Half A Day in Watkins Glen State Park for Nature Lovers

6.09.2022 Watkins Glen, NY, USA

"Rated as 3rd best State Park in all of US, the 19-tiered waterfalls at Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is a marvel to watch. Whether it was walking behind the waterfalls at the Cavern Cascade or passing through Tunnels, or learning about the mills used here to churn grains or hear about stories of rappelling down, this gateway falls near Corning is a great summer pause, especially for the lovers of hikes. No wonder the park draws about a million people per month between May to October. "

When we went, a heavy downpour greeted us, and the waterfalls went savage. We were wet yet excited in our ponchos as it was a rare beauty to watch.

One of the previous visitors to the park said..."Oh, I have been to Watkins Glen Concert during Woodstock as a teenager, and it was astounding!"  

Is it open in Winters? Why and Why not?

The Gorge Trail is the biggest in the park, and it closes in early November as soon as it starts to freeze. They had to close it because it becomes hazardous. The park reopens after they repel down and try to find and remove every obstruction possible.  

Trail Summery

The entrance to the park is unlike any I have seen. Nestled in the middle of the town, this makes for a quick stop while traveling to other places in Finger Lakes. The main entrance is on NY-12 in downtown Watkins Glen on Franklin Street. There are two more entrances to the park. It takes 2 hours to do the hike, with intermediate stops to take pictures in between. 

This is the trail map for reference


Our visit to State Park began with a visit to the Information Desk first. Before the trail to the hike begins, we see a few trickles and an information board containing details on the Mills that were once there. 

As we proceed further towards the Gorge Trail, we hear the roar of the falls. People say this year ( 2018) the falls aren't in full force due to less rainfall.  

The Gorge Trail is beautiful, as it provides one of the best views of Cascades and Waterfalls along with potholes that are formed by swiftly moving water in the gorge. And as we proceeded from the Entrance tunnel to the Sentry bridge from where you can view the first waterfall, our tour guide pointed us towards a rock underneath where they used to take Vintage photographs in the yesteryears.

The trail is pretty narrow at the gorge, and high stone walls surround the steps, and the hike is mainly in the shade. For me, my favorite part of the hike was Cavern Cascade, as it gave me a chance to touch and feel the waterfall from behind the waterfall. For many people, the favorite is the Rainbow Waterfall, but we did not hike till that far as it was pouring heavily, and we were allowed only to go a certain distance. There is an Indian Trail at the end that also passes through the cemetery in the middle.

Hiking the Glen during COVID-19 

I haven’t been to the Glen myself during COVID-19, but from resources and reviews online, I can say:
  • Don’t forget your mask. It's a popular trail in the area and can get crowded.
  • Go early on a weekday.
  • Stop at the information center at the main entrance to get a map of the trail. There are restrooms in the information center.
  • During COVID, you can only do one way. i.e, start at Gorge Trail and end at Indian Trail or vice versa.
  • Wear good shoes. When we went, It was raining and the path was somewhat slippery at places.
Is the hike doable?

The hike in the park is rated as moderate with a 500-foot elevation change. A few things to note about the hike is: 

  • I believe anyone with the average physical condition will be able to do it this well-maintained hiking path. It is a mix of stone steps (800) and some flat surfaces. I have seen old people do it by stopping and pausing midway. Kids are also able to do it. 

  • There are no dogs allowed on the Gorge Trail and people have ranted online that the rim trail also isn’t very dog friendly. Hence, keep your dogs at home.

Is it open in Winters? Why and Why not...

The Trail is pretty narrow at the Gorge. The erosion that happened only took 10000 years because rocks and regions here coincidently got lucky. The Watkins were the first owners of the area and their original purchase was of 300,000 acres.  It is a small park and was run as a private resort until 1906. 

The Gorge Trail is the most prominent in the park, and it closes in early November as soon as it starts to freeze. They had to close it because it becomes hazardous. They reopen the park after ensuring that they have found and removed every obstacle possible by rappelling down.  

Native Americans and Watkins Glen

In the past, it was once that the country had taken sides with the British army (Britons). It was then that the government didn't have any money to pay the soldiers, and not only did they draw the Native Americans out, but they also gave out these lands. As a result, some of the soldiers got rewarded in lands. Our guide says, "They paid some of my relatives in lands. "

Henry teeter was the first caretaker of the park. Tourism started in Watkins Glen in the year 1863. The Native Americans always knew about this site as they lived further north and would come down during the summer to fish. There's also a trail on the top part of the gorge called the Indian Trail.

Why are Mills in Gorges?

Our guide continues, "All of our Gorges here have mills in them as they were easy places to make dams to direct water for power and sawmills. At that time, we were growing a lot of grain here, and we hadn't expanded. We hadn't made it to the West Coast yet, and so they did have rudimentary trails to get to the dams."

How Watkins Glen got Promoted

So, there was a journalist named Morvalden Ells who had gone to the Watkins Glen, and when he was back from there, he gives his writing to the owner who owned the Newspaper thinking that he'd make some money and if they could get someone to fix the trails maybe they could tourism too. To promote the idea and to attract people, he gave the names to the falls that we use today - Minnie Ha Ha Falls, Spiral Gorge, etc.  

At one point in history, Watkins Glen was called the Switzerland of America. They also had a restaurant across the gorge called Swiss Chalet. Before the development and the promotion, it was just another trail site that everybody had to walk through, and they also used to sell lemonade here.  

Legend says that the story of Minnie ha ha Falls was based on a Native American princess who had two braves interested in her. She loved one brave, and another guy was kind of an extra. So, he pushed the one guy she was in love with off the gorge. As he fell, he grabbed the ankle of the other guy, and both of them fell in the valley. Minnie Ha Ha then jumped herself, fracturing the rock in a heart-shaped pool. There is also a similar story in the stony brook. So, the journalist may have pulled names a little bit from other areas too!

So what he was able to do was that in 1863 on July 4th, he was able to open it up for tourism, and 10,000 people came that first year. That was when they use to charge everyone $1 a day at the entrance. Within two years, there were 20000 visitors.

Today, there is a vehicle use fee of $8. If you pay at Watkins Glen, you can keep the receipt and show the ticket then at other State Parks, making it user-friendly. During the week, if you a New York State Resident and over 65, you can also show the license for entry.  

Watkins Glens and Sour Past

On July 7th, Watkins Glens witnessed enormous floods. It was also the year of civilian conservation during the Great Depression. It was raining like today, which slowly moved to the area and caused significant flooding. Most of the trails got washed entirely. People down in the towns also got hurt.

As we walked up in the trail, we could see the suspension bridge. Our guide says the water was just 5 feet below that bridge during the floods. The floods kicked the bridge before that into the gorge as the water was to the valley as the water was about 80 feet high, ripping everything off. The gorge was then closed for the summer of 1935.  

In 1936, they opened it for temporary repairs, and the stonework that we see here was done in 1941. Our guide says, "There is one staircase that we used in 1906, but today with the rains, we probably won't get there"..

There was also a hotel that also Burnt in the 1920s at the Watkins Glen, where the lily pond is. They used to harvest rice crops. This hotel was built in 1873.  

Watkins Glen International 

Watkins Glen International, nicknamed "The Glen", is an automobile race track located just southwest of the village of Watkins Glen, New York, at the southern tip of Seneca Lake. It was long known around the world as the home of the Formula One United States Grand Prix, which it hosted for twenty consecutive years (1961–1980). The circuit is known as the Mecca of North American road racing and is a very popular venue among fans and drivers.

They have Watkins Glen Grand Prix Festival every year - this year in September 2022. Parked along the village's main streets, you will find over 600 classic sports cars of all ages and marques for your enjoyment. The featured highlight of the Festival is a tribute to the original Grand Prix races using the original 6.6-mile road course. The whole town shuts down, and the Festival is neat, exciting, and stands out.

1 comment

  1. I enjoyed reading about this scenic hike through Watkins Glen State Park. Though we operate treks through the Himalayas, not gorges in upstate New York, I can appreciate the natural beauty on display.

    The photos of the waterfalls and potholes formed by the river look quite impressive. I imagine walking behind a Yes browaterfall at Cavern Cascade must have been a memorable experience! It's fascinating to learn about the history of the mills along the gorge as well.

    While the terrain here is certainly different than our mountain trails, the moderate hiking difficulty seems manageable for most active travelers. I agree such beautiful parks are best appreciated through hiking and outdoor exploration. The changing seasons and rainfall levels that impact the falls also remind us of Nepal's monsoon patterns.


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