Watkins Glen is arguably the best state park in the country let alone the state of New York. Let’s discuss everything about it from its geology to the amazing trails and camping opportunities.
Two hours from buffalo and six hours from New York city in the town of Watkins Glen, famous for its racing. The park sits at the southern tip of Seneca lake and is known for its gorge. In that gorge, the stream called Watkin’s Creek descends over 400 feet for two miles creating 19 waterfalls inside 200-foot cliffs.
The rock inside the gorge is roughly 380 million years old. These rocks were formed when area was part of an ancient shallow sea. Sediment from steep mountains formed these rocks over time. Continental forces elevated and fractured the rock plateau exposing it to erosion. During the last ice age 12000 years ago as glaciers melted, water from a stream cut away at the rock to form the gorge.
About a thousand years ago the greater area of the finger lakes was the home of the Seneca people. A tribe of Native Americans known as “The great Hill People.” In the 1600s, Dutch and British explorers began trade with the Seneca people.
In 1788, Silas Walcott and S. Wilson were the first to settle about six minutes away from the park.
The park opened to the public in 1863. You could only go up to the cavern cascade. In 1864, a newspaper editor names Morvalden Ells built wooden stairs and cleared and expanded the path along the gorge. The stairs lead to an old wooden facility known as “The Glen Mountain House.”
In 1865, for the first time a section beyond the rainbow falls is open to the public. In 1870 the Glen Mountain House, it converted into a double story resort called ” The Swiss Chalet.” In 1872, Mark Twain visited the Glen and mentioned the rainbow falls it in his book “Roughing It.”
In 1906 The State of New York buys the Glen and the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society (ASHPS) takes over management. In 1907, the park is open for free as “Watkins Glen State Reservation.” Since they desire to preserve the park not develop it, the ASHPS close down the Swiss Chalet.
The Reservation becomes a New York State Park in 1911. Since then the park has stayed open year round with a few seasonal attractions closed sometimes.
You have several options while hiking in the trail. You can enter the main entrance and hike up the beautiful gorge trail. You can hike down the same way, looping the Indian trail, going down the south rim trail, or getting a shuttle from the top to your car. If you don’t have the energy to come back down, you can take the shuttle option.
If you cannot climb up the 800 stone steps you can choose to climb down the gorge trail from the upper entrance. The downside to this is that the water falls will be behind you as you climb down. You can turn around to look at them. However, that is not the same as being greeted with breathtaking views as you climb up.
There are 19 waterfalls along the gorge trail. Here are some of the highlights along the trail:
If you start from the main entrance, you go through a stone tunnel. Walking into the dark tunnel is a fitting way to start the hike since you feel like you’ve been spirited away to another world. After a couple of flights of stone stairs, you exit the tunnel facing the bottom of the beautiful gorge. There is lush green vegetation clinging to either side of the gorge. The sedimentary rocks making up the gorge are from the Devonian age. They have a unique layered appearance. You are already greeted by your first waterfall.
You get to climb a spiral staircase up to the next sight, which is the bridge visible from the entryway.
You’ve finally reached the bridge you could see when you entered the trail. This marks your official entrance into the actual gorge. Now you can see the rock formations’ cuts and hollowing as you climb up.
The natural beauty is awe-inspiring. The water flowing down the entire way makes you feel tranquil.
The cavern cascade is an underrated favorite stop for many along the trail. The path along the cliff curves around the waterfall. To pass by, you must walk behind it. You can reach out your arm and actually touch the water.
If you thought you climbed a spiral staircase at the start, prepare to be blown away. The spiral tunnel has a complete stone staircase along with a metal railing. The entire thing is enclosed in a cave. Climbing up the stairs and each curve builds the anticipation for what comes next.
The Narrows, as the name describes it is the narrowest part of the gorge
The widest part of the gorge, where you get to feel the sun shining on your head. It’s called the cathedral because of the curved wall similar to the cathedra of a church.
This is the largest water fall along the gorge. It has a bridge above it, allowing tourists to view it from all angles.
Rainbow falls is the most iconic scenery offered by the gorge trail. It is the most photographed and remembered part of the trial. The waterfall cascades in a zig zag pattern down the cliffs in the center into emerald pools. There is a water fall along the stone path as well. This part of the trail has colored rock formations.
The spiral gorge gets its name from the shape the rocks contort into. There are more plunge pools and smaller water falls to see here.
Mile Point Bridge
The mile Point Bridge marks the end of the Gorge trail. From here you can make your way back down the gorge trail or connect to the Indian trail. The Indian trail also loops back to the front entrance of the trail to allow you keep it going.
The park has over three hundred campsites across seven campgrounds with bathrooms, showers, and firewood for sale.
Although hiking is the main attraction of the park, you can also enjoy fishing, biking, wintersports, and swimming.
The natural beauty offered by Watkins glen state park is too good to ignore. If you find yourself in the finger lakes region of New York, you must visit. Luxuriant green foliage, remarkable rock formations, dangerous looking cliff, and breathtaking water falls, the park has it all.