Best Time and Tips for the Gorge Trail in Watkins Glen State Park
Best Time and Tips for the Gorge Trail in Watkins Glen State Park

Best Time and Tips for the Gorge Trail in Watkins Glen State Park

United States
United States

When Is the Best Time

The Watkins Glen State Park and its spectacular Gorge Trail are simply striking and beautiful. If you are in the state of New York in the Finger Lakes area or travelling to Niagara Falls, Watkins Glen is the perfect stop for a break and walk or stay for a night.

The waterfall and path in Cavern Cascade
The 50 feet high Cavern Cascade

Watkins Glen State Park was already established in 1906 and was fully developed with bridges, staircases and steps in 1930 to make this breathtaking gorge safely accessible to the public. 

Waterfall in autumn during fall foliage
Great Finger Falls

I will give you an overview of the State Park, the best trails, the best time, tips, and what to pack for an outstanding visit. Check out the table of contents and jump to the topics you are interested in. However, don’t miss out on my tips, especially for the peak season.

Opening Hours

The State Park is open throughout the year, but the famous gorge is only open from mid-May until early November; weather permitting. Open since May 17, 2024.

Why is the Gorge Trail Closed?

A danger sign at the closed gate at Watkins Glen
Access to the gorge is prohibited in winter!

The reason for the closure of the most famous trail – the gorge trail – comes from the topographic position in the north of the US close to the Canadian border at roughly 460 ft/ 140 m elevation, which causes strong winters with hazardous snow and ice conditions. The gorge is also closed during severe weather warnings. The gorge was carved out by water - by flooding, which is a potential risk for visitors during or after heavy rainfall.

Entrance and Parking Fee

The main entrance path and the beginning of the gorge.
The main entrance

The entrance is free of charge, but to maintain the facilities, a parking fee of $10 is requested. This fee includes the huge pool at the south entrance in the summer.

Shuttle Service and Fee

Suspension Bridge above Watkins Glen Gorge

The shuttle operates roughly every 20 minutes during the entire Gorge Trail opening dates at weekends; more details are below. Depending on your fitness level and health, it gives you the great opportunity to walk through the stunning gorge and take the shuttle back or vice versa. It is an elevation gain of 430 feet/ 130 m from the main entrance to the upper entrance or exit.

  • Shuttle from late May to the beginning of July is available on weekends only.
  • Daily shuttle service is offered between the main and upper entrances during the peak summer season, from the beginning of July until Labour Day. 
  • Weekends only after Labour Day until the end of the season.

Best Time to Visit Watkins Glen

A staircase with railing along the gorge

The best time to visit this iconic State Park and to hike the gorge trail is during the opening season from late May until the beginning of November. Regarding the crowds, avoid weekends in general or come early morning for spectacular shots of the gorge, waterfalls and cascades. Watkins Glens gets crowded already after 10 am.

Best Months to Visit Watkins Glen

Rainbow Falls and Fall Foliage
The fall foliage in October is an awesome time for a visit.

The best months are May, June, September after Labour Day, and October because the summer is crowded, and walking between masses of other visitors on the narrow path will spoil the experience. However, if you can only visit Watkins Glen in the summer, come early in the morning at sunrise. 

The rock pools in Watkins Glen
The "Glen of Pools".

The very best months are May, the springtime when the flow in the gorge has a higher level, and October, the fall foliage when trees and leaves on the rocks shimmer in orange and gold. 

Quick Weather Overview

The Glen and Bridge on a misty day.
The gorge out of a fairytale.
  • May until October are pleasant months for the gorge; therefore, the gorge trail is open for visitors—also, less rainfall during this time.
  • May is pleasant, reaching almost 68°F/20°C however, it is colder inside the gorge in the shade and on top because of the high humidity.
  • In June and September, temperatures are in the high 70s/24°C-26°C. Summer temperatures are high on average 82°F/28°C in July and August, and the gorge is perfect for cooling down during the day. The downside is that it is crowded. 
  • October, especially the first half, is still a nice month, reaching a max of 59°F/15°C.

Three Entrances and Parking

The entrance sign in metal at Watkins Glen State Park

Main Entrance

This is the best entrance and easiest way to access Watkins Glen. Due to the popularity of the park, this part got an upgrade with information panels, clean facilities, a café, and a gift shop – everything you need for an excellent visit. The limited parking on the opposite Google Maps Location

From the parking to the upper entrance or exit is about 1,3 miles/2 km.

Watkins Glen in black and white

South Entrance

There is plenty of parking and it is perfect in summer next to the Olympic pool. There are clean facilities, a picnic area and huge campground, and a shop for snacks and beverages. Getting to the gorge is a 5-minute walk from this entrance. Parking Google Maps Location

North – Upper Entrance

This entrance, rather exit, is situated at a higher elevation at the end of the gorge. To get into the gorge from here, you first have to ascend 180 steps which are easier than descending. Also, at the north entrance are facilities, a snack bar, and a parking lot. Google Maps Location

You can start from the upper entrance or take the shuttle back—more in the shuttle section.

3 Trails at Watkins Glen

Mile Point Sign in Watkins Glen

Gorge Trail – The Best Trail

The Gorge Trail is the main hike and most spectacular in Watkins Glen. It is open to the public from mid-May until the beginning of November and closed in winter. 

The trail to the upper parking is 1.3 miles long, and there and back is roughly 2.5 miles. The gorge trail always surprises with another breathtaking photo opt around the next corner or tunnel. You get awesome views of different waterfalls; you even walk behind two. The trail leads in sections through tunnels. After the first tunnel, the scenery of the gorge will leave you in awe.

Gorge Trail - Highlights

Visitors are on the Mile Point Bridge in Watkins Glen.
Enjoy the view from Mile Point Bridge.
  • Cavern Cascade; is 50 feet high and the first waterfall you can walk behind.
  • The Narrows, as the name indicates, is a tight section of the gorge with its own microclimate, cooler humid air, and as a result, mosses and small ferns grow on the canyon walls.
  • Glen Cathedral: the gorge widens here, and the walls are drier.
  • Central Cascade, where you reach the highest fall, 60 feet/ 18 m high. 
  • Rainbow Falls: This is the most picturesque and the second waterfall where you can walk behind. I promise you will love this spot.
  • Jacob’s Ladder: Climb the 180 stairs up to exit the gorge at the South Entrance and enjoy the view into the glen from a higher elevation. I highly recommend ascending the first part for another great view back into the gorge.

Indian Trail

Watkins Glen with Frozen Waterfalls
Watkins Glen in the Winter

The trail is a 3 3-mile/5-km return hike and is usually open throughout the year. The path leads along the gorge through the forest with great viewpoints into the gorge and some of the picturesque waterfalls.

South Rim Trail

The south rim trail is part of the popular FLT, which leads across New York State. It is a great hike leading along the south of the Glen, but it doesn’t offer outstanding views of the gorge.

How Difficult is the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail?

Two benches for resting along the gorge trail

It is a moderate and well-maintained hike through the gorge. The path from the main entrance to the upper parking is 1.3 mi/ 2 km long and has an elevation gain of 500 feet/ 150 m. Even if you are not fit, if you walk slowly and take a rest on one of the benches, you can make it. If you depend on the shuttle, check out its operating hours before.

Packing Checklist Watkins Glen

A waterfall at the gorge wall
This park is all about water - a rain jacket is recommended.
  • It is colder in the gorge in the shade, and the spray from the waterfalls lets you shiver. If you are not visiting in the warm summer, carry a rain jacket in your bag and stay dry when walking along and behind the waterfalls.
  • Bring your swim clothes in summer for the pool at the south entrance, pool access is included, but swimming in the gorge is prohibited for safety reasons.
  • Wear proper shoes for the wet, muddy and a little slippery trail.

6 Facts for Watkins Glen

Watkins Glen Waterfall
Watkins Glen
  1. The Glen stream flows and cascades through the gorge.
  2. There are 19 waterfalls in Watkins Glen.
  3. The Watkins Glen Gorge is 400 feet deep.
  4. 832 steps lead through the gorge to the top.
  5. The Gorge Trail from the main entrance to the upper-north exit is 1,3 miles long, and 180 steps ascend – the return hike is 2.5 miles long.
  6. The State Park was established in 1906.

Tips and Must-Knows for Watkins Glen

Watkins Glen Rainbow Falls
Early morning is excellent for such pictures.
  • There is no restroom in the gorge, but at all three entrances – so go before you go.
  • Plan at least three hours for the gorge to soak in all its beauty.
  • The best light for professional photographers is in the morning and late afternoon.
  • I can't stress it enough to avoid the crowds in the peak season, go early.
  • If you wish to enjoy the gorge in solitude, stay a night and visit Watkins Glen early morning. Check out my hotel tip and nearby tips below for the day of your arrival.

Hotel and Camping Watkins Glen

Spacious Hotel Room with two double beds

The best choice is the outstanding Watkins Glen Harbour Hotel, a short ten-minute walk to the main entrance and excellent rated by The hotel offers great views of Seneca Lake, and spacious, clean rooms—the perfect location to leave the car at the hotel and explore Watkins Glen. Just take a bottle of water and a snack in your bag. 

If you wish to camp, there is a huge campground in Watkins Glen that is well-equipped for families—more information and booking.

Nearby Places

The cascading nearby Hector Falls
The nearby Hector Falls
Lower Falls view from the base in the river bed
Lower Falls and Cave tells history from the prohibition.

Best Months to Visit


Location and Tips

New York, Finger Lakes, Watkins Glen
United States
United States

Pictures do not do it justice. I am sure you will leave the park with tons of photos on your mobile or camera.

Jesse Miller-Riley and Ganesh Subramaniam provided some of the photos for, my first project. Jesse grew up in the village of Watkins Glen, and the awesome gorge was his playground.


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