Hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail

The complete guide to hiking the famous Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen, where to stay, where to eat, and other things to do in Watkins Glen

The iconic view at Rainbow Falls in the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail.

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Year Visited: 2023

Time of Year: October

When I first saw a picture of the iconic stone bridge in Watkins Glen State Park, I immediately thought of Rivendell and Lord of the Rings. I thought, how could a place so magical exist so close to my home, that I had never heard of (for the record, I took 20+ years to discover Letchworth State Park as well…)??

So I planned a trip. With my parents. And the boy I liked. And his parents (who were besties with my parents). It also happened to be a holiday weekend, so between the crazy crowds and the wondering when during the hike he was going to ask me out (it was at the end…), I completely missed… well, everything.

So (years, and multiple boyfriends later…), I decided I needed to make a pit stop in Watkins Glen State Park on my road trip to Connecticut.

And this time, It. Was. Magical.

So if you too want to visit Rivendell, err… Watkins Glen State Park, and hike the Gorge Trail, here is all the information you need to make sure your trip is magical.

About Watkins Glen

The village of Watkins Glen is situated right at the bottom of Seneca Lake, the largest lake in the Finger Lakes (FLX) region of New York State.

This tiny town of 1,800 people has two huge, world-famous attractions: Watkins Glen State Park, one of the best state parks in the country, and the Watkins Glen International race track. The village was the site of the first American road race following WWII, and is known as the birthplace of American road racing.

How to Get to Watkins Glen:

The closest airport to Watkins Glen is the Elmira-Corning Regional Airport. The closest major airports would be Frederick Douglass in Rochester or Hancock International Airport in Syracuse.

Or you could fly into Buffalo Niagara International Airport and follow my 8-day best of western NY road trip (you could also start/end this road trip in Rochester)!

Downtown Watkins Glen is small (and adorable!) and easily walkable, so theoretically, if you fly into the Elmira-Corning Airport and get a cab to Watkins Glen, you do not need a car. However, I would suggest renting a car at the airport and either road tripping around this beautiful part of the state, or at least day tripping to some of the other nearby sites.

Tips for Visting Watkins Glen State Park

Hours and Entry Fees

Watkins Glen State Park is open year-round, from dawn to dusk. However, the Gorge Trail (the popular one with the iconic bridge view) is only open from late May to late October, depending on the weather.

There is no entrance fee to enter Watkins Glen State Park, but there is a $10 parking fee if you choose to park in one of their parking lots.

Where to park for Watkins Glen State Park

If you are hiking the Gorge Trail, I suggest you park in the lower parking lot at the main entrance to state park. The trail affords better views if you hike from the bottom up, so it is best to start at the main entrance. There is a $10 parking fee that you will pay at a kiosk.

However, if you want to hike down instead of up (and take a shuttle back to the top), or if the main parking lot is full, you can also park at the upper entrance to Watkins Glen State Park, which is at the top of the Gorge Trail (also a $10 fee).

If you do not want to pay for parking, there is free street parking in the village of Watkins Glen, as well as at the visitor center parking lot; however that parking lot is limited to 2 hours. You can also park at the waterfront in Seneca Harbor Park.

Or if you are staying in downtown Watkins Glen, you can park for free at your hotel and walk to the park. The main entrance is right in downtown, and is easy to walk to.

Are there shuttles at Watkins Glen State Park?

There are shuttles that run seasonally from the upper entrance down to the main entrance of Watkins Glen, and back. These shuttles run on the weekends in May, June, September and October, and every day from the 4th of July weekend through Labor Day.

The shuttles used to be free, but are now $6 per person each way. Children 10 and under are still free.

Is Watkins Glen dog friendly?

Dogs are allowed in Watkins Glen State Park, and on most of the trails. However, dogs are not allowed on the Gorge Trail.

How to avoid crowds at Watkins Glen State Park

Watkins Glen State Park is only growing in popularity. The first time I visited (before Instagram was even that popular), was on a holiday, and it was VERY crowded!

The best way to avoid the crowds and get the best pictures is to go early in the morning. Honestly, if you can go as soon as the sun starts coming up, that’s going to be your best time. Also, visiting on a weekday, and definitely not a holiday helps.

My last visit to Watkins Glen State Park was at 8:30 on a Monday morning at the end of October. There were significant parts of the trail I had entirely to myself.

But even at that hour I did see quite a few people on the trail, and a whole crowd congregated at the Rainbow Falls viewpoint! As I was heading back down the Gorge Trail around 10 am, tons of people were starting to flood into the park.

When is the best time of year to visit Watkins Glen?

The best time of year to visit Watkins Glen is in late spring or early fall. The Gorge Trail is only open seasonally, depending on the weather, so there is no guarantee if you go in May that the trail will be open.

I would suggest a trip in early June, when the Gorge Trail will be open, students will still be in school in New York (through the end of June) and the waterfalls should be flowing at full force.

Or you can go in September or the first half of October, and maybe view a little fall foliage. However, fall is still a very popular time to visit this park (especially October), so it can get crowded even then, and the waterfalls will not be as strong.

Honestly, even though summer is going to be crowded, it is such a good time to visit the area. It will be beautiful weather for a day on the lake, or a day chasing waterfalls. So don’t avoid summer if that’s the best time for you to visit.

All things considered, I would come in early June or September, when the kids are in school, and you have the best chance of good weather.

The Watkins Glen Gorge Trail

There are several hiking trails in the state park, but let’s be real, the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is the one you want to do. That’s the trail with the iconic views you will see all over social media.

Good to know: The Gorge Trail is well covered and surrounded by tall rock walls (because it’s in a gorge…), so it tends to be shady and cool (thus the need to close it seasonally). I’m not saying you’re not going to get warm hiking up all those stairs, but it’s nice to know that even in the summer it is a good place to go hiking.

When is the Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen open?

The trick with the Gorge Trail is that it is not open all year. Because of the all the waterfalls along the trail, their spray gets on the stone walkway, and if the temperatures get too low overnight, the water can freeze and make the trail very dangerous.

Thus the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is open from late May to mid to late October, depending on the weather. When I called a few days before my trip at the end of October to check if the trail would be open, they just said “it’s up to Mother Nature…”

But I learned a general rule of thumb is if it’s going to be freezing temperatures at night for several nights in a row, the trail will close. Otherwise, you should be good to go (and it was open when I visited Oct. 23).

Is the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail a difficult hike?

I’m not a hiker. I like to think of myself as able to scale mountains (if I should ever try…) but let’s face it, I don’t really have mountains around to try (and would I, if I did??).

Suffice it to say I’m an average human being who sometimes gets motivated to work out, and sometimes most of the time doesn’t.

There are A LOT of stairs on the Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen. It rises 500 feet over the course of 1 1/2 miles. So if you just plowed straight through the trail without stopping, you would probably be out of breath.

But… the point of the Gorge Trail is not to get exercise. The point is to marvel at the 19 waterfalls along the way. So trust me when I say you will stop and marvel often enough and long enough to catch your breath between steps.

The biggest challenge of the Gorge Trail is Jacob’s Ladder, an 180-step staircase at the end of the trail that leads to the upper parking lot.

The good news is, you can easily skip this.

The Gorge Trail is not a loop, so you either have to hike it both ways, hike a different trail back to your car, or take the shuttle. So if you hike up from the main entrance, past the Rainbow Falls, to the bottom of Jacob’s Ladder… and turn around, you just hike back down the gorge to the main entrance.

I know that I climbed Jacob’s Ladder on my first trip to Watkins Glen (in my younger years), so… it’s doable. But this last trip, I got to the bottom of the stairs, said “nope!” and turned around.

What is the best direction to hike the Gorge Trail?

The Gorge Trail is best done from bottom to top. Yes, you will have to climb up steps this direction, but (as stated above), you will stop often enough to catch your breath.

You will also have the best views of all the waterfalls in this direction. If you hike down from top to bottom, you will have to turn around to see all of the waterfalls.

I highly suggest you hike from the main entrance up, and then either hike back down the trail, or take a shuttle back to the main entrance.

Where is the stone bridge in Watkins Glen?

The iconic stone bridge (pictured below) is the main attraction in Watkins Glen State Park. It looks like something built by the elves of Rivendell.

There are several stone bridges along the trail, built in the 1930’s, but the main one where you want to get your picture is at Rainbow Falls.

The Rainbow Falls are about halfway up the Gorge Trail. A lot of people hike up to this point and then turn around (which is fair because all of the best waterfalls/views are mostly before the Rainbow Falls).

You will likely find a crowd of people (and tripods) gathered at this point to get pictures.

Why are they called Rainbow Falls?

If you visit on a sunny day in the late afternoon, you might be able to see rainbows forming in the spray from Rainbow Falls!

Rainbow Falls viewpoint, late October

Other Hiking Trails in Watkins Glen

While the Gorge Trail is the most popular trail in Watkins Glen State Park (and the only one I’ve personally hiked), there are other trails in the area.

And the good news is (for those dog lovers out there), that these trails are dog friendly! And, unlike the Gorge Trail, they are open year round.

  • You can combine hikes between all three trails, if you’re looking for a more challenging route. Check out the trail map for more info.

North Rim Trail

Just at the top of Jacob’s Ladder is the start of the North Rim Trail. So if you want to hike a loop, you can hike the Gorge Trail up to the upper parking lot, and then hike the North Rim Trail back.

South Rim Trail

On the other side of the gorge is the South Rim Trail, known for its view of the Watkins Glen Gorge via the suspension bridge.

The Finger Lakes Trail

A portion of the 1000+ mile Finger Lakes Trail cuts throughWatkins Glen State Park. You can start the trail here, or pass through Watkins Glen on your way from another scenic part of New York State, such as Letchworth State Park.

Other Things to Do in Watkins Glen

Nearby Taughannock Falls State Park.

For such a small town, there are a surprising number of really great things to do in Watkins Glen. But there are also a lot of fantastic locations in under an hour’s drive from the village as well.

So I’m going to list for you all of the best things to do in and around the area to plan the best Watkins Glen vacation!

Watkins Glen International

Besides Watkins Glen State Park, the village of Watkins Glen is well known as the birthplace of American road racing. They host the Watkins Glen International motor race each September, among other events. You can also visit the museum at the International Motor Racing Research Center, just up the street from downtown.

Drive the original Watkins Glen circuit

In addition to watching a car race or exploring the museum, you can drive the original route (while abiding by speed limits..) that was used for the first motor race in Watkins Glen in 1948. Or, if speed is more your thing, you can drive on the actual race track at Watkins Glen International.

Take a selfie at the British phone booth

One of the fun things to do in Watkins Glen is to take a selfie at the authentic British phone booth outside of the visitor center downtown.

Enjoy Seneca Lake

Seneca Lake is the largest of the Finger Lakes in NY State, and honestly I think, one of the prettiest places in the world. And there are so many ways to enjoy the lake! You can go fishing, rent kayaks, take a cruise, or find a beach to go swimming.

Climb the fire tower in Sugar Hill State Forest

15 minutes from Watkins Glen is the Sugar Hill State Forest recreation area, where you can find all sorts of fun outdoor activities including horseback riding, hiking, fishing and camping. The highlight of the area is the 75 foot fire tower, which will reward your climb with some amazing views of the area.

Find more nearby waterfalls

The Finger Lakes region is just dotted with waterfalls and beautiful hikes. Here are some of the best nearby waterfalls:

  • Aunt Sarah’s Falls

  • Deckertown Falls

  • Eagle Cliff Falls

  • Excelsior Glen

  • Shequaga Falls

Check out the Finger Lakes Wine Trail

The FLX region is well known for its wineries; in fact, each lake has its own wine trail! Watkins Glen is the perfect place to base yourself for a day of exploring the Seneca Lakes Wine Trail.

Explore Ithaca

The cute college town of Ithaca is about a 40 minute drive from Watkins Glen. It is famous for its slogan “Ithaca is gorgeous!” There are so many amazing waterfalls and state parks right around the area, not to mention Cornell University, and the adorable Ithaca Commons downtown.

Corning Museum of Glass

By far one of the best things to do near Watkins Glen is to drive 30 minutes to Corning and visit Corning Museum of Glass. This unique museum has so many different galleries with a huge variety of glass works. Plus a giant gift shop and make your own glass experiences. And downtown Corning’s not too bad either (they actually won an award for how cute their downtown is).

Corning Museum of Glass

Places to Eat in Watkins Glen

There are a lot of places to eat in downtown Watkins Glen!

Of course, the first time I went to the park, we met my (future) boyfriend’s parents at the Burger King right outside the entrance. And his dad brought to the table what he thought were packets of ketchup for our fries. They were actually packets of strawberry jam…

Which I then proceeded to put on my fries knowing full well what they were… and found the sweet and saltiness pretty tasty. For the extent of one fry. Then I decided it did not work.

Anyway, all that to say: Do not eat at Burger King. Eat at one of these cool local restaurants instead:

The World’s Smallest Diner

By far one of the most unique places to eat in Watkins Glen is the World’s Smallest Diner. You can pretty much just get yourself a hot dog here (and, if you’re lucky, a spot at one of the three stools). This is a good place to eat in the warmer months.

Jerlando’s Ristorante

If you’re craving Italian, or pizza (which I always am), then this is the spot for you. Jerlando’s Ristorante & Pizzeria is located right downtown on the main street of Watkins Glen. It is easy to walk to from the park or any downtown hotel.

El Rancho

If you’re craving Mexican, instead of Italian (which, I also usually am…), then Watkins Glen has you covered: El Rancho is a delicious Mexican restaurant also right in the heart of downtown.

Thai Elephants

I’m honestly so surprised (and impressed) by the variety of food offerings in tiny downtown Watkins Glen (I guess having a world class attraction across the street helps). Another downtown staple is Thai Elephants, serving modern takes on classic Thai dishes.

Seneca Harbor Station

A seasonal option (in the warmer months) is the lakefront dining experience at the Seneca Harbor Station restaurant, or join one of their dinner cruises, and have a meal with a spectacular view of the lake.

Where to Stay in Watkins Glen

Stay close to Watkins Glen to get to the park early in the morning (and save on parking)!

There are a lot of choices for where to stay in Watkins Glen. Staying right downtown makes it easy to explore Watkins Glen State Park early in the morning before the crowds, and you can walk from your hotel to save on the parking fee.

Or you could also stay in one of the nearby towns, like Corning or Ithaca. They are both about a half hour drive from Watkins Glen, and have a lot of great restaurants and things to do.

Also don’t forget, you can go camping in Watkins Glen State Park.

Watkins Motel

I stayed just a few minutes walk from the park at Watkins Motel. It wasn’t fancy, but it was clean and comfortable, and (most importantly) within easy walking distance of Watkins Glen State Park.

The Colonial Inn & Creamery

This was another hotel I considered staying in, right in downtown Watkins Glen, because can you really go wrong with a hotel that also serves ice cream?? The Colonial Inn & Creamery is the perfect location, right between Watkins Glen State Park and the downtown restaurants.

Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel

The beautiful Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel is right on Seneca Lake, which is an absolutely perfect location to be if you’re visiting in the summer time. It’s a little further away from the park, but is definitely walkable if you don’t want to pay for parking.

The Blackberry Inn Bed & Breakfast

If you want something a little more homey and small-town charmy, try the Blackberry Inn Bed & Breakfast. It’s just a 10 minute walk to the park’s main entrance. Which you might need, to walk off the delicious homemade breakfast you’re going to get!

The Best of Western NY Road Trip

Letchworth State Park

Want to plan a road trip to all the best places in Western NY, including Watkins Glen? I have the perfect road trip itinerary for you!

  • This road trip begins and ends in Buffalo, NY (assuming you are flying into Buffalo), but it will also work just as well if you want to fly into Rochester.

  • Or if you live close enough to drive, just start and end the road trip at whichever attraction is closest to you!

Day 1-Buffalo

Fly into the Buffalo airport, and spend the afternoon exploring Buffalo.

Day 2-Niagara Falls

Visit the oldest state park in the country: Niagara Falls! You can easily walk across the bridge into Canada while you’re here, so be sure to bring your passport as well.

Day 3-National Comedy Center

Drive an hour and a half to Jamestown, NY to visit the birthplace (and burial place) of Lucille Ball and the super fun National Comedy Center.

Day 4-Sprague’s Maple Farms & Letchworth State Park

Head east to the best stop for NY maple syrup, and then hit up the #1 state park in the country: Letchworth State Park! It is seriously so magical!

Day 5: Corning Museum of Glass

Continue east to the famous Corning Museum of Glass, for a fun day of glass blowing and exploring the many unique galleries, and the award winning historic Gaffer District.

Day 6: Watkins Glen & Geneva

You already know why Watkins Glen is one of the best places to visit in New York! This is the day to stop and explore the area, and then drive along the beautiful Seneca Lake to Geneva, at the top of the lake. This is also a good day to visit one of the many FLX wineries.

Day 7: Rochester

Not far from Geneva is the cool city of Rochester, NY, home of the Strong Museum of Play, the Eastman-Kodak Company, and Wegmans!

Day 8-Head Home

Drive back to Buffalo to return your rental car and fly home (or drive home from Rochester, if you live close enough to drive).

See the top three state parks in NY:

Any more questions?

If you have any questions about visiting Watkins Glen State Park or hiking the Gorge Trail, feel free to email me or comment below.

Planning a trip to Watkins Glen?

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