions. From wine tours to hiking options and waterfalls, kayaking, or culinary adventures, there are plenty of things to do around Watkins Glen.

You could easily fill at least a couple of days just exploring the waterfalls near Watkins Glen, but there is so much more to do in the area.

Watkins Glen is also a prime destination for those interested in motorsports or its history. The current speedway and the historical route are both of interest. 

Whatever your interests, Watkins Glen is a great area to explore.

Other Places to Hike in the Finger Lakes

The Figner Lakes has so much space to explore and plenty of great spots for hiking. If you want to add some more stops to your Watkins Glen Finger Lakes trip, consider these options:

Watkins Glen State Park is a great place to hike, with trails that offer some of the most beautiful views in the Finger Lakes region. The park is also home to nearly 20 waterfalls, including the famous Glen Rainbow Falls.

If you’re looking for a great outdoor experience, be sure to check out Watkins Glen State Park. Then after you’re finished exploring the park, be sure to check out some of the other waterfalls near Watkins Glen, too!