Watkins Glen State Park: The Complete Guide

Rainbow Falls at Watkins Glen State Park in New York
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Watkins Glen State Park

Address
1009 N Franklin St, Watkins Glen, NY 14891, USA
Phone +1 607-535-4511

In a state that is famous for sparkling cascades—including Niagara Falls, the largest waterfall in North America—Watkins Glen State Park in New York's Finger Lakes region overdelivers with 19 waterfalls to view and photograph. Located in the village of Watkins Glen, at the southern end of Seneca Lake, the park's natural gorge operated as a private tourist attraction from 1863 until 1906. In 2024, Watkins Glen will celebrate its 100th anniversary as a New York State Park, and recent, multi-million-dollar improvements have added to this water world's allure. Discover the highlights of Watkins Glen State Park, plus tips on planning your trip.

Things to Do

Watkins Glen State Park is best known for its well-maintained yet rugged Gorge Trail, consistently named one of the top hikes in the Northeast U.S. About 1.5 miles one way, the Gorge Trail showcases all 19 of the park's Glen Creek waterfalls as it crosses bridges, climbs 832 steps, and tunnels through 400-million-year-old sedimentary rock. Allow at least two hours to complete the hike, and bring your fancy camera if you own one because the photo ops are stunning. The third waterfall on your journey, Cavern Cascade, is the tallest—you'll even pass behind this 52-foot veil of water to feel its rush of energy and cooling spray. Rainbow Falls, with its romantic stone bridge above and blue-green pool below, looks like something out of a fairy world and is by far the park's photogenic showstopper. 

Be aware that the Gorge Trail is steep in places. If you think this may present a challenge, consider starting at the park's upper entrance and hiking down. When it is operating, a shuttle provides transportation from the main entrance to the top for a fee. If you're up for more trekking, Watkins Glen State Park has several other trails. It's also home to some lesser known attractions, including a playground for kids and an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

You can also enjoy a taste of New York while you're visiting the park. The Glen Cafe, located at the park's upper entrance near the gift shop, has local wine and beer among its offerings. A spacious patio is the perfect place to kick back and toast your waterfall adventure.

Tranquility of Upstate New York
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Hikes & Trails

If you're game for more hiking or want to avoid the sometimes crowded Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park offers alternatives. The 1.1-mile North Rim Trail and 1.8-mile South Rim Trail offer different perspectives on the gorge and a more pristine woodland environment. You can also venture off the Gorge Trail on an easy, quarter-mile loop out to the Lover's Lane Lookout. For the most vigorous hike, start at the park's south entrance on a 3-mile excursion to Couch's Staircase and Cavern Cascade; from there, take Jacob's Ladder to the upper entrance and return to the south entrance via the North Rim Trail and Suspension Bridge. For more information, you can refer to the park's map online or download a free digital map to your phone.

Where to Camp

You won't find a more convenient or affordable option than camping right at Watkins Glen State Park. There are 279 campsites available, some of which can accommodate RVs as long as 40 feet. Don't own a camper or tent? You also have the option to rent one of nine rustic, off-grid cabins. Advance reservations are often required and always a smart idea.

The park is also less than 2 miles from Watkins Glen International, where camping is available to those attending NASCAR races and other events like the Finger Lakes Wine Festival. Sites with electric and water hookups are available on the Pit Terrace. Make reservations early if you want to secure a racetrack-side spot.

Where to Stay Nearby

From romantic B&Bs to family-friendly motels and Airbnbs, there are plentiful lodging options in Watkins Glen, New York. A few of the top choices are:

  • Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel: For amenities like an indoor pool, outdoor fire pit, on-site restaurant and bar, and 24-hour room service, choose this highly-rated hotel overlooking Seneca Lake. Many of the property's 104 rooms and suites have water views, and you're just a 3-mile drive from the park's waterfalls.
  • Idlwilde Inn: This gracious Victorian inn on park-like grounds has 15 guest rooms, including two that are dog friendly. On warm-weather days, you can even enjoy your complimentary breakfast on the wraparound porch. It's just a five-minute drive from Watkins Glen State Park.
  • Glen Motor Inn: This family-owned throwback motel has an extraordinary lake-view location and an outdoor pool for summertime recreation. The rates are reasonable, the coffee is free, and the park's just six minutes away.
  • Seneca Heights Cabins: These tiny houses with nautical-themed décor are the cutest of the many Airbnb properties in and around Watkins Glen. Air conditioning and electric fireplaces keep them comfortable, but you'll need to share the communal bathroom facility a few steps away—think of it as glamping!

How to Get There

You'll want a car for your trip to this region of New York State. The main entrance to the park is located at 1009 North Franklin Street in Watkins Glen. For the upper entrance, ask your GPS or maps app to take you to 3310 NY-409. If you're checking into the park's campground, head to the south entrance at 3528 Route 419. While admission to the park is free, there is a $10 parking fee; however, you may be able to find unpaid parking on a side street near the park, especially if you arrive early on a midweek day.

Accessibility

The campground at Watkins Glen State Park is ADA accessible, as is the visitor welcome center at the park's main entrance. Here, a viewing area allows those who cannot hike the Gorge Trail to view a waterfall. Narrow pathways and hundreds of steps, which are often wet, may make the park's Gorge Trail inaccessible.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Check the park's operating schedule before your visit, as the Gorge Trail is typically closed from late October through mid-May, and may be closed at other times for maintenance or due to weather conditions. If you download New York State's free Parks Explorer App, you can opt to receive real-time alerts by selecting Watkins Glen State Park as your favorite park.
  • If you will be a frequent visitor to New York State Parks this year, consider purchasing an Empire Pass, valid for unlimited day-use vehicle entry at most state-operated parks, forests, beaches, and trails. The benefits can be shared with your extended household and may save you money over the course of a season.
  • If you intend to hike the Gorge Trail, wear sturdy footwear, and keep in mind that the misty spray emanating from the park's waterfalls may get you—and your camera—wet.
  • While leashed dogs (maximum of two), are allowed at the Watkins Glen State Park and its campground, they are not permitted to join you on the Gorge Trail.
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Explore New York's Waterfall-Filled Watkins Glen State Park