It was the first day of the year that felt like Autumn.
The sun was bright, and the skies were blue, but there was an edge of a chill in the air that hinted at the coming change in the seasons. It was, in other words, the perfect day for a leisurely hike – a hike through Watkins Glen State Park.
Watkins Glen State Park is famous for its dramatic gorge, a 400ft cleft in the rock that covers two miles and features countless waterfalls. You don’t need to go out into the wilderness to find it, though; somewhat surprisingly, the gorge opens right out onto the main street of the town of Watkins Glen.
Marie, Erin, and I had spent the previous three days exploring the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, and Watkins Glen, the town at the southern edge of Seneca Lake, was our final stop before returning to New York City. It was early morning when we met with Brittany, from the local tourism board, and Leah, our tour guide from the Finger Lakes State Park education team, and set off into the cool shadows of the glen.
The trail through the gorge was relatively easy – roughly paved, with stone steps in steeper sections – and rewarded us with beautiful views from the very beginning, just minutes from the car park. New York City and its concrete streets couldn’t have felt further away.
Watkins Glen is home to 19 waterfalls, and we came across the first one, Cavern Cascade, quickly.
A thin, steep stream of water fell from above, and the water had undercut the rock, giving hikers space to walk behind it before continuing onto the area of the gorge known as “The Narrows.”
The paths here hug the walls and the rim of the gorge. These paths – and the others throughout the park – were first built during the Great Depression after a flood destroyed the trails in 1935.
The task of reconstruction was given to the Civilian Conservation Corps, also known as “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” who helped improve the country’s national and state parks and assisted with disaster relief, in return for employment during difficult economic times. It was a camp of these men that made the gorge paths first from wood, then from local stone.
We walked on along these paths, pausing to stop and take photos, or simply to admire the view. In some places the river was still and placid, while in others it flowed fast and hard. My eyes were drawn to the river and the falls, and the mesmerizing curves and ridges they’ve created in the stone. But looking skywards to the rim of the gorge was rewarding as well, reminding me of the sheer scale of the place I was in.
The rocks in the gorge at Watkins Glen State Park are 380 million years old.
State Park workers have uncovered all sorts of interesting fossils in the layers of shale and sandstone, some of which Leah showed us – and some of which she dug up herself.
The contrasting layers of stone that create such eye-catching scenes here are created by the river undercutting the sandstone until there’s nothing left to support it, at which point the rocks fall into the gorge below. It’s just one of the reasons that the gorge trail is closed in winter, when it’s simply too dangerous for people to hike through.
As Leah explained, when the ice melts in spring, a trained scaling team spend two months rappelling down the sides of the gorge, knocking loose rocks off the walls to protect visitors. They shovel the debris into the river below, just as nature would have if allowed to take its course. Looking at the often sheer walls to the side of me, even the thought of the task was impressive (and slightly terrifying).
After navigating the Narrows, the gorge opened up into a stretch named “Glen Cathedral,” home to what is possibly Watkins Glen’s most famous view.
The iconic Rainbow Falls was our final stop on the trail, so-called because in the right light, rainbows arc across the gorge, their bright colours contrasting with the dark of the stone.
I had seen the falls in photos, but it wasn’t preparation for the sensory overload of seeing them cascade over the ridge, feeling the water fall onto my hands, and hearing the roars and drips fill my ears.
We could have stayed longer, or hiked further, but a welcome lakeside lunch and some afternoon wine tasting awaited, and so we turned back – but not before taking a detour skyward and crossing the 147-year-old suspension bridge. The aerial view of the river and the rocks was beautiful, albeit slightly vertigo inducing; I didn’t envy whoever built the bridge back in 1870!
Roughly 15 minutes later we were out of the gorge, and back in the heart of the town.
It was almost disorientating – as if the shadowed pathways of the gorge were another world altogether – but I could only imagine how welcome that easy switch between town and nature must be for the people who live here.
I smiled when I heard how locals describe the area, as we made our way towards the car. It couldn’t be more fitting, because as we’d discovered, Watkins Glen really is a place “where Mother Nature meets Main Street.”
NEED TO KNOW
Where is Watkins Glen State Park? Watkins Glen State Park is at the edge of the town of Watkins Glen in the Finger Lakes, a beautiful region in the north of New York state.
How do I get there? Public transport in the area is limited, so your best bet would be to hire a car and drive to Watkins Glen. To get to the Finger Lakes region from elsewhere in the USA (or neighbouring Canada!), there are multiple bus routes and flights from various major cities to towns like Ithaca, Elmira, and Rochester.
What do I need to bring? The hike through the gorge at Watkins Glen is relatively easy, but comfortable shoes and clothes, as well as water and some energy-boosting snacks like granola bars, are a good idea.
Have you ever visited Watkins Glen State Park, or would you like to? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear what you think!
A huge thanks to the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce, Chemung County Chamber of Commerce, and Corning and the Southern Finger Lakes for hosting our adventure in the Finger Lakes! As always, all opinions (and love of nature) are entirely my own.