Imagine 19 stunning waterfalls cascading through moss and fern covered canyons, past pools and caverns. Climb through rocky caves, up stone staircases and bridges that seem to float on the canyon edge. Is this a fairytale? The elven kingdom of Rivendale? Even better, it’s Watkins Glen State Park, one of the most beautiful State Parks in the country. Hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge trail is the absolute must-do hike when visiting this stunning park.
This complete guide to hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail covers everything you need when it comes to planning your visit. Keep reading for information to make the most out of your visit including parking, crowds, campgrounds and hotels, and of course all information you need to hike the Gorge Trail itself.
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Table of Contents
Why Hike the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail?
The photos alone are probably enough to convince you to hike the Gorge Trail. And trust me, it’s even more spectacular in person. This short and easy trail packs 19 cascading waterfalls in just 1.5 miles (one way). Climb and descend 800 stone stairs, and marvel at the stone bridges built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
Kids – and kids-at-heart – will love standing behind Cavern Cascade, the tallest waterfall in the gorge, where the trail actually winds behind the thundering falls, close enough to reach out and touch it.
I don’t often use the phrase “breathtaking” but this trail deserves it.
Trail Notes: Watkins Glen Gorge Trail
Gorge Trail Length: 3 mi / Out and Back
Elevation Gain: 393′ (via 800 stone stairs)
How Difficult is hiking Watkins Glen Gorge Trail? Easy. Most casual hikers and non-hikers will have no problem on the Gorge Trail. Young children may need to be carried on the many stairs and should be watched carefully along the slippery gorge trail.
Where is Watkins Glen State Park?
Watkins Glen State Park is located in the Finger Lakes region in the Upstate New York, inside the town of Watkins Glen. The Finger Lakes region is so named for the 11 glacial lakes that run north-south through the area.
Located at the southern tip of Seneca Lake, Watkins Glen State Park is famous for the stunning gorge that runs through the park. Over thousands of years the large glaciers that once covered the area carved out the gorge. As the ice sheet melted, Glen Creek carved through the rock layers, forming the caverns, canyons, and pools you can see today.
Where? 1009 N Franklin St in Watkins Glen, NY 14891. Watkins Glen is located in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York.
Entrance Fee? No, but parking is $10 per vehicle.
Kid Friendly? Yes. Younger children may get tired from climbing all 832 steps along the trail, and all children should be watched closely along slippery trail edges.
Is Watkins Glen Dog Friendly? No. Pets are not allowed on the Gorge Trail, but are permitted in the campgrounds and picnic areas.
The Watkins Glen Gorge Trail closes for the winter, typically between late-October and mid-May. Check the NY State Park Website for updated trail conditions, seasonal closures, and COVID restrictions.
** 2022 SEASONAL CLOSURE UPDATE ** – The Watkins Glen Campground will open on May 20, 2022. The Park expects the Gorge Trail to reopen in Mid to Late March (date not yet announced)
A Very Abridged History of Watkins Glen State Park
The Finger Lakes region is the homeland of the Onondaga Nation, an alliance of native nations also known as the Iroquois Nation. In the 1700s, European and Americans settlers arrived and eventually established the small town of Watkins Glen.
In the 1800s, a local newspaper man convinced the owner of “Big Gully” – as the gorge wast then known- to open the area to tourism. A set of wooden stairs was constructed through the gorge and after the American Civil War, the Big Gully became an immensely popular tourist destination.
In 1906, New York State purchased Watkins Glen and opened the land to the public, free of charge. Watkins Glen is one of the most popular state parks in the entire country, seeing over 1 million visitors every year!
In 2015, USA Today readers voted the park as #3 for the Best State Park in the US.
How to Get to Watkins Glen State Park
Watkins Glen State Park is conveniently located within the town of Watkins Glen, located at the south end of Seneca Lake. There are few-to-no public transportation options for getting to Watkins Glen. Be prepared to drive or rent a car from the airport.
The good news is that the Finger Lakes are less than a day’s drive from several major US cities. Hiking Watkins Glen Gorge trail makes an incredible day-trip, or part of a longer weekend getaway to the Finger Lakes region.
Driving Time to Watkins Glen
Watkins Glen to New York City (including JFK, LaGuardia and Newark Airports): 5 Hours
Cleveland to Watkins Glen: 4.5 Hours
Philadelphia to Watkins Glen: 4.5 Hours
Pittsburgh to Watkins Glen: 5 Hours
Boston to Watkins Glen: 6 Hours
Closest Airports to Watkins Glen
Several regional airports service the Finger Lakes region, including Elmira Corning Regional Airport (30 Min) and Ithaca Tompkins International Airport (45 Min). However, flights into the regional airports are limited and often costly. For those flying from out of state, I would suggest flying into Buffalo International Airport and renting a car.
Other major airports within driving distance of Watkins Glen are:
Greater Rochester International Airport: 1.5 Hours
Syracuse Hancock International Airport: 2 Hours
Buffalo Niagara International Airport: 2.5 Hours – This is the largest airport in the state outside of New York City.
Albany International Airport: 3.5 Hous
Parking at Watkins Glen State Park and Which Entrance to Use
As one of the most popular state parks in the country, finding a parking spot at Watkins Glen can definitely be a challenge.
Arrive early (before 9 am), especially on weekends, holidays, and during the summer to ensure a spot.
Entrance to Watkins Glen State Park is free, however parking in any of the designated State Park lots costs $10. If you plan on visiting multiple state parks in one day – like nearby Letchworth or Taughannock Falls – your parking pass is good for the entire day in any New York State Park.
There are several ways to hike the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail, depending on which entrance you use. The Gorge Trail is accessible from each of the three Watkins Glen entrances and parking lots. However, I strongly recommend parking and hiking the Gorge Trail from the Main Entrance
Main Entrance Parking
The Main Entrance parking lots are the largest and most convenient for accessing the Gorge Trail. A smaller parking lot is located adjacent to the Visitor’s Center and Gift Shop. A second, much larger parking lot is also available across the street from the Main Entrance, on Franklin Street.
Hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail via the Main Entrance (Recommended)
Hiking from the main entrance means climbing up the 800 stone stairs, but the views from this entrance are absolutely worth the effort. The trail from the main entrance is the most popular way to experience the park.
Hiking from the main entrance is most convenient for parking and the best for those breathtaking “woah” 😳 gorge views that the park is known for.
There are multiple ways to hike the Gorge Trail from the main entrance:
Gorge Trail Out and Back **
** The Gorge Trail was one way only in 2021 Due to COVID 19. Park officials have not yet announced if the Gorge Trail will be open to out and back traffic in the 2022 season.
Hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail out and back is the most popular way to experience the park. This way you are hiking up the Gorge Trail in both directions meaning you have twice as many opportunities to take in the spectacular 19 waterfalls.
Bear in mind, this is also the most crowded route for viewing the park. For this reason, in 2021, Park Officials opened the Gorge Trail to one-way hiking, from the Main Entrance to the Upper Entrance. Check the park website for updated information
Don’t panic if the trail is one-way traffic! Follow the directions below for hiking the Gorge Trail One-Way with Shuttle or via the North Rim Loop Trail.
Hiking the Gorge Trail and North Rim Loop Trail (fka Indian Trail)
Hike the Watkins Glen gorge in a loop by ascending via the Gorge Trail via the Main entrance and returning on the North Rim Trail. The North Rim follows the forested rim of the canyon with intermittent views of the churning water and waterfalls below.
At Mile Point Bridge, a small side trail leads up out of the gorge and to the North Rim Trail (previously called the Indian Trail). Follow signs for the Main Entrance to return.
In 2021, the Park mandated one-way only traffic on the Gorge Trail to help social distancing. Hikers were required to turn around here and return to the Main Entrance via the North Rim Trail.
Using the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail Shuttle
The Park offers a seasonal shuttle if you are interested in only going one-way through the gorge, either to save time or because the Gorge Trail is one-way only.
The Watkins Glen shuttle costs $5 per person, per trip.
The shuttle operates between the Main Entrance, South Entrance and Upper Entrance. Park and hike the Gorge from the Main Entrance. Once you reach the Upper Entrance board the shuttle and return to your vehicle.
The Watkins Glen shuttle operates on weekends in the spring through Fourth of July, and daily until Labor Day. The shuttle returns to weekends-only from Labor Day to the end of the season in late-October.
For more information on using the Watkins Glen shuttle, visit the park’s website.
Upper Entrance Parking
The Upper Entrance is located about 1.5 miles from downtown Watkins Glen. If you visit on a crowded day and parking is full at the Main Entrance, try parking at the Upper Entrance and take the shuttle to start the trail from the Main Entrance.
To access the Upper Entrance from Franklin Street (the main street through town), turn left on Steuben Street / NY-409. The Upper Entrance will be on the left hand side.
Hiking the Gorge Trail from the Upper Entrance
Hikers who have mobility issues and would prefer not to hike UP 800 steps can start the hike from the Upper Entrance. Hike from the Upper Entrance down to the main entrance and return to your vehicle via the seasonal shuttle.
Unless necessary, I would not recommend hiking the Gorge Trail from the Upper Entrance. You will be hiking with your back to the waterfalls for most of the hike and will have to spend a good amount of time turning around to properly admire the views.
The Upper Entrance has parking, picnic areas, a small snack bar and restrooms.
South Entrance Parking
Park at the South Entrance to access the Watkins Glen campgrounds. You can also access the Gorge Trail via the side trail, Couch’s Staircase.
From Franklin Street (the main street through town), turn onto Old Corning Road. Take the first right on Walnut Road / State Road 419 and stay right for Watkins Glen South Entrance.
Hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail from the South Entrance
The South Entrance is where you will park if you are staying at the Watkins Glen Campground. There are restrooms, a snack bar, a public swimming pool, picnic area, and playground in this area. All State Park camping and picnic pavilions are located at the South Entrance.
The Gorge Trail is accessible from the South Entrance via the “Couch’s Staircase.” Follow signs for the Main Entrance to access the Gorge Trail.
You can also access the South Rim trail from this entrance.
Alternate Parking at Watkins Glen
If you want to avoid paying for parking at the designated lots, or the lots are full, check out these alternate suggestions:
Side Street Parking: There are no parking meters in Watkins Glen. Park at any available spot on a side street within walking distance to the Park and avoid paying parking fees.
Walk From Your Hotel: Planning a weekend trip? Several hotels in Watkins Glen are within walking distance to the Main Entrance. Leave your car at the hotel and start your hike from your front door.
Hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail
This guide walks through hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail from the Main Entrance. If you hike from the Upper Entrance you will see all of these sights, just in reverse.
Watkins Glen Visitor’s Center and Main Entrance
Before entering the Gorge, take a moment to enjoy the recently renovated Main Entrance visitor’s center and plaza. Indoor and and outdoor interpretive signs detail the park’s geologic and tourism history.
A small gift shop here sells stickers, magnets and other gorge-themed gifts, as well as snacks, water bottles and rain ponchos.
From the Main Entrance, follow the main paved path towards the entrance of the gorge soaring above you. The Gorge Trail follows the edge of the Gorge and is impossible to miss – no getting lost on this trail!
Entrance Tunnel and Sentry Bridge
The breathtaking beauty of Watkins Glen starts before you even step foot on the Gorge Trail. As you approach the trail from the Main Entrance, look up at the towering cliffs of the gorge, and down at Glen creek as it cascades out of the canyon.
Follow the path to the Entrance Tunnel and up your first flight of stairs carved into the gorge itself. The small well-lit cave leads up to Sentry Bridge.
From Sentry Bridge, take time to admire your first glimpse into the Gorge and the swirling waterfalls.
From Sentry Bridge, the trail hugs the edge of the canyon and ascends several stone staircases. While the steps are certainly a workout, you probably won’t feel out of breath as you will constantly want to stop for photos and to take in the Gorge views.
Cavern Cascade is the first of two waterfalls that you actually walk behind on the Gorge Trail.
If you visit the Gorge in a rainy spring, like I did, be prepared for Cascade fall to be thundering overhead and to get more than a little wet as you walk behind!
The trail from Cavern Cascade leads directly into the Spiral Tunnel. Like the name suggests, the tunnel is a spiral staircase cut directly into the rock of the Gorge.
If you’ve ever been to Tom Sayer’s Island at Disneyland, this feels like the real life version!
The Narrows and Glen Cathedral
After climbing through the Spiral Tunnel, the Gorge Trail passes through the Narrows of Watkins Glen. This stunning section of the trail is narrow, dark, and cooler than the rest of the Gorge. As a result, ferns and moss cover the Gorge walls in this section, and it feels like you are walking through a lush rainforest.
Just past the Narrows, the canyon opens up to the widest and sunniest section, called Glen Cathedral. Here, the canyon feels wide-open and vast, as wildflowers and shrubs grow in the sunlight.
Past Glen Cathedral, the Central Cascade is the tallest waterfall in the park, spilling 60 feet below. A lovely stone bridge crosses just above the Central Cascade. To your right, Glen Creek fills a series of round plunge pools before cascading over the falls.
Get ready, because crossing the Central Cascade bridge means you are about to enter the most iconic and scenic section of the trail, Rainbow Falls.
Watkins Glen Rainbow Falls
Rainbow Falls is probably the most famous, and most photographed section of Watkins Glen State Park. And for good reason. This dramatic, striking section of trail looks straight out of a fairytale elven-kingdom.
Rainbow Falls is the second waterfall that you walk behind on the Gorge Trail. There’s no avoiding the puddles as you cross behind the silver ribbon of water that falls next to the trail. Ahead of you, Glen creek falls over a series idyllic of emerald plunge plunge pools beneath a stone bridge that seems to float in the air.
When I say that Rainbow Falls will take your breath away with its beauty – I’m not being absolutely honest!
Spiral Gorge and Mile Point Bridge
While Rainbow Falls may be the highlight of Watkins Glen, the gorge continues to stay beautiful as you follow the Gorge Trail past more pools, small waterfalls, and fern-covered canyon walls.
After one mile on the Gorge Trail, you arrive at the very aptly named Mile Point Bridge. When the Gorge Trail is One Way only, this bridge is the mandatory stopping point. Cross the bridge and continue on to the North Rim trail (previously called the Indian Trail) back to the Main Entrance.
When the Gorge Trail is open to two-way traffic, Mile Point Bridge makes a convenient turn-around point, or you can continue on the trail for 0.1 miles to the Upper Entrance and take the seasonal shuttle back to the Main Entrance.
Returning to the Main Entrance Via North Rim Trail (FKA Indian Trail)
From Mile Point Bridge, a short connector trail climbs out of the Gorge to meet with the North Rim Trail (previously called the Indian Trail). While the North Rim trail follows the rim of the Gorge, you won’t be able to see much of the waterfalls and creek below, as the view is obscured by forest and the canyon walls.
The highlight of the North Rim trail is the suspension bridge that crosses above the Gorge, with impressive views of the canyon from a totally different vantage point!
When to Visit Watkins Glen
Quick Tip: Visit Watkins Glen State Park early in the morning, spring through fall. Watkins Glen is extremely crowded May to October. Avoid Holiday weekends and try to visit on weekdays.
Watkins Glen State Park is stunning in every season and every time of day. However, the Gorge Trail closes each winter, usually in late October until Mid-May due to dangerous ice. Check the NY State Park Website for updated trail conditions and seasonal closures.
Spring in Watkins Glen: Once the Gorge Trail reopens in spring, the snow melt and rain cause a huge volume of water to cascade through the gorge. Visiting in spring is the best time to see the waterfalls at their peak volume.
Summer in Watkins Glen: Summers in Watkins Glen are hot and crowded. Plan to arrive as early in the day as possible to avoid both.
Fall in Watkins Glen: Fall in the Finger Lakes brings pleasant hiking conditions and beautiful fall foliage. The Gorge Trail typically closes in late October when ice covers the trail, but early winter storms are possible.
Best Time of Day to Visit Watkins Glen
Watkins Glen is open daily from dusk until dawn.
Morning: Early morning is the best time to visit Watkins Glen. Arrive as early as possible, before 8 AM on weekends, for the best parking and chance of viewing the Gorge Trail without crowds.
Early Afternoon: Watkins Glen is the most crowded between 11AM to 2PM. Avoid visiting during these peak hours.
Late Afternoon: The Gorge Trail is less crowded in the late afternoon. Check sunset times, especially during early spring and late fall, and plan to arrive with enough daylight time left to explore the Gorge.
Avoiding Crowds at Watkins Glen State Park
As you might expect, Watkins Glen receives a huge number of visitors every year, and crowds are an issue.
The Park will temporarily close when it reaches capacity, which often occurs on summer holiday weekends. For example, on 4th Of July 2021, the park reached capacity by 10 AM.
Don’t let the crowds deter you from visiting. In fact, there are some reliable ways to avoid crowds at Watkins Glen State Park:
Avoid visiting on weekends, especially in summer when visitation is at its peak. The park is relatively quiet on Fall and Spring weekdays, even in the afternoon.
Arrive early, and I mean early, if you really want to avoid crowds. Hiking the Gorge Trail at sunrise means you might have the entire park to yourself!
Download the free New York State Parks Explorer App to receive updates and alerts for Watkins Glen, including temporary and seasonal closures.
Is Watkins Glen State Park Handicap Accessible?
The short answer is, unfortunately, no. The Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is NOT wheelchair accessible.
The Gorge Trail is a narrow and winding stone trail that climbs over 800 stone stairs. Unfortunately that means that the vast majority of the park, including the waterfalls, are not accessible to wheelchairs, strollers, or those with mobility challenges.
For wheelchairs, strollers, and hikers with mobility issues, I strongly recommend checking out nearby Taughannock Falls State Park. Located just 25 minutes from Watkins Glen, Taughannock Falls is wheelchair accessible, and the 215 foot Falls are the highest east of the Rocky Mountains.
Gear for Hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail
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While hiking the Watking Glen Gorge trail is an easy day hike, I highly recommend a few super important pieces of gear to make your trip and enjoyable and safe one.
What to Pack for Hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail
Rain Gear: Remember, you will very likely get wet on the Gorge Trail – even on a sunny day! Mist and puddles are everywhere, especially as you walk behind Cavern Cascade and Rainbow Falls. Bring a rain jacket or a poncho to throw over yourself and your pack.
Hiking Boots: The smooth stones of the Gorge Trail are often wet, slippery, and uneven. While this hike can be done in tennis shoes, I suggest wearing a lightweight and waterproof pair of hiking boots or hiking shoes for comfort and safety.
Hiking Daypack: Carry your extra layers and hiking essentials in a sturdy and lightweight daypack, like the Osprey Tempest 20L.
Water: Carry at least 1/2 liter of water for every half an hour you plan on hiking. Water can be purchased at the Main Entrance Gift shop, or bring your reusable water bottle.
As always, remember to pack your day hiking essentials. Download your free day hike packing guide, plus 70+ more pages of planning tips, camping, hiking, and road trip packing lists and more inside the Ultimate National Parks Planning Guide, below.
Where to Stay Near Watkins Glen State Park
If you plan on hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail as part of a longer weekend getaway, there are many options for where to stay near Watkins Glen. The area is also a wonderful jumping off point for exploring the many state parks, lakes, and wineries in the region.
Hotels Near Watkins Glen
For anyone looking for a luxury experience in Watkins Glen, the Harbor Hotel is your best choice. The only 4 Diamond property in the area, the Habor Hotel is located a 0.5 mile walk from the Watkins Glen Gorge trail, with panoramic views of Seneca Lake.
After your hike, enjoy the hotels indoor swimming pool, hot tub, fire pit, and popular lakeside bar.
Check prices and availability at Booking.com
If you enjoy the cozy bed & breakfast experience, the Hudson Manor Bed & Breakfast is located a short 3 minute drive, or 20 minute walk to the Main Entrance.
Check prices and availability at Booking.com
There are no large hotel chains located within the town of Watkins Glen. For more options, check out nearby Ithaca, NY (home of Cornell University and the impressive Taughannock Falls State Park). The Ithaca Marriott Downtown Hotel is located 35 minutes from Watkins Glen State Park.
Check prices and availability at Booking.com
Talk about location! The Inn at Taughannock Falls is located in Trumansburg New York, basically surrounded by Taughannock Falls State Park, home of the tallest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains. Guests of the Inn can access the park directly from the hotel’s property, and is a 30 minute drive to Watkins Glen.
Check prices and availability at Booking.com
Campgrounds at Watkins Glen State Park
The Watkins Glen campground offers over 275 tent campsites within the park and 9 rustic cabins, open seasonally from spring to fall.
All campsites are equipped with a fire ring with cooking grill. 50 campsites have electric hook ups. The campground also has access to hot showers, restrooms, concession stands, firewood for sale, and an olympic size swimming pool.
Don’t have a tent? You can reserve one of 9 rustic cabins for up to 6 people. Keep in mind, when they say rustic, they mean rustic: no electricity, no heat, and no bedding. The cabins are outfitted with bunk beds, a porch, picnic table, and a fire ring outside.
The Watkins Glen campground and cabins are open seasonally, usually between May and October. Check the website for booking and additional details. Reservations are required and walk-in campsites are not available.
Hiking Watkins Glen Gorge Trail Wrap Up
Watkins Glen is one of the most stunning and magical hikes in New York State. Leave a comment below for your best tips for hiking Watkins Glen Gorge Trail, or share your experience!
Want to keep exploring? Check out my other Trail Guides