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.
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.
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.
The State Park is open throughout the year, but the famous gorge is only open from mid-May until early November; weather permitting. The reopening of Watkins Glen has been postponed until the end of May 2023, an exact date has not yet been announced.
Why is the Gorge Trail Closed?
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 floodings which is a potential risk for visitors during or after heavy rainfall.
Entrance and Parking Fee
The entrance is free of charge, but to maintain the facilities, a fee of $10 is requested for parking and includes the huge pool at the south entrance in the summer.
Shuttle Service and Fee
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 on weekends only.
- Daily shuttle service is offered during the peak season in summer, the beginning of July, until Labour Day between the main and the upper entrance.
- Weekends only after Labour Day until the end of the season.
- Shuttle Service Fee in 2023 $6
Best Time to Visit Watkins Glen
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
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 are only able to visit Watkins Glen in the summer, come early morning at sunrise.
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
- 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 70’s/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, and especially the first half, is still a nice month reaching a max of 59°F/15°C.
Three Entrances and Parking
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.
Plenty of parking and 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
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
Either you start from the upper entrance, or you can take the shuttle back – more in the shuttle section.
3 Trails at Watkins Glen
Gorge Trail – The Best Trail
The Gorge Trail is the main hike and most spectacular of all in Watkins Glen. It is open to the public from mid-May until the beginning of November – 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 of them. The trail leads in sections through tunnels. After the first tunnel, the scenery of the gorge will leave you in awe.
Gorge Trail - Highlights
- 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.
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?
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 with 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. Check out the operating hours of the shuttle before if you depend on it.
Packing Checklist Watkins Glen
- 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
- The Glen stream flows and cascades through the gorge.
- There are 19 waterfalls in Watkins Glen.
- The Watkins Glen Gorge is 400 feet deep.
- 832 steps lead through the gorge to the top.
- 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.
- The State Park was established in 1906.
Tips and Must-Know for Watkins Glen
- 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.
- 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
The best choice is the outstanding Watkins Glen Harbour Hotel, a short ten minutes walk to the main entrance and excellent rated by booking.com. 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 also for families—more information and booking.
- Hector Falls – located 3.5 miles north of Watkins Glen on Route 414. Google Maps Location
- Aunt Sarah's Falls – located 2 miles south of Watkins Glen, also on 414. Google Maps Location
- Lower Falls and Cave in Rochester – this hidden waterfall is located north in the centre of Rochester along the route to Niagara Falls.
Best Months to Visit
Location and Tips
Pictures do not do it justice. I am pretty sure you will leave the park with tons of photos on your mobile or camera.
Some of the photos were provided by Jesse Miller-Riley and by Ganesh Subramaniam for whentobewhere my first project. Jesse was grown up in the village of Watkins Glen, and the awesome gorge was his playground.