When you hear New York, most people think of the Big Apple, that concrete jungle with all those dreams being made. If you’re one of those people, this post is going to change that mindset. Next time you’re heading to New York state, head west. You’re missing out on some serious natural beauty if you don’t! Whether you’re an avid hiker, waterfall chaser or just a general nature wanderer, a Watkins Glen State Park hiking adventure will be one of the most memorable activities during your visit.
What to Know for Your Watkins Glen State Park Hiking Adventure
The park is located in the heart of (can you guess it?) Watkins Glen, an adorable little town in Schuyler County. Located at the base of Seneca Lake, one of the iconic Finger Lakes, it offers beautiful views that will have you falling in love with the area. If you’re a NASCAR fan, the town may sound familiar as it’s home to Watkins Glen International, one of the few road race tracks in the organization.
This 778-acre park is home to a 120m deep gorge where Glen Creek runs through. Thousands of years ago, glaciers carved out the Seneca Valley, creating the unique landscape the water runs along. Open to the public since 1863, it’s how the 19 beautiful Watkins Glen State Park waterfalls came to be. Yes you read that correctly, nineteen! No joke, this is a waterfall chaser’s paradise. Offering three trails, the Watkins Glen Indian Trail, Gorge Trail, and Southern Rim Trail, you’ll be constantly faced with beautiful views and lookouts. While my Watkins Glen hike time was only about 2 hours, you can easily spend a full day (if not more!) truly exploring the park.
INSIDER TIP: Whether you only have a few hours like I did or all the time in the world, visit. Don’t skip it because you don’t think you’ll have enough time. Within a matter of minutes you’ll see a waterfall, making it the perfect pit stop on a road trip. Plus if your stay is below 2 hours, you can get free street parking across from the Sheriff’s Office on 10th Street. Otherwise, you will have to pay the Watkins Glen State Park Parking Fee of $8.
The Watkins Glen State Park hours of operation vary depending on the time of year you visit. In the warmer months, more of the facilities such as their campgrounds and swimming pool are open. There is also the Watkins Glen State Park Shuttle which runs on weekends from the Memorial Day weekend until November, switching to daily service at the end of June until Labour Day. Be sure to visit their website to see the status of the trails before visiting. I’m unsure whether you can access the trails in the winter months, though it would be an incredible destination when the temperature drops below zero.
Be sure to wear sturdy shoes (hiking boots are even better) when tackling the Watkins Glen hiking trails. Even though the trail is rock, there are some places where the floor is uneven so having steady footing is necessary. There are also plenty of stairs (over 800 if you go all the way to the top!) so be ready for a solid workout. If you don’t bring a bottle of water with you, be sure to grab one from the visitors’ centre.
Indigenous Culture and Watkins Glen
It may not be prevalent now, but First Nations People lived in this area long before European settlers arrived. The Seneca called this land home, living as part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Haudenosaunee meaning people of the longhouse, known as the Iroquois to the French and the League of Five Nations to the English). The confederacy served to unite the Seneca along with their fellow man – the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas and Cayugas – with the common purpose of living in harmony. This model of confederacy actually influenced the modern US government as the US Constitution’s two-house congress is similar to how the Grand Council and the Chiefs of each nation interacted.
However come the mid-1700s, ideals began to diverge as too many traders were taking advantage of the land. Relationships deteriorated and divisive messages began to appear and the Seneca chose to side with the British during the American Revolution. They suffered great loss as the Americans’ goal was to cripple the Iroquois, especially the Sullivan Expedition. This didn’t stop the Iroquois as they resumed raids on American settlements in New York state, fuelled by their anger. Battles ensued and as the Americans won the war, the lands were to be sacrificed and surrendered to them. While the battles may be different now, they haven’t stopped as the Seneca have been trying to regain their traditional lands through the modern court system.
I’m barely scratching the surface of the area’s rich Indigenous history, but it’s incredibly important to recognize it. While the state now controls the park under the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, we need to acknowledge it originally belonged to the Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Mohawk and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. If you’d like to learn more about the history and the traditional lands in general, this website can help.
Let’s Get to the Photos!
As I mentioned earlier, I was only able to enjoy about 2 hours of Watkins Glen hiking. There is SO much more to explore within the park, but my short trek will inspire you to visit. These photos were taken along the Gorge Trail from the base of the park, close to town. This makes it a perfect nature break on a road trip or during a Watkins Glen day trip.
It really should be called the Watkins Glen waterfall trail – just look at all these beauties! Don’t you agree? The best part is, this is just one short section of the Gorge Trail! It increases in elevation quickly making for some spectacular sights.
Visiting the Watkins Glen falls can only get more beautiful with an autumn visit. Seeing the beautifully chiselled landscapes with a dash of orange and red would just add to the magic!
For Future Visits…
What you wish to experience will depend on what time of the year to plan your visit to Watkins Glen. If you’re looking to catch Rainbow Falls, Central Cascade, etc in full force, visit early in the season. The spring thaw will mean an increase of water and a more spectacular flow! Though I have to say, this September showed the waterfalls in good standing as there had been plenty of rainfall shortly before my visit. If you want to enjoy the magical autumn colours like I mentioned earlier, opt for a visit in October. A few cool nights can even have the leaf peepers start as early as mid-September!
While my visit was a whirlwind, I’d highly suggest taking your time to enjoy other Watkins Glen attractions. With cute eateries, treats (the ice cream is AMAZING), and even a craft brewery, it’s easy to make a full trip out of the town! You can also use the area as a home base to explore the plethora of wineries in the area. I highly suggest Fulkerson Winery on the western side of Seneca Lake as well as Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards on the eastern side. Plus there are plenty of other waterfalls around like Hector Falls and Taughannock Falls to entice you to extend your stay! Make a weekend of it and go explore Watkins Glen and the Finger Lakes.
Ready to plan your adventure? See what deals are available on hotels in the area thanks to Booking.com!
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