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Watkins Glen State Park: Hiking the Gorge Trail + Activities & Camping

Are you planning on hiking the Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail but don’t know where to start? We’ve got you covered! 

A visit to the Finger Lakes is incomplete without a stop at Watkins Glen State Park. This state park is like stepping into an ethereal dream with magnificent waterfalls, flowing glen, and high cliffs.

One remarkable experience in the area is hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail. The most famous location in the park, Rainbow Falls, is reached via this trail. The Glen Creek-following Gorge Trail ascends stone stairways and crosses picturesque bridges. You will be able to see some of the most stunning waterfalls in the Finger Lakes throughout the climb. In all honesty, Watkins Glen is among New York State’s most picturesque locations.

Watkins Glen, one of the top State Parks in New York, welcomes almost 1 million visitors yearly. It includes citizens of New York, Americans from every state, and even tourists from other countries. Apart from hiking, camping and other activities make the state park a tourist hotspot.

If you’re planning to hike the Gorge Trail, see the views, or check out some of the best Watkins Glen State Park waterfalls, keep reading!

About Watkins Glen State Park

Hiking the Gorge Trail Watkins Glen State Park + waterfalls and activities

Watkins Glen is the most well-known Finger Lakes State Park, renowned for its natural beauty.

It has many gorges and waterfalls that are likely to astound everyone. You can pass 19 waterfalls on a nearly two-mile journey and ascend more than 800 stone steps.

The Gorge Trail has several side trails that lead to various enjoyable outdoor pursuits adjacent to the main course. Contest and trailer camping areas, swimming areas, picnic areas, and guided topographic tours are available.

Dogs on leashes are allowable on the rim paths but not on the Gorge Trail.

The main entrance, south, and north entrance are three park entrances. While you can escape to the grandeur of Watkins Glen State Park’s gorges and waterfalls, you are not far from the comforts of a town.

Location of Watkins Glen State Park

Hiking the Gorge Trail Watkins Glen State Park + waterfalls and activities

The town of Watkins Glen, within the Finger Lakes area of New York, is home to Watkins Glen State Park. And it’s super small!

In fact, from practically any are in town, you can walk to Watkins Glen State Park’s main entrance. The main entrance to the park is close to many dining options and is on the town’s major thoroughfare.

Watkins Glen is situated on Seneca Lake’s southernmost point.

Best Time to Visit the Watkins Glen State Park

Hiking the Gorge Trail Watkins Glen State Park + waterfalls and activities

You will have a different experience when you visit the state park each season of the year. Hiking Watkins Glen State Park can be accomplished in three out of the four seasons, but you’ll need to plan carefully for the weather. Here’s what to expect with varying seasons:

Spring

One of the best times to visit since Glen Creek’s best water flow occurs during the snowmelt season.

Summer

Despite the longer daylight hours and intense heat, the gorge trail will be really crowded. It’s a lot hotter but is still a great time, plus the greenery is beautiful!

Fall

The best time to hike in New York is the gorgeous Autumn foliage. Seriously: it’s insanely beautiful!

Winter

During winter, the Gorge Trail closes. You’ll have to wait until spring to be able to hike.

Getting to Watkins Glen State Park

Thanks to its strategic position, Watkins Glen State Park can be reached by car anywhere in New York State and many neighboring states.

To travel to and within the area, you will need a vehicle. Make sure you reserve a rental car if you don’t already have one. Watkins Glen isn’t really accessible any other way and there’s no local public transportation.

Entrance Fee and Parking at Watkins Glen State Park

Hiking the Gorge Trail Watkins Glen State Park + waterfalls and activities

It costs nothing to visit Watkins Glen State Park or hike the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail. However, parking at the approved lots will cost you $8. Your parking permit is valid for the entire day at any New York State Park if you intend to visit several state parks in one day.

Finding a parking space when hiking Watkins Glen State Park can be challenging on weekends and big holidays because it’s one of the most visited state parks in the country. If you are visiting on a popular day, try to get there early to avoid the mob and to get a parking spot.

Alternately, you have two choices if you wish to avoid spending the parking fee: park on a side road or leave your car at your hotel.

There are no metered spaces in the town, so you can park anywhere on a side street close to the park. Afterward, proceed to the Gorge Trail’s entrance to begin hiking Watkins Glen State Park. On a busy day, it will be challenging to get street parking.

You can park your car at the hotel garage lot and stroll to the park if you’re staying there in Watkins Glen. The majority of hotels are a little stroll from the park’s entrance.

Try to arrive early if you do want to get a parking spot. During the middle time of the day, the area becomes crowded before becoming quieter late in the afternoon.

It is best to avoid visiting the area during the busy weekends between April and October, especially during holidays. Visit during the weekdays if possible or come early; the parking lot fills up quickly.

Overview of Gorge Trail Hike in Watkins Glen State Park

Hiking the Gorge Trail Watkins Glen State Park + waterfalls and activities

Now that we’ve covered details about Watkins Glen State Park let us dive into the activities in the park. Hiking Gorge Trail is one of the most popular, and here is what to expect when you hike this renowned attraction:

Highlights: A breathtaking waterfall cascading down a beautiful gorge you can access via 800 steps. The trail has scenic views and is family-friendly.

Distance: 1.5 mile

Difficulty: Moderate

Elevation Gain: 394 feet

Trail: Rock, water, stairs

Trailhead Location: Though there are several ways to hike the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail, we nearly always advise starting at the Main Entrance.

Hiking Time: 49 minutes on average

Permit Info: There is no permit required when hiking the Gorge Trail

Restrictions:

  • Watkins Glen Gorge Trail only permits hiking in one direction because of the pandemic. You must complete the Gorge Trail and Indian Trail Loop because it is impossible to trek the Gorge Trail in reverse. After hiking Gorge Trail, you must take the Indian Trail to return. The making of a one-way trail is to promote social distancing.
  • Although the state park generally allows dogs, they are not allowed on the Gorge Trail.

Hiking Gorge Trail in Watkins Glen State Park

The breathtakingly beautiful Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is family-friendly, thanks to a stone wall that surrounds the walkway’s edge and keeps young children from tumbling. However, it is not the most convenient for people with mobility problems.

Although you certainly don’t need to be an Olympian to hike the trail, you shouldn’t overlook the required 800 steps. Step carefully as wet leaves on the paths and waterfall spray can make the stone surfaces slick.

The Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail has a few different sections, each of which is equally amazing. We’ll go over the sections in order here so you know what to expect!

Entrance Tunnel and Sentry Bridge

Hiking the Gorge Trail Watkins Glen State Park + waterfalls and activities
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The breathtaking canyon route at Watkins Glen begins before you even start your journey or ascend the first step. Hiking Watkins Glen State Park is definitely part of the experience, but we recommend checking out this Watkins Glen State Park waterfall before you even begin!

A tall, narrow fissure in the ground, a little, silky waterfall gushing from the bottom, and an exposed, elegant stone bridge linking the two sides form the first scene.

There used to be a flour mill with a waterwheel at the entrance. Dams, troughs, and tunnels regulate the water flow to turn the wheel.

Sentinel Bridge allows you to pass through the tiny creek, but you must first ascend an artificial spiraling staircase carved out of a turret to get to the arched overpass.

You won’t have to hike for more than a minute before you can see directly down this stunningly beautiful and incredibly tiny portion of Glen Creek.

Low running water makes it possible to see considerably more detail in the worn shale rock. But this is merely a preview of the main delight that will follow.

Cavern Cascade and Spiral Tunnel

You undoubtedly know everything about Rainbow Falls, the most famous of the Watkins Glen State Park waterfalls, from magazine covers or Google photographs. But there are tons of other gorgeous views and surprises you’ll find when trekking the Watkins Glen canyon route, which is what makes the hike so exciting. One of those big surprises is Cavern Cascade.

As you continue along the artificial stone route following the edge of the gorge, you’ll see a stairway connecting the way to your left. Avoid making the turn; Couch’s Staircase, which leads to the South Entrance, lies there.

There has to be a dead end up ahead, it appears at first. All that is visible is a petite 30- to 40-foot-high waterfall that emerges from a valley three meters wide and is formed by eroding beneath layers of harder sandstone. When you continue along the path, you’ll see that it arcs around and beneath Cavern Cascade before going further inside the granite to a further spiral staircase.

But don’t plan to remain dry when encountering the might of Cascade Falls! You’ll definitely want to bring a towel and a waterproof bag if you intend to head into this area. Keep in mind that you don’t have to go around/beneath Cavern Cascade when hiking Watkins Glen State Park – the choice is yours.

The Narrows, Glen Cathedral, and Central Cascade

Hiking the Gorge Trail Watkins Glen State Park + waterfalls and activities
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You will rise a few flights of stairs, hug one side of the canyon, then cross to the other as the Watkins Glen gorge hike passes across Glen Creek.

The Narrows is a stretch of the route shielded from sunlight and light. Thus it is constantly damp and cold—the ideal setting for moss to flourish. Paper-thin gullies are visible as water progressively erodes the fragile sedimentary rock, resulting in a sequence of wispy waterfalls. As you pass an excellent stone bridge that spans the peak of Central Cascade, you will be astounded by more impressive stonework.

The most miniature waterfall inside the gorge is “only “60 feet tall. And while the views get even more impressive up ahead, we recommend snapping a few pictures here!

Rainbow Falls

Hiking the Gorge Trail Watkins Glen State Park + waterfalls and activities
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There is much to love about Rainbow Falls, from the waterfalls to the pothole pools, the silvery water dropping from above, the stunning stone bridge and staircase in the background, and the contrast of the bright colors and deep shadows.

Out from this world, metaphors take on new meaning in Rainbow Falls. The view will blow you away!

The reason for the name “Rainbow Falls” is because rainbows are visible when visiting in the late afternoon on a sunny day when the sun’s rays are just right to enter the canyon and reflect and refract in the water droplets. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of these rainbows!

The emotional punch of Rainbow Falls combines drama, beauty, piercing beauty, striking beauty, and delicacy. The brain needs seconds to fully process what it sees because there is too much information. It’s seriously that beautiful.

You can’t help but admire how well-designed and constructed artificial walkways, staircases, and bridges are. They appear to have been formed by erosion alone, not by man, as they blend in with the gorge.

When your mind is already blown by the rainbow falls, continue beneath the incredibly thin but wide waterfall on your journey.

Spiral Gorge and Mile Point Bridge

Hiking the Gorge Trail Watkins Glen State Park + waterfalls and activities
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The Watkins Glen gorge trail trip still has a couple more jaw-dropping sights up its sleeve, even though Rainbow Falls has served as the hike’s pinnacle.

You will continue down the trail in the confined spiral gorge as you pass other pothole pools, steps, and more Watkins Glen State Park waterfalls.

The smooth portion of the Watkins Glen gorge route is one of the hike’s last sights. Take note of the colorful and curved shale rocks where water flows can rise fully after winter.

We couldn’t get enough of the rock staircases located adjacent to different gorge parts since they all seem like they could be scenes from a fantasy book.

Return to Main Entrance Via Indian Trail

The smallest and least stunning bridge you’ve seen so far is Mile Point Bridge. Indian Trail is by a small cut-through and follows North Rim on the way back to the entrance of Watkins Glen State Park.

There are a few vantage points along the way, including one cemetery, but none offer views that match those inside the gorge itself. So make sure to take your time inside the gorge and get your fill since you can’t go backward.

Returning to your car after leaving the Watkins Glen canyon trail requires hiking twice as far. The only noteworthy pit stop is a picturesque suspension bridge that spans the gorge and connects to South Entrance.

Tips When Hiking Watkins Glen Gorge Trail

Hiking Gorge Trail is a unique experience, but to make the most of your time there, consider following some tips!

Ready Your Hiking Gear

Watkins Glen State Park’s Gorge Trail is often chilly and rainy all year. The area could be rather muddy, and you might get splashed by the waterfalls’ mist. Take a rain jacket if the weather is chilly to stay dry. You won’t get wet, so don’t worry! The Cave of the Winds is not here! Also, ensure your footwear is something you don’t mind getting dirty in.

Beat The Crowd

As indicated earlier, Watkins Glen State Park can become highly congested. Show up early or during shoulder seasons to avoid congestion. Most tour groups prefer to go in the late afternoon, on weekends, or on holidays in the summer.

Make Use of Shuttle

Consider using the shuttle if you don’t have the time or stamina for hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail or even the Gorge Trail and Indian Trail Loop roundtrip. A seasonal shuttle that travels from and to the Upper Entrance is available.

Spend More Time

The Gorge Trail is 1.5 miles long and takes about an hour to accomplish if you hike it. However, allow yourself two hours to unwind and take in the sights of this trek. Take your time; you’ll enjoy Watkins Glen State Park’s splendor more and be a bit exhausted after the hike if you do.

Other Activities in Watkins Glen State Park

Hiking the Gorge Trail Watkins Glen State Park + waterfalls and activities

Do you still have plenty left in the tank after hiking Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail? Try these other activities in and near Watkins Glen State Park.

Corning Museum of Glass: You can find stunning glass art at Corning, New York, which is nearby. They were established in 1951 and currently house a collection of over 50,000 glass items, some of which date back over 3,500 years.

Horseback Riding: What more impressive way to see the Finger Lakes than atop a magnificent stallion? You can find a variety of horses to assist you in exploring the area at Painted Bar Stables. You must not miss this Finger Lakes experience!

Seneca Wine Route: Given how close the Finger Lakes is to Niagara’s wine region, it makes sense that they would be a popular stop on wine tours. Drink a glass or two as you tour more than 100 wineries in the area.

New York Waterfalls: You’re in luck if Rainbow Falls isn’t enough! Other stunning waterfalls, including Hector Falls, Ithica Falls, Taughannock Falls, and others, are simply waiting for you to visit in the area of Watkins Glen.

Watkins Glen: There are lots of charming restaurants, delicious ice cream, and even a small brewery in the adorable town of Watkins Glen. Take some time to explore, and while you’re doing so, indulge a little.

Where To Stay Near Watkins Glen State Park

The best way to experience Watkins Glen State Park is to book a hotel room the night before and get up early to hike the gorge route first. Here are the best lodging options in the area:

Watkins Motel

Choosing the best modest hotel in Watkins Glen should not be challenging. Travelers on a strict budget might consider the Watkins Motel, which is a conveniently 3-minute walk from the state park.

The Watkins Motel rooms come with free wifi, an air-con, a fridge, and a desk. There is free parking for guests arriving by vehicle.

Reisinger’s Apple Country is just 2.9 miles from the Watkins Motel, so visitors can easily visit one of Watkins Glen’s most well-known attractions.

You might want to try some filet mignon while you’re in Watkins Glen at one of the eateries in the area, including Seneca Lodge Restaurant or BluePointe Grille.

Don’t forget to visit an art gallery while you’re there, like Quintus Gallery.

The finest of Watkins Glen is at your fingertips, thanks to the Watkins Motel, making your stay pleasurable and restful. It’s one of the best budget places to stay when visiting or hiking Watkins Glen State Park.

Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel

Another excellent lodging option near Watkins Glen State Park is the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel.

The Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel offers lodging with dining, a free private park, a fitness center, and a bar. It is in Watkins Glen, 5 miles from Watkins Glen International.

A 24-hour front desk, room amenities, and free wifi are just a few amenities offered at this establishment. There are patios with lake views in several of the property’s units.

Every room in the guesthouse has a desk. Apart from a flat-screen TV, air conditioning, and a private bathroom with a shower and bathrobes, some Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel rooms offer a seating area. Towels and couch linens are also available in each room at the hotel.

A spa, wellness center, and hot tub are available to guests at the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel. Visitors to the hotel will access activities like hiking and fishing in and around Watkins Glen.

Visitors can use the business center, which provides printing, copying, and fax facilities, or dip in the indoor pool.

If you are with your partner when you travel to the state park, you will particularly love this area!

Glen Motor Inn

The Glen Motor Inn is convenient for all of your Finger Lakes activities. Every apartment has an unrivaled breathtaking view of Seneca Lake that is magnificent!

This inn is the ideal place to unwind after a long day exploring wineries, competing in races at Watkins Glen International, or sailing on the lake.

After a day of exploring the neighborhood, you’ll discover that the rooms are cozy, and the swimming patio is a beautiful retreat.

Watkins Glen State Park and Watkins Glen International are within a 15-minute drive of Glen Motor Inn.

Visitors can drop at Montage Italian Grill, which serves dinner, for a bite to eat. Also, Seneca Harbor is 1.5 miles from this motel.

Enjoy the one-of-a-kind amenities that the Glen Motor Inn can give you when you are a guest. Your stay will be enjoyable, from the welcome at the door to the farewell.

The Falls Motel

The Falls Motel is an excellent option for visitors to Montour Falls, and Watkins Glen State Park is only a 5-minute drive away. The setting is affordable, and many valuable amenities are available to make your stay more enjoyable.

The Falls Hotel’s rooms come with air conditioning, a refrigerator, and complimentary wifi, all of which offer outstanding comfort and convenience.

One of the amenities of this motel is a front desk that is open around the clock. Making your stay much more memorable is the on-site restaurant. There is free parking close to The Falls Motel for anyone arriving by car.

The Falls Motel is ideally situated close to Sal’s Bar & Grill and Heavily Brewing Company if you enjoy bars.

There are adequate activities available in the area, including exploring well-known waterfalls like She-Qua-Ga Falls, Havana Glen Park, and Eagle’s Cliff Falls.

Consider staying at The Falls Motel if you want to visit Watkins Glen State Park and other attractions.

Lakeside Resort & 3812 Bistro

The Lakeside Resort in Watkins Glen offers lodging with grilling facilities, a garden with 30 acres of walking pathways, and miniature waterfalls, all within 8 minutes drive of Watkins Glen State Park.

This hotel offers visitors a terrace apart from a standard room. Wifi is available for free.

A coffee maker, microwave, and mini-fridge are in every room, with a hair dryer and shower in the private bathroom’s amenities. Each accommodation at Lakeside Resort has a flat-screen TV with cable networks.

Visitors at Lakeside Resort can take part in attractions in and around Watkins Glen, such as hiking, enjoy stunning views of Seneca Lake from their clean, cozy lodgings, and find peace.

The 3812 Bistro is a perfect place to stop before participating in any activity in the area because it also serves hand-crafted farm-to-table meals for breakfast, lunch, and supper daily, along with local beer, wine, and cider.

Watkins Glen State Park Camping

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There are numerous campgrounds and rustic cabins in Watkins Glen State Park for you to explore if motels are out of your price range or you prefer to stay outdoors and surrounded by nature.

The State Park’s South Entrance is where you’ll find the campgrounds and the cabins. Here are several camping options in the state park:

Tuscarora Village Campground

A series of hiking paths within the park are easily accessible from Tuscarora Village, an excellent place to camp.

Most of the campground’s 53 campsites are only appropriate for tent camping, although 12 allow RVs up to 40 feet in length and range from pull-through to back-in sites.

Although there are no amenities at this campground, you can take advantage of the playground, on-site facilities, and showers. You can also use a private picnic blanket and fire ring at this pet-friendly campground. The camp office is close to a water filling and trash station.

Reservations for this campground can be ready up to nine months before, and it is available from late May through mid-October.

Seneca Village Campground

24 of the 47 campsites at Seneca Village are appropriate for RVs from 25 to 35 feet long.

You must log in to each of the sites. The playground, bathrooms, and toilets are available at this animal campground, but there are no hookups.

The camp office is close to a water filling and trash station. You can enjoy a picnic or relax by the fire at the picnic benches or one of the fire rings.

Seneca Village Reservations can also be ready up to nine months in advance, and it is open between mid-June to early September.

Onondaga Village Campground

Onondaga Village has 49 campsites, 26 of which allow RVs up to 25 or 30 feet long.

No connections are available, so you must back your RV into each spot. The Indian or Gorge Hiking trails are easily accessible from this pet-friendly campground.

Picnic tables, fire pits, restrooms, and showers are all available for your use. Near the camp office, visitors can find a water filling station and a disposal station.

Reservations for this campground can be up to nine months in advance, and it is open from June to the beginning of September.

Mohawk Village Campground

Fifty-four campsites at Mohawk Village are accessible to RVs 25 to 40 feet long.

The only campsite in the park with electric hookups, Mohawk Village, welcomes pets. One pull-through site is available, but most areas need you to back in.

Facilities, bathrooms, picnic areas, and a playground are available. The camp office is close to a trash and water filling station.

You can set a booking at Mohawk Village Campground nine months in advance, and it is open between late May to mid-October.

Cayuga Village Campground

Cayuga Village is a campground that welcomes pets and has 49 spaces for tents and RVs.

A total of 33 of the sites can house RVs that are 25 to 40 feet long. There are no utilities at these campsites, so campers must have backups.

The South Pavilion, camp office, and trailer dump station are all located closest to this campground. It has water filling stations, showers, and bathrooms.

Reservations for Cayuga Village can be requested approximately nine months ahead of time, and it is accessible from June through September.

Rustic Cabins

Watkins Glen State Park has several cabins to select from if you want a more rural experience. There are bathrooms and showers in these cottages. The place is pet-friendly, so you’re welcome to bring your furry pals along to stay with you there.

Final Thoughts

Watkins Glen State Park is, without a doubt, among if not the best state park in Finger Lakes. With its bountiful natural beauty, it’s certainly worth the visit. Check out all the incredible Watkins Glen State Park waterfalls, rock formations, plus plenty of other activities.

We hope you find this hiking Watkins Glen State Park guide helpful. Enjoy the incredible views!

Next: 15 Best Hikes In Vermont 

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