Watkins Glen State Park is a waterfall lover’s paradise: the scenery will make you wonder whether you’ve been transported into a fairytale upon entering…
After rekindling my love of waterfalls in The Waterfall Capital of the World this past year, I’ve been a bit waterfall-crazy. I’ve been googling countless photos of the impressive waterfalls of Iceland; the complex network of waterfalls and lakes of Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia; the largest man-made waterfall (created by the ancient Romans) located in Italy; Kaieteur Falls, the tallest single drop waterfall in the world; the list goes on… There are even more waterfalls around the world I could babble on about but the ones I’ve just mentioned I’ve been looking into in preparation for my backpacking trip across Europe at the end of this summer — I’m so excited! I’ve also written posts about some of the waterfalls I’ve visited, posted numerous waterfall photos on Instagram, and professed my love of waterfalls to pretty much anyone who would listen.
When my uncle noticed my love of waterfalls, he recommended I visit Watkins Glen State Park. I’d never heard of this place and immediately began googling images.
Oh, the waterfalls!
Watkins Glen looked so incredibly beautiful and I knew I just had to visit. This past weekend I did just that.
The waterfalls of Watkins Glen State Park and the village of Watkins Glen are even more breathtakingly beautiful in person. Located in Upstate New York, this park makes up for its relatively small size with dramatic landscapes that will have you wondering whether you’ve been transported into a fairy tale upon entering. Here’s why you have to visit the prettiest waterfall destination I’ve ever been!
It Makes for a Great (Long) Weekend Trip
Watkins Glen State Park is less than a 6-hour drive from major cities such as Buffalo (2.5 hours), Harrisburg (3.5 hours), Albany (4.5 hours), Philadelphia (5.5 hours), Cleveland (6 hours), and New York City (6 hours) (according to Google Maps). If you set out early in the morning on a weekend, or preferably long weekend, that should give you plenty of time to explore this gorgeous place.
For us, the drive from Toronto to the village of Watkins Glen should have taken a little over 4 hours according to Google Maps. However, when we drove there this past weekend, we made frequent washroom/snack pit stops (American Checkers fries are so good. We need these in Canada!) and were stopped at the Lewiston-Queenstown border crossing for a bit. In the end, it actually took us between 5 and 6 hours to get there. Watkins Glen was definitely worth the journey, though!
If you’re planning a road trip across the United States, I also highly recommend stopping by Watkins Glen for a day or two — especially if you’re a waterfall lover!
The Village of Watkins Glen is Absolutely Gorgeous
The village of Watkins Glen is a lovely little place with a population of only a couple thousand. It’s located in the Finger Lakes region in New York, named so because the long, narrow lakes of this region reminded early mapmakers of human fingers. The village itself is situated just south of Seneca Lake, the largest and deepest of the Finger Lakes with a depth well below sea level.
When we arrived at this picturesque village, we decided to find a place to stay and explore the streets and shops before the sun set. We checked into the Watkins Glen Villager and stayed in the motel building in a room with two queen size beds for $95 USD. You will massively lower the cost of accommodation if you travel with a group of friends or family. Since there was the four of us, it worked out to $24.00 per person — not too bad! The bed was super comfortable (much more than mines at home!), the wifi was fast, and they even have an indoor pool which, sadly, I did not get the chance to enjoy this trip. The Watkins Glen Villager also has rooms in a hotel building as well as rooms in a Victorian Mansion called The Glen Manor Guest House. Watkins Glen State Park and Seneca Lake are both just a short 10-minute walk away.
After checking in, we wandered out to the harbor and soaked in the picturesque views of Seneca Lake. The sloping hills that surround Seneca Lake are well known for their beautiful vineyards and the Seneca Lake Wine Trail.
You’ll Feel as if You’ve Been Transported Into a Fairy tale Upon Entering the Park
You would think that such dramatic landscapes would be located far from any town or city, but nope! The spell-binding views begin smack dab in the heart of the village. As we turned into the parking lot, we were immediately greeted by the towering cliff walls making up the narrow, 120-meter-deep gorge that runs along the length of the park. One waterfall was already within eyesight. I couldn’t wait to begin the trek!
We were happy to find out that there is no entrance fee to the park, only an $8 parking fee. Now, let the adventures begin!
Entering the gorge was like stepping into another world: the picturesque village of Watkins Glen disappeared and we were surrounded by rushing waterfalls, magical pools, blooming flora and magnificent cliffs. We entered via a curving tunnel leading up to the first of several stone bridges, The Sentry Bridge, and discovered a hidden cascade underneath the bridge. Continuing along the gorge, we walked past scenic view after scenic view…
I was torn between simply taking in all the beauty and capturing it on camera — I was presented with a different photo op practically at every step!
Did I Mention the Stunning Waterfalls?
Watkins Glen State Park is truly a waterfall lover’s paradise. The 19 waterfalls located in this park come in a wide variety of sizes and types. From staircases to dripping curtains, plunges to punchbowls, the waterfalls at Watkins Glen are absolutely amazing. They range from just a few meters to almost 20 meters in height.
The waterfalls are continuing to gradually erode the cliffs, lengthening the gorge and carving out deeper pools. The best part? You can walk behind two of the waterfalls: Cavern Cascade and Rainbow Falls! This has been made possible by the erosion of a soft layer of shale rock underneath a tougher layer of sandstone.
It’s Quite a Good Workout Too
There are over 800 stone steps along the Gorge Trail and you’ll ascend a height of over 150 m going from the main entrance to the upper entrance. Don’t let this scare you, though: the ascent is pretty gradual with flat areas between steps. While most people hike uphill from the main entrance and then back down, there is also a shuttle bus option that allows you to hike one way uphill or one way downhill. The shuttle bus only runs in the summer months at specific times so if you are planning on taking that, you should check the online schedule in advance.We hiked up along the Gorge Trail which follows Glen Creek and is the best trail for taking in the waterfalls of Watkins Glen. Be careful as the path is uneven and can be wet and slippery from the spray of water. I recommend wearing a good pair of running shoes or hiking boots with ankle support for the trek. I wore my ASICS GEL-Flux 2 running shoes and they were super comfy. After almost 10 years of wearing Asics shoes and clothing on my active adventures, I also wanted to share this brand’s amazing products with you. I recently launched an Asics Shoes Shop on my blog and am currently selling 25+ styles in both men’s and women’s Asics shoes and Asics Onitsuka Tiger shoes. You can check out the shop here!
Going back, we hiked along the Indian Trail, winding down along the forested rims of the gorge. We got to see a few of the waterfalls from a different angle and cross the Suspension Bridge, the only non-stone bridge in the park.
Overall, the hike took about 2.5 hours: 1 hour 45 minutes on the way up and 45 minutes back down. Going up took more than double the time because there are many more scenic waterfall views — thus, many more photo ops! — along the Gorge Trail.
We also stopped at the top for a lunch break of packed sandwiches. Make sure to pack some snacks and water for the hike because there are no places to purchase food inside the park. There are food vendors at the main and upper entrances but they weren’t opened when we went (probably because we went early in the spring season). You should also keep in mind that there are no washroom facilities along the trails. They are also found at the main and upper entrances.
This Hidden Gem is a Waterfall Lover’s Paradise
When I posted photos of my trip to Watkins Glen State Park on Instagram, several New York natives told me that they had no idea such a place even existed in their own state. This incredible hidden gem offers a delightful hike through some of the most beautiful natural beauty I’ve ever seen. Watkins Glen State Park is a must-see for any nature lover or waterfall enthusiast. I’m pretty sure most city people would even fall in love with the charming combination of natural beauty and human stonework here.