Tucked away in upstate New York is a small state park called Watkins Glen. Although often overshadowed by the famed wine trails of the nearby Finger Lakes region and the NASCAR motor speedway of the same name, Watkins Glen State Park is a gorgeous place for hiking, camping, and outdoor recreation. We visited as a part of a long weekend trip to the Finger Lakes and were absolutely stunned by the beauty of the park and how much fun we had hiking in Watkins Glen.
In the Philadelphia area, most people mark Memorial Day weekend with a beginning-of-summer pilgrimage to the beach (or “the shore,” if you’re headed to New Jersey). This past holiday, however, found M and me headed in the opposite direction. Our destination: upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region, which is renowned for great scenery, numerous wine trails, peaceful lakeside living, and this stunner, Watkins Glen State Park:
Along with the promise of relaxation and wine tastings, Watkins Glen was a major reason why we chose the Finger Lakes as our long weekend getaway destination. We had heard that Watkins Glen had great hiking and fantastic scenery, so we planned to spend at least one day exploring the park. We knew we’d made a good decision when everyone we met on our first night in New York started gushing about the place as soon as we mentioned that it was on our agenda.
After checking the weather for the weekend (not promising), the four of us decided to make Watkins Glen the star player in our first day’s itinerary. Despite heat, humidity, the threat of rain, and holiday weekend crowds, it didn’t disappoint.
Our Experience Hiking in Watkins Glen
Our visit started late, as we took advantage of our peaceful Airbnb to have a relaxing morning, cook up a nice breakfast, and do some local meandering before heading to the park. We arrived at the South Entrance around noon, just in time to enjoy a packed lunch in the shaded picnic area. Is it just me, or does food always taste better when eaten outdoors?
Fueled up for our hike, we set off to explore the park!
There are lots of trail options for hiking in Watkins Glen. Because many of the trails intersect at different points and all of them roughly parallel the gorge that makes the park so special, the trail map can be a bit confusing. It would be helpful if the trails were color-coded to help differentiate, but since they’re not you end up on a fun choose-your-own-adventure of hikes where you can skip from one trail to another fairly easily at different points along the way.
The most popular trail, and the one you don’t want to miss, is the appropriately-named Gorge Trail. This is the most famous and breathtaking part of the park, where thousands of years of erosion have carved a deep, rocky ravine that boasts nearly two dozen waterfalls.
Crossing the suspension bridge from the South Entrance deposited us right at the most popular section of the Gorge Trail. It was pretty crowded due to the holiday weekend, and there were moments where we were standing in line to go down a staircase or pass by a waterfall, but the scenery more than made up for the brief delays.
I couldn’t stop snapping photos!
The trail twists and turns, following the flow of the stream that continues to carve its way through the ever-deepening canyon. As you go along, you will descend deep into the gorge, which on a hot day like ours provides a blissfully cool reprieve as the lush, rocky cliffs rise hundreds of feet above you and trap in the cool, misty air. Each turn brings you a new view of rushing water and gracefully sculpted rock, with the occasional waterfall thrown in for some added drama. It’s just spectacular.
The whole area really makes you appreciate the power, beauty, and antiquity of nature. I felt like I was walking through another
After reaching the end of this deeper, narrower section of the gorge, we retraced our steps back to the suspension bridge and followed the rest of the trail away from the crowds. Our new path, while warmer and still full of sightseers, was much less jammed than the first part. This allowed us to take our time and marvel at the natural beauty around us.
As we neared the terminus of the Gorge Trail, we decided to turn off and take the Indian Trail back toward the South Entrance for a change of scenery. It was a good choice; the path was shaded and nearly empty, providing a quiet and peaceful walk through the woods. It may not have been as dramatic as the gorge, but it was still a beautiful section of forest. We were almost sorry when we saw the suspension bridge appear in the distance and realized that we’d reached our starting point.
We could have spent much more time wandering the trails of Watkins Glen State Park, but our time in the Finger Lakes was limited and we wanted to do a bit more sightseeing in the area before the sun set, especially with a rainy forecast for the rest of the weekend. Even though we only spent a few hours there, it was definitely a highlight of our weekend. I hope to return to the park soon to explore more thoroughly, and I strongly encourage you to build plenty of time into your itinerary to do the same!
Watkins Glen State Park FAQ’s
How much will it cost to visit?
The park charges a $10 personal vehicle entrance fee from mid-May until November. When we visited, it was $8, which worked out to just $2 per person for a couple of hours of hiking fun!
How long should I plan to stay?
That’s completely up to you! We were in the park for about half a day. You could easily do just the Gorge Trail in an hour or two, or you could stretch your time and spend a full day hiking the various trails. Alternatively, bring your tent or rent a cabin for a few days’ retreat, taking advantage of the on-site pool and other amenities!
Where should I enter the park?
There are three entrances: Upper, South, and Main. As I mentioned, we came in through the South Entrance, which sits between the other two and deposits you in a great location to explore any of the available trails in either direction along the Gorge. (It may, however, involve some back-tracking since you’ll be entering in the middle of many of them.)
The Upper Entrance sits at the far western end of the park and will most likely have the least crowded paths as you first set out. This also might be the best option if you want to make a full circle without having to retrace your steps. For those in more of a hurry or who want to get right to the point, the Main Entrance is immediately off of Franklin Street in the town of Watkins Glen and leads right to the most popular section of the Gorge Trail.
Is the park kid-friendly?
I would say yes! While you will want to keep a close eye on your little ones in some of the more slippery sections of the gorge, most of the trails we hiked weren’t very strenuous and the paths were nice and wide. Just make sure they don’t try to climb any walls or cliffs! In addition, the playground, picnic area, and swimming pool at the South Entrance are perfect for kids.
Can I bring my dog?
Yes, as long as he/she is on a leash. Be advised, though, that not all trails (including the Gorge Trail) allow pets, so you might want to plan your route first to see if it would be best to leave Fido behind.
Can I camp in the park?
Yes, you can bring your own tent or rent a cabin. There is a fairly expansive camping area available. I would recommend reserving your space ahead of time, especially in the fall.
Is there food available for purchase?
Not along the trails, but each of the three entrances has a snack bar, and we also saw some vending machines.
Where can I get more information or make a camping reservation?
Check out the park website!
Tips for Visiting and Hiking Watkins Glen
- To avoid crowds, try to visit as early as possible (and avoid holiday weekends!). The Finger Lakes are especially popular in the fall when the leaves change colors. Thus, while it would probably be one of the most stunning times to visit Watkins Glen, you’ll want to make sure you go early or later in the day to have some more breathing room. (The Adventure Detour has other great tips for avoiding crowds at Watkins Glen you should check out!)
- Make sure to wear sturdy shoes, as the numerous waterfalls can make the rocks, stairs, and trails slippery.
- Bring water and don’t forget to visit one of the public restrooms before you start your hike, as there are no services along the trails.
- Take precautions with electronics to protect them from waterfall spray. You probably won’t be walking through a deluge, but there were plenty of places where water was ricocheting off rocks to give us a light shower.
- The picnic area at the South Entrance is nice, spacious, and well-shaded, perfect for bringing a packed lunch. It’s also a great place for the kids, with a playground and plenty of space to run around. Our
Airbnbhostess gave us a blanket to use as a tablecloth, which was helpful.
- As mentioned above, the town of Watkins Glen is also the home of a major motor speedway. Thus, unless you’re a NASCAR fan you’ll probably want to plan your visit to avoid any
weekendsthat there’s a big race in town. In 2021, that race is scheduled for the first weekend in August.
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This guide to hiking in Watkins Glen State Park was originally published on June 4, 2018, and last updated on June 20, 2021.
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