As Tom and I drive through New York, we decided to stop and see a few sights along the way. Today we visited Watkins Glen State Park near Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region. Watkins Glen State Park was voted the #3 Best State Park in the United States by readers of USA Today. Tom and I think the list left a few of our favorites out, but Watkins Glen is one of the best known state parks.
Watkins Glen State Park is not very large – only about a mile long and and less than a mile in width – but the park’s centerpiece is a spectacular narrow gorge where you can hike alongside Glen Creek past deep pools, water-sculpted rocks, and nineteen waterfalls. There are two rim trails, one on each side, and a gorge trail beside the creek. The park is located in downtown Watkins Glen – so downtown that Tom and I almost drove by it today because we were looking for something a little more off the main thoroughfare.
The Gorge Trail is breathtakingly beautiful, with high shale walls that drip water and are covered with ferns, wildflowers, and mosses. Water pours down the narrow chasm through a series of waterfalls that vary from a few feet to 60 feet tall. There are bridges across the creek at strategic places, including a suspension bridge that is 85 feet above the creek. In the Great Flood of 1935, the water rose to within 5 feet of this bridge! The stone staircases and paths have been built since that time.
Watkins Glen first became a tourist attraction in 1863 when it was privately owned. In 1906 it was bought by the State of New York and is now one of the gems of the State Park system. It is also very crowded. We walked from the main visitor center up the gorge – up the 800 steps of the Gorge Trail – and we had to fight in some places to get through the lines of people coming down and stopping traffic to take pictures. Tour buses frequent Watkins Glen State Park by dropping passengers off at the Upper Entrance and picking them up at the Main Entrance after they walk down the gorge. We passed hundreds of people, many of whom had no concept of sharing the trail. When we were coming back to the main entrance, we walked along the Indian Trail on the north side of the gorge, which didn’t have the views of the Gorge Trail, but also didn’t have the people.
After climbing up and down the 800 steps, we found The Great Escape Ice Cream Parlor and stopped for some of their homemade ice cream. Yum! On our way back to our campground, we went through Montour Falls and stopped to admire Shequaga Falls, which is literally in a person’s backyard. It was a spectacular waterfall but a strange location.
Watkins Glen State Park is open year round, but the Gorge Trail is only open from Memorial Day through the end of October. Once things start freezing, it is too dangerous to let people walk along the trail. We really enjoyed Watkins Glen State Park but would have liked it even better with fewer people. When we got back to the gorge on the Indian Trail, we noticed that there were a lot fewer people and the tour buses were gone, so we would recommend going late in the afternoon if you plan to visit.