Picture nineteen waterfalls plunging through a spellbinding natural gorge, complimented by exquisitely crafted man made stone staircases and bridges. No, you have not been summoned to the council of Elrond in Rivendell. You are hiking the Glen Creek gorge trail inside Watkins Glen State Park, the extraordinary crown jewel of New York’s Finger Lakes region.
Rainbow Falls is an incredibly photogenic natural terrain and unquestionably the park’s gasp-for-air, weak at the knees knockout feature.
But Watkins Glen is not a one trick pony.
The entire 1.5 mile length of Gorge Trail is breathtakingly beautiful and we reserve the superlative ‘breathtaking’ only for genuine wow moments on our travels.
This comprehensive Watkins Glen State Park travel guide covers all you need to plan the perfect visit. You will find information about parking lots, entrance fees, campgrounds, nearby hotels and restaurant options.
However, our main focus is to provide you with hiking and photography insights along the spectacular Watkins Glen Gorge Trail. We want you to be fully prepared so you can make the most of your visit.
Let’s dive right in (not literally, jumping in the water is not permitted!):
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Watkins Glen State Park Factfile
Where is Watkins Glen State Park?
Watkins Glen State Park encompasses a long but narrow area of land surrounding Glen Creek, which flows directly into the Southern most tip of Seneca Lake.
The park’s main entrance is located on a main road running directly through central Watkins Glen. You can easily walk to the State Park from anywhere in town.
There is no need to stay in Ithaca, Corning or any other nearby city. Watkins Glen has a variety of accommodation and restaurant options for visitors ranging from budget to luxury.
However, we do highly recommend visiting the other awesome State Parks around New York’s Finger Lakes if you have extra time.
Distances to nearby cities include:
If you’re flying into the region to tour the Finger Lakes wineries or watch NASCAR, be sure to search for flights using Skyscanner (the best flight search engine) and hire a car with Rental Cars (top rated car hire company).
Start by reading our expert tips on how to find and book cheap flights.
Here are the closest airports for you to consider:
Parking and Entrance Fee at Watkins Glen State Park
Entrance and Parking Fees
The first thing to mention is Watkins Glen State Park is free to enter but you will pay a fee of US$ 8 to park a vehicle in one of its three designated parking lots.
However, there are three simple ways you can avoid paying for parking:
Something to bear in mind – Watkins Glen is one of the most popular State Parks in America and parking will inevitably be a problem if you visit on weekends in Summer or Holidays.
Parking lots and side street spaces will fill up quickly, plus trails will be extremely busy which makes visiting in under 2 hours a challenge.
Let’s take a look at each of the Watkins Glen State Park lots:
Parking at the main entrance is more convenient but also busier than any other access point. If you don’t think you can make it round the park in under 2 hours, be sure to pay US$ 8 at the ticket machine before you begin your hike.
By parking here you will begin your hike up Gorge Trail from the lowest elevation and climb 800 steps to reach Upper entrance, before returning on Indian Trail downhill back to the main parking lot.
There is one small car park right at the visitor center but a larger car park on the opposite side of Franklin Street will accommodate far more vehicles. You will find restrooms and a snack bar / gift shop.
Both parking lots will fill up quickly on weekends, throughout NASCAR and holidays. If you don’t have a hotel in town and you don’t feel comfortable finding a parking spot along a side road, plan to park here if space is available.
Personally, we paid to park at this car park because we arrived before sunrise to beat the crowds and knew we would spend more than 2 hours inside. We wanted to get photographs of the stunning gorge without an army of people!
Turn off Franklin just to the South of Glen Creek onto Old Corning Road and take the first right to reach Watkins Glen South Entrance.
At South Entrance you will find restrooms, a snack bar, swimming pool, picnic area and playground, plus access to the beginning of Gorge trail via Couch’s Staircase. This is also where South Rim trail begins and ends.
All campgrounds, cabins and pavilions are located next to the parking lot at South Entrance.
Alternatively, you can drive (or take a seasonal shuttle bus) 1.5 miles from downtown Watkins Glen to Upper Entrance. Simply follow Steuben Street (409) and park at the top of Gorge Trail.
From here you will descend first but must return up 800 steps to your car, unless you took the shuttle!
Parking, picnic area, snack bar and restrooms are all you will find at Upper Entrance.
If you visit on a crazy busy day, try this parking lot as fewer people will know about it.
Hiking the Spectacular Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail
The incredibly scenic gorge trail is family friendly thanks to a stone wall flanking the edge of the path, which prevents young children falling.
Unfortunately, it is not the most accessible for those with mobility issues.
You certainly don’t need to be an Olympic athlete to hike the trail but 800 steps shouldn’t be underestimated.
Spray from waterfalls in full flow and wet leaves on the paths can cause slippery stone surfaces, so please tread carefully!
Let’s walk through exactly what you can expect from hiking the stunning Watkins Glen Gorge Trail.
Watkins Glen Gorge Trail Distance: 1.5 miles one way
Watkins Glen Gorge Trail Difficulty: Easy / Moderate (800 steps on ascent)
Entrance Tunnel and Sentinel Bridge
Watkins Glen’s enchanting Gorge trail begins before you’ve even climbed your first step.
The opening scene is a tall and narrow crack in the Earth, with a small silky waterfall flooding through the bottom and an exposed ornate stone bridge connecting the two sides.
A flour mill complete with waterwheel was once in operation at the entrance. Water was engineered to turn the wheel by controlling the flow with dams, troughs and tunnels.
Crossing Sentinel Bridge takes you inside the narrow creek but to reach the arched overpass, you must first climb a man-made spiral staircase cut into a turret.
It already feels like an adventure!
As soon as you enter the gorge, you know this is going to be a special landscape.
Not even 1 minute along the trail you will be able to look directly down this extremely narrow and picturesque section of Glen Creek.
Low running water allows much greater detail in the eroded shale rock to be appreciated. But this is just an appetizer for the main course coming later!
Cavern Cascade and Spiral Tunnel
If you’ve researched and prepared for Watkins Glen, you probably know all about Rainbow Falls from magazine front covers or google images.
But one of the best things about hiking the Watkins Glen gorge trail is the amount of surprises you will encounter. Cavern Cascade is one of those pleasant surprises.
You will notice a staircase joins the trail to your left as you follow the man-made stone path hugging the side of the gorge. Don’t make the turn, that is Couch’s Staircase which connects to South Entrance.
It appears as though there must be a dead end ahead. All you can see is a thin 30-40 ft high waterfall flowing out of a 3 meter wide gully caused by shale rock eroding underneath tougher sandstone layers.
Follow the path and you will notice it curves around and underneath Cavern Cascade before continuing inside the rock to another spiral staircase.
Reach out to feel the force of Cascade Falls but don’t expect to stay dry!
The Narrows, Glen Cathedral and Central Cascade
As gorge hiking trail continues through Glen Creek, you will climb small sets of steps and hug one side of the canyon before crossing to the opposite flank.
The Narrows is a section of the trail hidden from sunshine and light, which means it is always moist and cool. The perfect environment for moss to thrive.
A series of wispy waterfalls exit from paper thin gullies formed as water further erodes the soft sedimentary rock. You will be wowed by more expert masonry as you cross a lovely stone bridge spanning the top of Central Cascade.
At just 60 ft, the tallest waterfall in the gorge isn’t enormous. However, it is incredibly scenic and accentuates the beauty of this section of Watkins Glen.
Tiny 1 meter plunges flow between pothole pools, like a slinky snaking down a staircase, before flowing to its next big drop as gravity helps it along to Cavern Cascade.
Just when you don’t think it can get any better, right around the next corner ahead is the visual climax at Watkins Glen.
Rainbow Falls gives a new meaning to out of this world imagery.
There is just so much to admire about this one single scene, from waterfalls to pothole pools, wispy water falling from above, the gorgeous stone staircase and bridge in the background, vibrant colors and dark shadows contrasting.
We were truly blown away, as you might be able to tell!
Do you know why it is called Rainbow Falls?
If you visit on a sunny late afternoon at just the right time for sun rays to penetrate the canyon, rainbows appear as light reflects and refracts in water droplets.
Rainbow Falls is dramatic, beautiful, piercing, striking and delicate all in one emotional punch. It’s almost too much information for the brain to handle and requires a good 5-10 seconds to process what you’re looking at!
This is the cherry on top of an extremely tasty ice cream sundae, so spend the most amount of time here.
What you can’t help but appreciate is the fantastic design and execution of man-made walkways, staircases and bridges. They blend in to the gorge as though they were not made by man but by erosion themselves.
When you’ve been blown away by rainbow falls, continue underneath the wafer thin but wide waterfall, covering all camera equipment!
Spiral Gorge and Mile Point Bridge
Although the pinnacle has been reached at Rainbow Falls, Watkins Glen still has a few more spectacular sights up its sleeve.
Follow the trail along narrow spiral gorge as you pass more pothole pools, waterfalls and steps.
One of the final scenes is this smooth section of the gorge trail. Note the curvaceous shale rocks and colors where water levels can reach in full flow after Winter.
Each of the stone staircases next to sections of the gorge look like they could be from a fantasy novel and personally, we couldn’t get enough.
Return to Main Entrance Via Indian Trail
At Mile Point Bridge – which is just a small and less impressive bridge than any you’ve seen so far – compulsory turn around is in place during COVID.
A small cut through leads to Indian Trail and this path follows North Rim all the way back to main entrance. You will pass by a cemetery and a small number of lookouts but none of them have views close to being comparable to inside the gorge itself.
In truth, once you leave the gorge, it’s just a case of hiking double time back to your car. The only stop off of note is a suspension bridge over the gorge, which leads to South Entrance and is worth a photograph.
When standing on the suspension bridge, imagine that in 1935 the water level was just 5ft below you after an unprecedented flood.
Photography at Watkins Glen State Park
Watkins Glen is an illustrious and celebrated nature photography location.
When writing this article, a regional Autumn 2020 AAA magazine arrived in the post and guess what the cover photo was? Yep, Rainbow Falls.
Perfect conditions are early on an overcast October weekday for brilliant Autumnal colors, no crowds and optimal lighting. But not everyone can be so selective, so arriving early is the best advice we can give you.
Smartphones are capable for social media but here are some beginner tips for photographers at Rainbow Falls:
- Mirrorless or DSLR camera, lens with focal length anywhere between 12-35 depending on how wide you prefer. We shot between 24-35mm with our Sony FE 24-105 G lens and Sony A7R IV.
- You need a tripod for stability to capture the silky waterfall effect but there are places you could set your camera on a wall. Put a spare hoodie or jacket between the wall and your camera for protection.
- Shoot 0.3 second to 3 second exposures using shutter speed priority mode. Start at 1 second and then at faster / slower shutter speed until you’re happy with how the water looks.
- If you’re just starting out, shoot in RAW & JPEG. You can use your jpeg now but once you have more experience you will be grateful for the RAW file you can go back to and edit in post.
- Visit early in the day before intense daylight but if it is bright, use a ND filter to stop down the light or CPL filter to dim the glare.
- Our top tip – Positioned yourself so you can get the whole bridge in? You will see a lot of glare in the closest pool. Move to your right, cutting off some of the bridge but removing the glare entirely.
How Long Does it Take to Walk the Watkins Glen Gorge?
The gorge trail is only 1.5 miles long but it does come with 800 steps to climb on the way up. You could walk it in 30 minutes if you didn’t stop. Realistically with plenty of stopping to enjoy the scenery you should allocate at least 1 hour 30 minutes just for the gorge trail one way.
Can You Drive Through Watkins Glen State Park?
Unlike many State and National parks offering scenic drives, Watkins Glen does not have a driving route. The gorge is very narrow and only just wide enough for a walking trail to be created without damaging the natural environment.
Are Dogs Allowed at Watkins Glen?
Yes, on leashes no longer than 6 ft in length on all trails except Gorge. You can not take dogs on any section of Gorge Trail.
Is Swimming Allowed at Watkins Glen State Park?
No, swimming at any point along Gorge Trail is prohibited. Stay out of the water so everyone can enjoy their day out!
Best Time to Visit Watkins Glen State Park
When visiting one huge waterfall like Yosemite Falls or Taughannock Falls, the most important aspect to consider is volume of water. However, Watkins Glen is not about one great big plunging waterfall and the best time to visit does not depend on amount of recent rainfall.
So how do you plan for the best time to visit?
Well, first and foremost (we keep reiterating this for a reason!) Watkins Glen State Park will be extremely busy on weekends between April and October, particularly during holidays.
We visited on the Tuesday right after Labor Day weekend at sunrise and had the entire gorge to ourselves for at least 1 full hour. When we met other photographers, they told us about Instagram images showing Rainbow Falls completely wall to wall with people on Labor Day Monday.
Timing is everything if you want to enjoy the gorge not only for photography, but also to experience the out-of-this-world aura that it exudes.
Best time of Year
- Spring – The best time for heavily running water through Glen Creek as snow melts.
- Summer – Hot and humid but longer daylight hours, gorge trail will be packed full.
- Fall – Best time for vibrant Autumnal foliage in New York, comfortable hiking conditions.
- Winter – Gorge trail closes, unfortunately you’ll have to wait until Spring.
Best time of Day
- Morning – Best time to visit, we arrived at 6am as the only car in the parking lot.
- Midday – Not recommended between 11am-2pm, most crowded part of the day.
- Afternoon – Late afternoon the gorge trail will become quieter again.
Where To Eat Near Watkins Glen State Park
You don’t need to leave the village of Watkins Glen to find fantastic eateries. But be aware these places fill up quickly for dinner so try booking ahead or arriving a little earlier than usual.
Here are some of the top rated places to eat within half a mile of Watkins Glen State Park main entrance:
Where To Stay Near Watkins Glen State Park
The best way to visit Watkins Glen State Park is by staying in a hotel the night before and waking up early to be the first inside the Gorge.
Read our ultimate guide on how to find the best hotel deals.
There are a number of budget friendly motels in town but the most highly rated by guests is Watkins Motel which just so happens to be the closest hotel to Watkins Glen entrance!
Click the button below to check availability and prices for our top budget recommendation.
Three quarters of a mile from the entrance to Watkins Glen but closer to the town’s restaurants, you will find the stunning Idlwilde Inn B&B. This very highly rated B&B serves a homemade breakfast and the rooms look amazing with views over Seneca Lake.
Click below to check availability and prices!
Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel is located perfectly on the banks of Seneca Lake, a stone’s throw from the best restaurants in town and just half a mile to Watkins Glen gorge entrance. This top rated hotel overlooking a small marina features fitness center, indoor pool, bar and on site restaurant.
Click below to check prices and availability for your travel dates.
Watkins Glen State Park Camping
If hotels don’t fit your budget or you’d prefer to be outdoors surrounded by nature, there are 279 campsites and 9 rustic cabins at Watkins Glen State Park for you to consider.
Campgrounds and cabins are located at the State Park’s South Entrance.
Camping / RV at Watkins Glen is open from Mid May – Mid October and requires a 2 night minimum stay. Peak season is end of June – end of August.
Off season: US$ 18 per night (US$ 26 with electric hookups)
Peak season: US$ 28 per night (US$ 38 with electric hookups)
Rustic cabins open Mid May – Mid October and require a minimum stay of 3 nights all season. These cabins are rustic which means you bring your own bedding etc.
All season: US$ 58 per night but you have to stay minimum 3 nights, so your total 3 night stay is US$ 174.
More information on campgrounds and rustic cabins at Watkins Glen.
Watkins Glen State Park Map
Click into the interactive map, zoom in / out and move around the area to find all recommended restaurants, hotels, points of interest and parking lots.
- Purple – Hotel recommendations in Watkins Glen, NY
- Light Red – Restaurant recommendations in Watkins Glen, NY
- Dark Green – On site tent / RV / cabin accommodation and pavilions
- Blue – Trailheads
- Maroon – Parking lots at each entrance
- Orange – All points of interest for hiking and waterfalls
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We hope this helped you plan your visit to Watkins Glen State Park!
Have you been to Watkins Glen? Which is your favorite State Park around the Finger Lakes?
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