There might be no hike in New York that is more heralded than the Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen State Park, and with good reason. This trail is truly spectacular thanks to its sheer rock walls, 19 waterfalls, and some of the most gorgeous scenery that you’ll find in New York.
Watkins Glen State Park is located in the village of Watkins Glen, which, in addition to this park is also well known for the popular Watkins Glen International race track, as well as many other great nearby waterfalls. The town also serves as the county seat for Schuyler County, the least populous county in the Finger Lakes region.
And while there are a lot of great things to do in the small town including shopping, breweries, and a fantastic Seneca Lake boat tour, in my experience, the gem of the village (and possibly of the entire region) is Watkins Glen State Park.
Read on to find out everything you need to know to hike the Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen and see the nearly 20 waterfalls along the trail.
Parking for Watkins Glen State Park.
There are several areas where you can park at Watkins Glen State Park and all official parking areas charge $10 for all-day use, which includes access to the park’s pool. (Price current as of 2022.) This fee is enforced at all times from mid-May through mid-October, so there is no arriving early or late to avoid the fee as you can at some other parks.
Other than the parking fee, there is no charge to hike at Watkins Glen State Park, and Empire Passes are accepted to cover parking costs (just make sure to scan your pass to get a free parking ticket).
Most visitors will be best served by parking near the park’s main entrance along North Franklin Street (Route 14). This entrance is located on the northeastern end of the park and is located in the heart of the village, only a few short blocks from the southern shores of Seneca Lake, making the entire area easily walkable.
There are two lots in this location on either side of North Franklin Street that have room for several hundred cars between the two of them.
These parking lots can be found at the following address: 1009 N Franklin St, Watkins Glen, NY 14891.
There are several other parking areas including the South Entrance by the swimming pool (At these coordinates: 42.370928, -76.874503) and the Upper Entrance at the top of the gorge (At this address: 3310 NY-409, Watkins Glen, NY 14891).
Note that these two secondary lots are smaller than the ones by the main entrance and the South Entrance requires a bit of extra hiking to reach the Gorge Trail.
There is also parking available in town. While this parking is free, it is mostly limited to two hours at a time and can be difficult to find, so many opt for the ease of parking in the park’s lots.
Riding the Watkins Glen Shuttle
If you are visiting when it is operating, I highly recommend taking the Watkins Glen Shuttle as it means that you only have to hike in one direction. Of course, if you want to do a loop hike and see some of the park’s rim trails, which do have some interesting highlights, you can opt to do that as well.
The Watkins Glen Shuttle runs throughout the season and costs $6 per person to ride (Cash only). It runs between all three parking areas mentioned above. At the main lot, it can be picked up directly across the street from the main entrance in the large parking area.
The shuttle runs on a constant loop from 9 am to 6 pm on weekends from Memorial Day Weekend until July 3 and from Labor Day Weekend through late October. From July 4th through Labor Day, the shuttle runs every day.
If the shuttle is running during your visit, my recommendation is to drop off most of your party in the Upper Lot. Then, park near the Main Entrance and take the shuttle to the top to join them and start your hike.
Doing this means that you will only have to hike downhill and you only have to pay the shuttle fee for one person instead of your entire party.
Hiking the Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen State Park
The Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail is 1.5 miles in length and climbs approximately 500 feet in elevation over a series of mostly stone paths and 800 steps.
While this sounds like a challenging hike, most people stop so frequently that most of the elevation gain is of little concern. However, if you hike from the bottom all the way to Jacob’s Ladder at the Upper Entrance, there are 180 steps here that can be daunting after hiking uphill so far.
That is part of the reason why I recommend starting at the Upper Entrance and hiking downhill, if possible. If this is not possible, you can access the rim trails a bit more easily at the Mile Point Bridge, which will save hiking distance and will still allow you to see all of the park’s impressive waterfalls.
While the Finger Lakes region is home to many incredible gorges (most notably, in my opinion, in Buttermilk Falls State Park, Cascadilla Gorge, and Stony Brook State Park), the gorge at Watkins Glen might be the most amazing of them all, and that’s not just because of the waterfalls here.
In fact, some of the most beautiful parts of the gorge can be found upstream from Mile Point Bridge and Arcadia Falls, the uppermost of the large waterfalls in the gorge. Here, the narrow rock walls tower up to 400 feet above you and it almost feels like you are walking through a scene straight from a prehistoric movie.
That being said, the clear highlight here at Watkins Glen State Park is the waterfalls.
Rainbow Falls is probably the best known of these and is located approximately halfway between the entrance to the gorge and Jacob’s Ladder. The trail passes directly under this waterfall, and if it’s flowing right, you might be a bit of spray when passing by it.
There are actually two waterfalls at this spot: one on the main branch of Glen Creek known as Triple Cascade and another on an unnamed stream that flows off of the cliff’s edge that is known as Rainbow Falls.
This spot is one of the most iconic waterfall images in New York, and you’ll definitely want to take a moment to enjoy this majestic view. And, if it’s a sunny day, make sure to look for the rainbow in the 101-foot-tall Rainbow Falls.
Downstream of Rainbow Falls, the waterfalls continue nearly unabated until the end of the gorge. Along the way, you’ll pass many of these beautiful spots including Central Cascade, a 40-foot waterfall that passes narrowly through the chasm below a stone bridge.
However, my favorite spot in the area below Rainbow Falls is the incredible Cavern Cascade.
Cavern Cascade is the tallest waterfall on Glen Creek at 52 feet in height (Rainbow Falls is higher but is on a tributary of Glen Creek). What makes this waterfall so special though isn’t its height but the beauty of this spot and, in particular, the small cave created behind the waterfall.
Even better, just upstream of the waterfall, the trail passes through a (possibly man-made) cave carved into the rock with a 270-degree spiral staircase. While this spot struck me as having a Disney-esque feel, it’s still an incredible feat of engineering and quite unique.
Below Cavern Cascade, the water continues to tumble and, right at the end of the Gorge Trail in Watkins Glen State Park there is an incredible view overlooking the park and the surrounding town. While this view can’t be missed if hiking downhill, make sure to stop for a minute and turn around if you are hiking up the trail.
Just outside the gate at the bottom of the gorge, make sure to look upstream. Here, you’ll not only see the Sentry Bridge high above the creek but you’ll also see the lowermost waterfall on the creek, which is quite a beautiful scene.
It’s worth noting that if you visit in the winter, when the Gorge Trail is closed, you can still see this lower waterfall, which will give you a great glimpse into the winter beauty in this spot.
When to Hike the Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen
Without a doubt, this trail in Watkins Glen State Park is among the best hikes in New York, but it’s also among the most popular, and the narrow trail also means that it can feel crowded quite easily.
It’s probably of little surprise that the best time to hike the Gorge Trail is early in the morning on a weekday during the school year. Arriving early on a day when most people are at school or work will definitely limit the crowds and allow you to enjoy the park more peacefully.
If that’s not possible, arriving early, even on a weekend, will still provide you with a more enjoyable experience than you’ll get arriving mid-morning or early afternoon. That being said, hiking in the early evening (as long as you complete your hike by dusk) is another great option as fewer people are in the gorge later in the day.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on the area’s calendar of events. NASCAR races at Watkins Glen International can draw upwards of 100,000 people to the area, so do your best to avoid those weekends. Holiday weekends are also incredibly popular times to visit the park.
If you visit during these busy times, you might want to consider visiting some of the other fantastic waterfalls in the Finger Lakes and saving this hike for another trip.
Lastly, note that the Gorge Trail is totally closed due to ice buildup each year. While the exact dates vary a bit due to weather, it is typically closed from late October to mid-May. During this time, you can hike other trails in the park, but not through the gorge.
Overall, the Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen State Park is a spot that should be on every outdoor lover’s bucket list, and, no matter when you do the hike, is a must-do adventure for everyone. Just make sure, if possible, to hike it outside of peak visitation days and hours to make sure you get the most out of your experience.
For more information on hiking at Watkins Glen State Park and for a map, visit the park’s website.