Watkins Glen State Park is an iconic New York state park that is super unique and beautiful!
We visited Watkins Glen in the spring and loved our time there. There are cool stone walkways and various waterfalls. It is definitely a unique place that is worth a visit if you’re in western New York.
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About Watkins Glen State Park
Watkins Glen State Park has a 400 ft. deep canyon with 19 waterfalls cascading through the canyon. It has been open to the public since the late 1800’s and has been managed by the New York State Park Service for over 100 years.
A unique thing about Watkins Glen State Park is that there is a walkway with stairs through the canyon, rather than just looking down into the canyon. The walkway allows you to have a unique view of the waterfalls and scenery.
Fun Fact: the word “glen” in the name “Watkins Glen” actually means “narrow valley.” While in the area, you may notice that there are other towns and sights named “something + glen.”
How to Get to Watkins Glen State Park
Watkins Glen is often overlooked by visitors to New York because it is more west in the state than a lot of people visit. However, we think that it is definitely worth the drive to visit, especially since there are so many other cool places to visit in the area as well.
The best way to get to Watkins Glen State Park is by car. Going by car will allow you to visit Watkins Glen and the surrounding area on your own time.
If you are travelling to New York by plane and need to rent a car, I recommend using Booking.com. We always use Booking.com when we rent cars throughout the United States because they give some of the cheapest rates and often have free cancellation.
Albany, New York to Watkins Glen State Park: 3.5 hours, 220 miles
New York City to Watkins Glen State Park: 4.5 hours, 250 miles
Rochester, New York to Watkins Glen State Park: 1.5 hours, 80 miles
Niagara Falls to Watkins Glen State Park: 2.5 hours, 150 miles
Parking at Watkins Glen State Park
Parking can be difficult to find at Watkins Glen State Park, especially on weekends in the summer at peak times of day.
The main parking lot is located at the entrance of the park, but there is a limited amount of spots. To park at the main parking lot, you will need to pay for the parking at the kiosk and leave the ticket on your dashboard. Parking is “free” if you have the Empire Pass (New York State Park Annual Pass). (If you are an avid NY State Park visitors like we are, it is totally worth the investment!)
Street parking is also available most of the time. If parking close to the entrance is full, there are a few other options. You could park in the parking lots by the park office, which you must drive down and around the hillside to get to it.
Another parking option is to go to Watkins Glen Upper Entrance, which has more parking available. From the Upper Entrance parking, there is a walking trail to the lower entrance of the park.
If you are camping at the Watkins Glen State Park Campground, you can remain parked at your campsite. There is a trail that leaves from the Onondaga Village loop that connects with the main trails through the state park.
Lodging Near Watkins Glen State Park
There are several camping options available at or near Watkins Glen State Park.
Watkins Glen State Park Six Nations Camping Area is nice. We stayed in the Seneca Loop, and our site was huge. There are nice bathrooms and showers in the center of each loop. Reservations can be made on ReserveAmerica.com.
Another nearby campground is the Watkins Glen/ Corning KOA resort. It is closer to the Watkins Glen Racetrack and farther from town.
If you have an RV or camper, there is also a campground on the lake in the middle of town called Clute Campground. I wouldn’t really recommend this campground if you’re tent-camping though as it is in a noisy, crowded area.
Lodging options that are not camping
There are several cute AirBnbs and hotels throughout the area. Prices per night fluctuate a lot depending on the days you are planning on visiting because prices tend to be higher on weekends with races at the Watkins Glen Racetrack. If you plan on visiting a weekend that there will be a race, I recommend booking far in advance to secure a spot.
I recommend using Booking.com when booking hotels because you can see all of the details and they give you all of the cancellation details upfront incase your plans change. If booking a house or at a Bed and Breakfast, booking through AirBnb or the B+B’s website is often the best option.
Things to Do at Watkins Glen State Park
Walk the Through the “Glen”
The whole purpose of going to Watkins Glen is to walk through the glen to see all the waterfalls. From outside the glen, you can’t really see much. You must go in the canyon to see the interesting waterfalls and explore the cool rock formations.
There are various trails to hike in and around the main canyon area. The “Gorge Trail” is the main trail in the canyon that has the stairs and walkways around the water in the canyon. It is 1.9 miles round-trip (out-and-back). The “Indian Trail” is on the northern side of the canyon while the “Finger Lakes North Country Trail” runs on the southern side of the canyon.
Regardless of the trails you decide to take, I really recommend hiking the Gorge Trail from east to west. This means you either park at the main parking at the entrance in the town of Watkins Glen or if you park in one of the other parking lots, hike the connector trail that brings you to the entrance.
I recommend walking the Gorge Trail east to west because it will allow you to see the magnificence of the waterfalls, while if you hiked it the opposite way, you will have to turn around to see every waterfall. Also, if you hike the Gorge Trail from east to west, this is the direction that most people hike, so you are likely to encounter less “people-traffic” and less resistance.
After walking the Gorge Trail up the canyon, you can return to the front of the gorge via the Indian Trail or the Finger Lakes Trail. If you parked at the parking lots on the west side of the gorge, continue to your car from there.
The most popular combination of trails (per AllTrails) that includes most of the trails in the park is the “Indian, Finger Lakes, and Gorge Trail.” In total, this trail variation is 4.2 miles, but it does include a spur into part of the park that does not have the waterfalls. This trail would be a good choice if you have extra time and want to get away from the crowds.
Explore the Waterfalls
As previously mentioned, there are 19 waterfalls in the Watkins Glen canyon. One of the most popular is Rainbow Falls, which is one of the last you will encounter if hiking the Gorge Trail from east to west. It is so popular that it has been featured on magazine covers and on lists of some of the best things to see in New York State.
Another one of my favorite waterfalls you can see here is Cavern Cascade. The trail takes you under and behind this gorgeous waterfall. You can then climb stairs carved into the rock, see the waterfall from above, and continue on the trail.
I won’t spoil the rest of the waterfalls for you, but they are all so different and pretty!
Check out the historical information
At the entrance of the gorge, there are multiple informational panels about the history of Watkins Glen. I am not a big history buff, but I thought that there was definitely some interesting information here, especially considering that the state park used to be a vacation resort even during the Civil War.
In this area, there is also a gift shop and restrooms.
Tips for Visiting Watkins Glen
Make sure the trail is open during your visit (closed November to May)
Check the Watkins Glen State Park website to make sure that the park is open during your visit. In the winter months and into the spring, the Gorge Trail is closed due to large hanging icicles being a hazard. When we visited in mid-May, the Gorge Trail had only recently opened for the season.
Go early in the morning to avoid the crowds
In the summer months, Watkins Glen State Park is known to be crowded. I recommend starting the Gorge Trail early in the morning as soon as it opens so that you can have a more private experience. As the day goes on, the main Gorge Trail can be very crowded.
Things to Do Nearby Watkins Glen State Park
Eagle’s Cliff Falls
Eagle’s Cliff Falls is a hidden gem that is super close to Watkins Glen. It is in a local park that costs $3 per car to enter. Drive through the small park to the back the park where there is a parking area beside a picnic area along the creek.
There is a short trail that follows the creek up into a small valley area. Follow the short trail that wraps around a rock wall until you end up at a gorgeous waterfall. The water is very shallow in parts where you can walk closer to the waterfall. It is a great place to hang out and enjoy nature.
Chequaga Falls is located in the town of Montour Falls. The falls can be viewed from a roadside park. There is plenty of parking around and also many benches in the park that face the waterfall.
The coffee shop “North New York” is right down the street and has delicious pastries and coffee that can be enjoyed while viewing the waterfall.
Finger Lakes National Forest
Finger Lakes National Forest is nearby, to the northeast of the town of Watkins Glen. There is plenty of hiking here. It is much more secluded, allowing you to enjoy a peaceful time in nature.
Letchworth State Park
Letchworth State Park is an incredible, totally underrated state park in New York. There are several massive waterfalls and lots of hiking trails. For more information on Letchworth State Park, be sure to check out my Letchworth State Park blog post!
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I hope you enjoy this guide to Watkins Glen State Park and the surrounding area! Any questions or anything I missed? Let me know in the comments down below!
Thanks for reading!