Watkins Glen State Park
Read our detailed guide to find out the best time to visit Watkins Glen State Park and enjoy the spectacular views of the Gorge Trail without the massive crowds. Additionally, you'll find a great review and tips by a local as well 10 Must-Know Tips (scroll down) you should read before your visit. This Watkins Glen State Park guide answers every one of your questions and has received a huge update in 2019.
Highlights (Gorge Trail - Flow - Fall Foliage)
Waktins Glen State Park - Autumn by Andy Arthur, CC BY
Gorge Trail: Only the Gorge Trail offers the stunning views of the waterfalls and all the caves. The trail is open from mid-May until late October. It's closed from the beginning of November. Depending on the weather it could be a little earlier or later. UPDATE 2019: As of May 10, the Gorge Trail is open for the season!
Flow: There are a total of 19 waterfalls in the park. The peak flow is usually in spring. Especially with a strong flow, you can feel the earth tremble even more while standing next to or behind a waterfall. The flow gets worse in summer and often better during the months of fall.
Autumn Foliage: In the fall Watkins Glen State Park offers a beautiful show of fall foliage with vibrant displays of gold, scarlet, and orange. The best time for the fall colors is usually early October until mid-October.
Avoiding the Crowds
Summer (mid-June until August) brings the most tourist crowds. It's ridiculously busy, especially on weekends. The trail itself is packed as well as the entrance area and the parking lot. Regardless of the season, you should go early in the morning and on a weekday. Be there after sunrise right before the gate opens at 8:30 AM: Official Website - Opening Hours. We highly recommend to stay at a nearby hotel (see below), hike the Gorge Trail first thing in the morning and then choose one of the nearby activities. Alternatively, you may dodge crowds when you arrive in the late afternoon between 4 and 5 p.m. However, it's usually still busy later in the day on weekends during the peak months of July and August.
Spring and fall usually bring very pleasant weather conditions. A mild climate and often average temperatures up to 70°F (21°C) can be experienced in May and September. In the summer it doesn't get too hot with average highs of 82°F (28°C). However, the short but strenuous hike uphill can be a challenge for some visitors in the summer. The area also has some slightly muggy months. The least humid month is April and the most humid time is late August and early September. Winter brings the coldest conditions. In January temperatures range between 15°F and 33°F (-9°C and 1°C). The area can receive heavy snowfall, especially in January and February. Detailed Monthly overview: Watkins Glen Weather
Sweet Spot Months
Best months without the massive summer crowds, great views, open Gorge Trail and pleasant weather: mid-May until early-June or September (after Labor Day) until late October. But still, try to avoid weekends or go early. It's worth it!
Winter Months (Special)
The beautiful gorge trail is closed in the winter. However, the Indian Trail (read below for more details) is accessible and cuts across the gorge: From there you can see many of the waterfalls toward the bottom. A bridge in particular gives you an incredible view of a large part of the winding gorge down there. Even more stunning when the gorge is covered in snow and and ice. Regardless of the closed gorge trail, we'd say it's definitely worth seeing either with everything frozen over and snow covering the cliffs or without. It's also significantly less busy during the winter months. Sometimes you hardly see anyone else.
'I was totally blown away by the natural beauty'
'Amazing and almost other-worldly, we enjoyed every second'
'Photos don't do it justice'
Quite a few visitors say it's one of the most beautiful spots on the planet! It's so much more than some waterfalls, a staircase, cascades, and dripping curtains. The State of New York established this State Park in 1906. Before it was privately owned and already a tourist attraction.
Where is it? Watkins Glen State Park lower part is located right at the village of Watkins Glen. The upper part of the park is open woodland and close to a Sugar Hill State Forest. Starting at the main entrance visitors are right at the massive mouth of the glen and the heart of the park: A 400 ft deep (120m) narrow gorge. Its stone staircase, walkways and bridges were built in the 1930s after a flood destroyed the former trails. This combination of natural beauty and man-made work creates that feeling of being in a fairytale.
Review and Tips (from a Local)
The Watkins Glen State Park is featured on many travel lists these days, and it attracts visitors from literally all over the world. But if you plan it right, you can still have the place almost all to yourself, which I definitely, wholeheartedly recommend.
I was lucky enough to grow up in the village of Watkins Glen so "the glen" as we call it, was somewhere I loved to explore from a very early age. It's like something out of 'Lord of the Rings,' with equal parts Elvish (graceful waterfalls and sloping green walls covered in plant life) and Dwarvish (dark caves cut right into the rock walls themselves!) It will definitely stoke your imagination.
The Gorge Trail - the main trail and the place to see all of the caves and the best views of the waterfalls - is only open from late spring to autumn (weather permitting, usually from May to October/November). If you go in the summer, try to go on a weekday, and THE EARLIER THE BETTER. If you go right at sunrise when the gates first open, you may be lucky enough to have the entire place to yourself! I've done that, and trust me - it is well, well worth it. Weekends in the summer are VERY crowded with several buses full of tourists and vacationers at a time, and the narrow walkways can get very crowded. But if you go at sunrise, the hike up to the top is magical--light and shadow, waterfalls and caves, and the sun peeking in to illuminate everything. Autumn is also beautiful...September and October are a great time to go as well because the summer holiday/vacation crowds have returned home. But still, try to go on a weekday and first thing in the morning.
You can start at either the bottom, or the top of the gorge, and there are shuttles to take you back to where you began, but the most impressive way to see the Glen is to start at the Main Entrance on Franklin Street in Watkins Glen. You will be greeted by your first cave right away, with stone steps leading up into the darkness (lit by lighting inside, don't worry :) from there you will pass several spectacular waterfalls on your hike up into the gorge. There are more than 19 waterfalls and over 800 stone steps to the top, and many things to explore along the way. It is definitely an experience you will never forget.
by Jesse Miller-Riley
There are three entrances, each with its own parking area, restrooms and additional facilities. We strongly recommend using the main entrance if you are visiting for the first time. Like Jesse (read his review above) who grew up there says, it's the most impressive way to see the Glen. The only downside is, that's it's kind of strenuous to hike uphill. However, the views are more impressive if you start from the bottom at the main entrance.
- Main Entrance (Google Maps - Main Entrance): The main entrance was under construction until spring 2018. The whole entrance area is completely rebuilt: Parking is across the street from the the entrance now. Visitors can rest in a new amphitheater space, taste local food and drinks in the concession center, and learn more about the park with interpretive signs. Everyone who knew the old entrance loves the new one!
- South Entrance (Google Maps - South Entrance): Large parking area, south pavilion, snack bar, restrooms, swimming pool, playgrounds, picnic area access to the camping sites. You can walk from the south entrance to the main entrance (about 12 minutes) or take the shuttle.
- North (Upper) Entrance (Google Maps - Upper Entrance): Small parking area, snack bar, restrooms, gift shop. After hiking the main trail you arrive here. To get back to the main entrance you could either hike back or take the shuttle back to the main entrance or south entrance (wherever you parked your car).
- Official Park Website: Watkins Glen State Park
- Fee: No entrance fee. However, you need to pay an $8 vehicle fee. Camping is $18-$30.
- Pets: Allowed on a leash but not on the Gorge Trail.
- Swimming: There is no swimming allowed in the gorge.
- Parking: There are parking lots at every one of the three entrances. You can also try to park in the neighborhood near the main entrance.
- Facilities: Restrooms are available at every entrance (not along the trail though) as well as snack bars and gift shops. You'll also find picnic tables, grills, a pavilion as well as playgrounds and an Olympic size swimming pool.
- Shuttle Service: Runs between all three entrances (main, south, upper) every 15-20 minutes while the gorge trail is open. Fee: $3 per person. Between mid-May and mid-June, it only runs on weekends. After that daily from mid-June until Labor Day. After Labor Day again on weekends only, same as in spring.
- Camping & Cabins: 305 campsites with restrooms/bathrooms, hot showers, fire pits and dumping stations. Water is located near almost every site. Bathrooms were recently renovated (2016/2017) and everything is very clean. Almost every review points out the cleanliness of the campgrounds and facilities. Check the official website for more details about camping and cabins: New York State Park Campsites - Reservation
- Maps: The official maps are quite helpful: Park Map and Trail Map. Additionaly, you can find a topography map here: Topo Map
Must see trail. 1.5 miles one way. Open from mid-May until late October. Only on the Gorge Trail, you’ll experience the 19 waterfalls of the park as well as stunning views of the gorge itself. The trail has more than 800 steps and is well maintained. On the Gorge Trail, you're not only seeing waterfalls, you'll also be going behind them as well as through tunnels and over bridges. Tip: If you are not taking an educational tour stop at the interpretive panels which provide interesting details. Find out about the iconic landmarks you'll discover on the Gorge Trail in the text below.
Cavern Cascade: After going through the entrance tunnel and crossing Sentry Bridge you'll discover Cavern Cascade. This is one of the most stunning falls in the park with a 50 feet plunge. It's also the first waterfall on the trail you can walk behind. This and other waterfalls have created this area of natural grace by eroding the softer rocks deep into the cliff over a long period of time.
The Narrows: After the Spiral Tunnel and crossing the Suspension Bridge (85 ft) as well as walking under it, you'll get to The Narrows. This is a fascinating part of the gorge, as it has it's own micro-climate. Ferns and mosses are growing here like in a rainforest. It's shady, moist and cool most of the time.
Glen Cathredal: After the next staircase you get to the high Glen Cathredal area. This is an open space and entirely different from The Narrows. It's more like a desert instead of a rainforest. Here, the gorge walls are dry. There are wildflowers, grasses as well as shrubs and other drought-tolerant plants growing without much water. You'll also find a stone slab where you can stand on. A very long time ago this was the bottom of an ancient sea bead which turned to stone.
Central Cascade: This is the highest waterfall in the park (60 feet). Above the Central Cascade is a group of plunge pools. This is called the 'Glen of Pools'. There is a panel on that scenic bridge with more information explaining the formation of these pools.
Rainbow Falls: The second waterfall besides Cavern Cascade where you can walk underneath! Also probably the most photographed landmark in the park. Tip: If you are here in the late afternoon and on a day with enough sunshine, you can see rainbow reflections out of the waterfall.
1.5 miles one way. Accessible year round. Not as magnificent as the gorge trail. However, it cuts across the gorge and has access to overlooks where you can see many waterfalls.
South Rim Trail
4.5 miles one way. Accessible year round. This part of the 900 mile Finger Lakes Trail runs along the South Rim of the glen. Nice hike, but you won't see the gorge
10 Must-Know Tips
You might be wondering what you really need to know, to make the best out of your visit at Watkins Glen State Park? Here we go with our 10 must-know tips.
- Dodge the Crowds: Our most important advice! Follow our detailed tips above on how to avoid the crowds. The most important one: Stay the night in a nearby hotel and visit first thing in the morning as soon as the gates open!
- Take Your Time: Plan at least an hour for hiking the gorge trail. 2 hours or more if you'd like to take photos and for a more relaxed hike.
- Hike Uphill: If it's your first visit: Use the main entrance and hike uphill for the most beautiful experience and the absolutely best views.
- Use the Shuttle: You can hike the main gorge trail until you reach the upper entrance area. From there you could take the shuttle back to the main or south entrance (runs every 15-20 minutes) or just hike the same way back. Alternatively, you could hike back on the Indian Trail for different views.
- Take a Guided Tour: Take the hike with an educational scheduled tour. They are free of charge and really worth it. No registration required. (More info: Click on the 'Education' tab at the right navigation on the Official Website). You'll learn a lot about history and the mesmerizing formations.
- Stay 2 Days: We highly recommend to stay two days and plan at least one other activity in this beautiful area (see 'Nearby Activities' below. Most within walking distance). That way you can also hike the gorge trail easily two times, which we also recommend. First time on an educational tour, the second time more relaxed on your own to take those amazing photos. Explore the park!
- Wear Sturdy Shoes: Some rocks are wet and slippery. Most part of the trail is either muddy or has puddles. Make sure to wear sturdy shoes with good traction. No flip-flops or high heels! Wear at least sneakers, or even better light hiking/outdoor shoes which are waterproof: Hiking Footwear (amazon.com)
- Don't Be Scared: You have to climb about 800 steps and some visitors are struggling with that, especially on a hot day. However, there are plenty of places to sit down and catch your breath. Even visitors over 50 or 60 report that this short hike/walk is doable.
- Hike Downhill: We said earlier, that the best way to experience the gorge is hiking uphill from the main entrance. However, if your physical condition doesn't allow climbing 800 steps: Park at the main or south entrance, take the shuttle to the upper entrance, and then hike downhill (Alternative: Park at the upper entrance, hike downhill and then take the shuttle back to your car). Not the perfect views but also an impressive experience and much easier.
- Special Tip: When you start your hike from the main entrance, there is one thing you could simply miss. Particularly because it is not in the direction towards the upper entrance: There are a spiral stairway and a memorable walk under the waterfall near main entrance which you could easily miss.
The main gorge trail is an amazing place for getting stunning photos. Follow our special photography tips below to make the most out of your visit with a camera.
#1 Avoid Persons in Shots: Follow our detailed tips above on how to dodge the crowds on the gorge trail. Avoid the extremely busy summer months, go first thing in the morning and don’t go on weekends or public holidays.
#2 Take Your Time: Don’t rush through. Regardless if you use a tripod or not. Take your time to figure out different angles at each spot. Don’t just focus on the most popular areas like Rainbow Falls. Take photos of almost everything.
#3 Best Daylight: Try to visit on a cloudy day. Bright sunshine sometimes doesn’t provide the best lighting for photographing waterfalls (except for those nice rainbow reflections at Rainbow Falls). Additionally, you’ll have some really harsh shadows in your shots depending on the time of day. An overcast sky on the other hand often provides the perfect light.
#4 Best Way: We recommend starting at the main entrance, climb up the gorge trail and then head back again on the main trail. That way you can photograph spots or angles you might have missed on the way up.
#5 Lenses: For pictures of the gorge trail itself it’s best to photograph with a wide angle. For the waterfalls, you also may need to zoom in to capture some nice details, as you can’t leave the trail very often. That means you should either bring two prime lenses (wide angle and telephoto) or a zoom lens.
#6 Tripod: A tripod is helpful if you want to take those nice long exposure shots (together with a ND filter). However, you can also take stunning shots without one. If you bring a tripod you can often put it on top of the stone wall running along the side of the trail. Putting it on the trail itself could cause ‘traffic jams’.
#7 Light: In some darker areas with lots of shadows it can be difficult to take shots without too much noise in your photos. Either use a tripod (see above) and increase exposure or use larger apertures of f/2.0 and more.
#8 Additional Gear: Due to the waterfall flow and mist your camera can get wet. In order to protect it, it’s best to either use a weather-proof camera (if you have one) and/or bring additional gear to protect it from getting wet. Additionally, you need ND filters, in case you want to take those long exposure shots of the waterfalls.
Stay overnight, visit the park twice (see above) and engage in at least one other activity in the area. We picked 3 must-do things for you.
- Seneca Lake Wine Trail (walking distance): Excellent wine trail. The scenery is stunning: Allegheny Mountains, beautiful valleys, verdant tree covered forest lands and the Finger Lakes. Also, lots of good wineries and some great restaurants. Read the Reviews on TripAdvisor.
- Schooner Excursions (walking distance): Beautiful sailing tours in the Finger Lakes. Highly recommended. Day sails (2 hours) are from 35 - 55 USD.
- Watkins Glen International (Race Track, 7 minutes drive): A classic! This is one of the most iconic road racing tracks in the country. For $25 you get the thrill of driving the race track yourself or watch close-up auto racing at one of the events.
- Catharine Creek Wildlife Management Area: A hidden gem! A wonderful and quiet overlook of the town and swamp. Excellent for bird watching in the morning. Just 10 minutes from Watkins Glen State Park entrance.
Update 2017/2018 (construction)
Update May/June 2018: Constructions are completed and the new Watkins Glen State main entrance is now fully open. Address (for your GPS): 1009 N Franklin St Watkins Glen, NY 14891. Update January 2018: Due to construction work at the main entrance until spring 2018 there is slightly limited access. But still, you'll have access to the Gorge Trail, restrooms and gift shop. Official information and tips for visitors regarding the construction: Watkins Glen State Park - Construction. Improvements after construction is finished will include: Relocation of the parking area away from the gorge along with more parking space, an outdoor amphitheater as well as a new overlook near the main entrance for handicapped people to enjoy stunning views of the waterfalls.
Video (below the photo gallery): By Mark Richardson