Watkins Glen State Park, NY (6-22-18)
Watkins Glen is a gem of a State Park located in the Finger Lakes Region of western New York State. At a under 800 acres in size, its diminutive stature belies the natural wonder which lies within its boundaries. The centerpiece of the park is a two mile stretch of tiny Glen Creek that, in the centuries following the last Ice Age, has cut an impressively deep and rugged gorge as it drops some 400 feet over its final couple of miles before reaching nearby Seneca Lake. Along the way are numerous waterfalls (the park states 19 but I think that’s being a bit generous), narrow slot canyons, potholes, and deep turquoise pools. It’s nature on display at its most rugged and its most delicate all at the same time. Providing access to it all is a remarkable pathway cut, in many places, right from the walls of the gorge. Stone steps and bridges wind along the edges of the cliffs, leap the creek above small cascades, pass behind at least two waterfalls, and at times cuts right through the surrounding cliffs. The Gorge Trail, as its aptly named, is truly a marvel of engineering…not only for the ease as to which it offers access through the gorge but in the way that is almost adds to the natural landscape rather than detracting from it.
The park itself is an old one. Originally set aside as a private resort in 1863 the land was purchased by the State of New York in 1906. Access to the gorge was initially through a network of rather flimsy wooden staircases and walkways. After the State purchased the park, efforts to improve these wooden structures with more permanent iron and concrete ones were undertaken. Then came the floods of July 7, 1935. Known simply as “The Great Flood” , the deluge that hit Watkins Glen on that day all but destroyed the entirety of the existing trail system. Nearly a foot of rain fell over a period of only a few hours causing catastrophic flash flooding which, incredibly, saw tiny Glen Creek transform into a monstrous torrent of water which reportedly came close to filling the 100-foot deep gorge to its rim. After the waters receded clean-up efforts quickly commenced and plans were made to replace the wrecked trail system. Workers with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were brought in and the Gorge Trail as it exists today began to take shape. Tunnels were hand carved through the canyon walls while beautiful stone bridges and staircases, designed to complement rather than detract from the natural surroundings, were constructed along the length of the two mile gorge floor. Over the intervening years between The Great Flood and the present other park amenities have also been added and updated but much of what is seen now remains much as it has existed for the better part of the last hundred years.
Our tour of Watkins Glen State Park would entail a loop of just over three miles, starting out ascending the famous Gorge Trail by way of the eastern Main Entrance and returning via the Indian Trail which follows along the edge of the gorge’s northern rim. After a quick stop at the recently renovated visitor center we approached the gorge via a newly restored greenspace leading up to its entrance. Towering cliffs quickly close in as the trail enters the canyon proper via a 150-foot tunnel carved through the rock by the CCC back in the 1930’s. Emerging atop the first of the gorge’s stone spans, named Sentry Bridge, a wonderful panorama opens up back to the east over the entrance of the park. Above Sentry Bridge the mile trek up the floor of the gorge begins in earnest. The beautifully designed trail wanders past such colorfully named highlights of the canyon as Cavern Cascade, the Glen of Pools, Glen Cathedral, and Rainbow Falls. Every twist, staircase, and bridge opens up a new viewpoint of this fascinating and beautiful canyon. Park literature states there are 19 waterfalls along the route. I guess that depends on how you define “waterfall”, but there are at least a half dozen major cascades along the way. Two of the most enjoyable are the aforementioned Cavern Cascade and Rainbow Falls. Both of which are places where the trail actually passes behind the falling water. Rainbow Falls, in particular, is a truly magical spot and is likely what you’ll see a picture of first if you search for photos of the park. A mile from the entrance the trail enters a much wider portion of the gorge before eventually climbing up from the river beneath the towering span of an old railway bridge reconstructed after the catastrophic 1935 flood. Ascending from the gorge via a long flight of steps known as Jacob’s Ladder the north rim is quickly reached, not far from the North Entrance, where the Indian Trail crosses heading back east. The second half of our hike would primarily follow this trail as it gently descended through a pretty mixed hardwood forest interspersed with a few nice overlooks of the gorge along the way. Our original intent was to follow the Indian Trail as far as a spot known as Point Lookout at the eastern extremity of the northern rim but found the last quarter-mile of trail closed for renovation. We therefore dropped back into the gorge at that point, returning to Glen Creek just above Canyon Cascade, and retraced our steps down the lower portion of the gorge back to the entrance and the visitor center.
As you can probably already tell this was a park that I enjoyed immensely. Getting out on the trail early was advice well-received as it allowed me to get many of the shots I wanted before the inevitable weekend crowds descended upon the gorge. To any waterfall enthusiast, or really to any enthusiast of natural beauty, Watkins Glen should definitely be on your radar for a future visit if you ever find yourself in western New York. Believe any raving reviews of the place you might read, this park more than earns its wonderful reputation. So, without further adieu, come along with my boys and I as we explore this spectacular little slice of New York…this is a good one…as always…ENJOY!!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 42.376386, -76.871498
Mileage Hiked: 3.3 miles Hike Duration: 1:45
Trailhead Temp: 60'F Trail Traffic: 50-100 people
Min. Elevation: 480' Max. Elevation: 960'
Total Vertical Gain: 500' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 152'