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Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail Hike To Rainbow Falls

Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail Hike To Rainbow Falls

Picture nineteen waterfalls plunging through a spellbinding natural gorge, complimented by exquisitely crafted man made stone staircases and bridges. No, you have not been summoned to the council of Elrond in Rivendell. You are hiking the Glen Creek Gorge Trail to Rainbow Falls inside Watkins Glen State Park, the extraordinary crown jewel of New York’s Finger Lakes region.

Rainbow Falls is an incredibly photogenic natural terrain and unquestionably the park’s gasp-for-air, weak at the knees knockout feature. But Watkins Glen State Park is not a one trick pony.

The entire 1.5 mile length of hiking Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is breathtakingly beautiful and we reserve the superlative ‘breathtaking’ only for genuine wow moments on our travels.

Let’s dive right into everything you need to know about planning your visit to Watkins Glen State Park Gorge NY (not literally, jumping in the water is not permitted!):

Table of Contents show

Our Watkins Glen State Park Experience

Why trust us to help with planning your visit to Watkins Glen State Park?

Well, for starters Kristen is a Finger Lakes native, growing up in a small town just 75 miles from Watkins Glen. And since Mark moved to the US, we have hiked Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail several times.

Having traveled the US extensively, we think Watkins Glen State Park Gorge is one of the most striking places to visit in America.

It is one of our personal favorite places to visit every time we’re back in western NY and you will find Watkins Glen State Park in our guide to the 50 best places to visit in the USA.

Where Are Those Morgans at Watkins Glen State Park Rainbow Falls
Mark and Kristen at Rainbow Falls in Watkins Glen State Park

What Can You Expect From This Guide?

This comprehensive first time visitor guide covers everything you need to plan the perfect visit to Watkins Glen State Park in New York.

You will find information about parking and entrances, fees, campgrounds, nearby hotels and restaurant options.

However, our main focus is to provide you with hiking and photography insights along the spectacular Watkins Glen Gorge Trail to the remarkable Rainbow Falls waterfall.

We want you to be fully prepared so you can make the most of your visit to Watkins Glen State Park Gorge.

Watkins Glen State Park Factfile

  • State Park: Watkins Glen
  • Region: Finger Lakes
  • State: New York
  • Address: 912 N Franklin St, Watkins Glen, NY 14891
  • Telephone: (607) 535-9989
  • Campgrounds: 279
  • Cabins: 9
  • Area: 778
  • Activities: Hiking, waterfalls, photography
  • Major Trail: Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail
  • Major Waterfall: Rainbow Falls Watkins Glen
  • Open: Year Round (Gorge Trail closed end Oct to end May)
  • Annual Visitors: ~ 1 million
Cascade Cavern waterfall through a cave with orange light
Cavern Cascade waterfall looking back from inside Spiral Staircase

Where Is Watkins Glen State Park?

Watkins Glen State Park is located in the village of Watkins Glen in New York’s popular Finger Lakes region.

The small village is quite literally built up on either side of the main park entrance, which means visitors can walk to Watkins Glen State Park most popular entrance from hotels around the village.

Watkins Glen State Park Gorge encompasses a long but narrow area of land surrounding Glen Creek, which flows directly into the southernmost tip of Seneca Lake in the heart of Watkins Glen village.

Set your GPS or Maps App for “Watkins Glen State Park Parking” to reach the main parking areas from your origin.

We will walk you through the various Watkins Glen State Park parking options later.

Driving Distances And Airports

Let’s take a quick look at driving distances and times to Watkins Glen State Park from nearby major cities, as well as the closest airports to Watkins Glen State Park for you to consider if visiting from further afield.

Driving distances to Watkins Glen:

  • Rochester NY – 80 miles (1h 30m)
  • Syracuse NY – 90 miles (1h 30m)
  • Scranton PA – 125 miles (2h 20m)
  • Buffalo NY – 146 miles (2h 30m)
  • Albany NY – 205 miles (3m 30m)
  • New York NY – 242 miles (4h 20m)

Closest airports to Watkins Glen State Park NY:

  • Rochester NY – 87 miles (1h 35m)
  • Syracuse NY – 90 miles (1h 40m)
  • Buffalo Niagara NY – 138 miles (2h 20m)
  • Newark NJ – 231 miles (4h 00m)
  • JFK NY – 264 miles (4h 30m)

Here are our expert tips on how to find cheap flights to read later.

Beautiful gorge trail with waterfalls and stone path in new york
The stunning Watkins Glen Gorge Trail

Is Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail Open?

Watkins Glen State Park remains open year round from dawn to dusk, but Watkins Glen State park Gorge Trail leading to Rainbow Falls is typically closed from the end of October through the end of May weather dependent.

However, in 2022 Watkins Glen Gorge Trail closed on November 8th which was later than usual.

Keep a close eye on the “opening hours” tab of the official Watkins Glen State Park website for updates on exactly which date you can hike Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail once it re-opens for the 2023 season.

If you visit Watkins Glen State Park in November, December, January, February, March or April, you will not be able to hike Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail to Rainbow Falls.

Why Does Watkins Glen Gorge Trail Close?

Watkins Glen Gorge Trail closes between late fall and late spring because of ice and potentially dangerous levels of water flowing through its very narrow gorge.

Rain and in particular snowmelt will cause water levels in Glen Creek to rise and rush through Watkins Glen State Park gorge. But it is ice that poses the biggest risk to hikers.

Once you see the gorge, you will completely understand why it closes outside of summer and early fall!

Small waterfalls and plunge pools inside a dramatic ravine in new york
Photogenic waterfalls plunging in pools

Watkins Glen State Park Entrance Fee

Visitors do not pay an entrance fee to gain entry into Watkins Glen State Park, which means you do not have to pay anything to walk the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail.

In addition, you do not need a reservation to enter Watkins Glen Gorge. It is free to enter from dawn to dusk during open season for as long as you desire.

However, there is a $10 parking fee to park your car at any of the 3 main Watkins Glen State Park parking areas. This parking fee is very common at most US State Parks.

Let’s take a look at official parking areas and our tips on how you can park for free.

Watkins Glen State Park Parking

Main entrance, south entrance and upper entrance are the 3 points at which you can access Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail.

You will find plenty of parking spaces at each of the three entrances.

Visitors to Watkins Glen State Park tend to hike the Gorge Trail and the North Rim Trail as a loop. So it doesn’t matter which of the entrances you park to start and end your hike.

However, most visitors begin hiking Watkins Glen Gorge Trail at the main entrance and therefore end the loop on North Rim Trail back at the main entrance.

Let’s take a closer look at each parking and entrance option.

Main entrance to Watkins Glen State Park overlooking Glen Creek
Main entrance approach to Watkins Glen State Park

Main Entrance

Watkins Glen State Park main entrance is located on N Franklin St. You will find 2 parking lots on either side of Franklin Street at the main entrance to Watkins Glen Gorge.

A smaller lot is located on the west side of Franklin Street (the same side as entry to the park) with around 50 parking spaces. This lot includes 3 disable parking spots.

On the east side of Franklin Street is a much larger parking lot with over 100 spaces and around 10 disabled parking spots.

You have to pay and display a $10 parking ticket in your dashboard.

Benefits To Parking At Main Entrance

Parking at the main entrance to Watkins Glen State Park is more convenient for accessibility and for further exploring Watkins Glen village without having to drive.

You would begin your hike up Watkins Glen Gorge Trail from the lowest elevation and climb 832 steps to reach upper entrance, which ultimately leads back in a loop to main entrance via North Rim Trail.

You will find Watkins Glen State Park Visitor Center, restrooms, The Glen Cafe and several information boards at main entrance.

This parking area and route is the classic way to hike Watkins Glen Gorge Trail. However, it is the busiest lot and spaces fill quickly.

Plan to arrive to main entrance early or much later in the day if you want to guarantee a parking spot.

South Entrance

Watkins Glen State Park south entrance is a short 0.5 miles drive from main entrance. Follow Old Corning Road and take the first right onto Walnut Road before turning into south entrance on S Pavilion Rd.

At south entrance you will find well over 100 parking spaces, as well as restrooms, a snack bar, outdoor swimming pool, picnic area and playground.

You will access Watkins Glen Gorge Trail via Couch’s Staircase. This involves descending a steep stone staircase to join Gorge Trail not long after it begins from main entrance.

Watkins Glen South Rim Trail also begins and ends here at south entrance, plus all Watkins Glen State Park campgrounds, cabins and pavilions are located close to this entrance.

Upper Entrance

Finally, you could choose to park at Watkins Glen State Park upper entrance, which is 2 miles from main entrance following Steuben Street (409).

Parking at upper entrance is not in marked spaces. The lot is a long oval shaped road and you park head on or reverse in.

We don’t know how many cars can park in this lot but the oval is huge so you should be fine!

You will find parking, a picnic area and restrooms at upper entrance to Watkins Glen Gorge.

If you park here, you can begin your hike down North Rim Trail to main entrance and back up Gorge Trail to upper entrance. This means finishing with 832 steps uphill.

Watkins Glen State Park Shuttle Bus

A seasonal shuttle bus runs between each of the 3 Watkins Glen State Park entrances.

Here’s a top tip for those who might struggle with climbing 832 steps:

Park at main entrance and take the shuttle to upper entrance so you only have to walk down through Watkins Glen Gorge back to your car.

You won’t complete the loop with North Rim Trail but not to worry, the Gorge is why you are visiting Watkins Glen State Park.

Shuttle information:

  • Weekends – May 28 to July 4
  • Daily – July 5 to Labor Day
  • Weekends – Labor Day to end of season
  • Price – Tickets cost $6 per person each way

How To Park For Free At Watkins Glen State Park

Here are a handful of tips to use if you really want to avoid that $10 parking fee and make your trip to Watkins Glen State Park completely free.

  1. Leave your car at the hotel and walk to main entrance.
  2. Park on any of the side streets in town along N Franklin St where there are no parking meters.
  3. Hike Watkins Glen Gorge Trail in under 2 hours so you can take advantage of free parking at the under 2 hours spots.
Sign marker for a hike in New York with distance and step count
Gorge Trail sign marker with distance and step count

12 Best Things To Do At Watkins Glen State Park

The best thing you can do at Watkins Glen State Park is hike the Gorge Trail, but there are a few other fun things you can do in the park as well as the surrounding area.

If this is your first time to Watkins, we recommend you start with the Gorge trail, but then consider some of the other activities we list below.

Here are 12 things you can do at Watkins Glen State Park:

  1. Go camping
  2. Have a picnic
  3. Eat at the Glen Cafe
  4. Hike any of the 4 trails
  5. Rent a pavilion or shelter
  6. Hunt for deer in bow season
  7. Pick up a souvenir in the gift shop
  8. Take a gorge tour or educational program
  9. Let the kids run around on the playground
  10. Check out the nearby village of Watkins Glen
  11. Try snowshoeing or x-country skiing in winter
  12. Enjoy a dip in the olympic sized swimming pool

Bow hunting is allowed on the west side of the railroad at Watkins Glen State Park during regulated archery season. A valid NYS hunting permit with the proper hunting stamps is required.

Planning to stay near Watkins Glen State Park? Read our best things to do in the village of Watkins Glen guide next.

Watkins Glen State Park Trails

There is no denying hiking is the main attraction at Watkins Glen State Park and there are a total of 4 official Watkins Glen hiking trails.

The most popular hike at Watkins Glen is the the Gorge Trail. But this Gorge Trail can be combined with one of the two Rim Trails to make a full loop or you can hike back down the gorge.

Here are the four Watkins Glen hikes (distances are one way):

  1. Gorge Trail – 1.5 miles
  2. North Rim Trail – 1.1 miles
  3. South Rim Trail – 1.8 miles
  4. Lover’s Lane – 0.3 miles

If you have already hiked the Gorge Trail, you can hike these 4 trails at Watkins in various ways to challenge yourself and see the park in a new way.

Use this Watkins Glen State Park trail map here to get an idea about how to hike a different route.

Hiking Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail To Rainbow Falls

Now you know all about parking, fees, seasonality and the best things to do at Watkins Glen State Park. But what about the Gorge trail itself?!

Next, we are going to walk you through the full hike up Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail to Rainbow Falls and beyond.

We love this hike and have included it in our popular guide to the 50 best hikes in the US.

Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is family friendly thanks to a stone wall flanking the edge of the path running through Watkins Glen State Park. This prevents young children from falling into the gorge at all times.

However, Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is unfortunately not accessible for those with mobility issues. There are too many steep and slippery stone steps to navigate.

Spray from waterfalls in full flow and wet leaves on the paths can cause slippery stone surfaces, so please tread carefully.

You can also check the recent comments on AllTrails to see what other hikers are saying about current conditions.

Watkins Glen Gorge Trail Hiking Statistics

  • Watkins Glen Gorge Trail Distance: 1.5 miles one way
  • Watkins Glen Gorge Trail Hiking Difficulty: Moderate (832 steps on ascent)
  • Time Required: At least 2 hours, longer for photographers or if the gorge is busy

OK, let’s get stuck into the full walkthrough of exactly what you can expect on the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail hike starting and ending at main entrance.

1. Sentry Bridge And Entrance Tunnel

Sentry Bridge at the beginning of the Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail in western ny
Sentry Bridge at the main entrance to Gorge Trail

Watkins Glen State Park’s enchanting Gorge Trail begins at Sentry Bridge, before you take your first step on the hike.

Your first glimpse into the gorge is a narrow crack in the Earth, a small silky waterfall flooding through the bottom and a beautiful arched stone bridge connecting the two sides.

A flour mill complete with waterwheel was once in operation at the entrance. Water was engineered to turn the wheel by controlling the flow with dams, troughs and tunnels.

Crossing Sentry Bridge transports you into the magical gorge. But in order to reach the overpass, you must first climb up a man-made spiral staircase cut into a turret.

It already feels like an adventure!

2023 Update: During our most recent visit to Watkins Glen State Park, Sentry Bridge had temporary metal barriers added.

2. First View Upstream

First view upstream in Watkins Glen Gorge Trail twisting stone staircase and narrow gorge with thin waterfall
Twisting stone staircase and narrow gorge below

As soon as you enter Watkins Glen Gorge, you know this is going to be a special landscape.

Once you cross Sentry Bridge look to the right for your first view up the gorge.

You will see a very narrow, jagged and photogenic ravine with Glen Creek flowing gently through before it pours out of the gorge right behind you at Sentry Bridge.

Low running water allows you to see much greater detail in the eroded shale rock. But this is just an appetizer for the main course coming later.

3. Couch’s Staircase

Couch's Staircase with green and yellow leaves in trees behind
The top of Couch’s Staircase near south entrance

Couch’s Staircase is a series of 120 stone steps leading up and away to your left side.

You do not need to climb this series of stairs unless you want to see Watkins Glen south entrance area.

It leads to South Rim Trail and a good view looking back over main entrance, but it is definitely one you can miss. Plus, you already have enough steps to deal with on this hike!

Note: If you park at south entrance, this is where you will enter and leave Watkins Glen Gorge Trail.

4. Unnamed Vista

View through narrow gorge with tall walls and wispy waterfalls cascading

A short staircase leading down to the right is the first spur you should take on the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail.

You will descend to a viewing area looking upstream at multiple waterfalls with Cavern Cascade just about visible in the background.

It is a very quick detour and you will only need a few minutes here but it is worthwhile.

5. Cavern Cascade

Cavern Cascade waterfall in Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail stone staircase and thin waterfall with sunlight
Cavern Cascade in Watkins Glen Gorge

You probably know all about Rainbow Falls from magazine front covers or images like ours, but one of the most amazing aspects of hiking Watkins Glen Gorge Trail is the amount of surprises you will encounter.

Cavern Cascade waterfall is one of those unexpected surprises.

Climb the next set of stone steps after Point Lookout aiming for what appears to be a dead end.

All you can see is a thin 30-40 ft high waterfall flowing out of a 3 meter wide gully caused by shale rock eroding underneath tougher sandstone layers.

Eventually, you will see Watkins Glen Gorge Trail actually curves behind Cavern Cascade falls.

Walk in an arc right behind the waterfall and don’t forget to reach out and touch the water as it cascades down into the pool below.

6. Spiral Tunnel

A spiral staircase inside a cave with metal frame and orange light
Inside the Spiral Staircase tunnel

Next to Cavern Cascade you will have noticed a deep and dark orange light bursting out of a tunnel.

You will walk through this cave like tunnel and spiral round to the left as you gain elevation.

Make sure to turn around a few steps into Spiral Tunnel so you can see Cavern Cascade through the tunnel opening for a cool photo.

This is one of our favorite parts of the entire Watkins Glen Gorge Trail.

7. Suspension Bridge

Suspension bridge crossing between two rock cliffs with colorful leaves
Suspension bridge crossing between North and South Rims

After climbing through Spiral Tunnel you walk alongside Glen Creek and the gorge narrows.

Look up to see a suspension bridge crossing over Watkins Glen Gorge and connecting the two Rim Trails together.

You will have the chance to stand on this bridge later.

8. Lovers Lane Lookout

Watkins Glen Gorge Trail split at Lovers Lane Lookout stone staircase leading up
Lovers Lane trail split from Gorge Trail

Continue hiking through the gorge and you will come to two splits in the trail.

The first split leads up to Indian Trail (which is effectively North Rim Trail) and back to main entrance. Second you will arrive at a split leading to Lovers Lane Lookout.

You can climb the steps here and walk up to Lovers Lane. However, we recommend you stay in the gorge and stop at Lovers Lane on the way back to main entrance from North Rim Trail instead.

9. Glen Cathedral

Glen Cathedral towering curving cliff in Watkins Glen State Park Gorge
Glen Cathedral in Watkins Glen State Park

At face value, Glen Cathedral is one of the least exciting parts of the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail hike.

However, if you look closely at the towering walls flanking Glen Creek you can see horizontal layers of rugged sandstone and shale. These layers were formed almost 400 million years ago.

Climb yet another stone staircase and you can see another thin waterfall ahead. The Gorge Trail passes through another small cave like tunnel and reveals a beautifully ornate stone bridge.

10. Central Cascade

Central Cascade in Watkins Glen Gorge stone bridge crossing Glen Creek
Central Cascade waterfall and bridge

The razor thin Central Cascade waterfall drops almost 60 feet beneath the bridge and is the tallest waterfall along the Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail.

This is another excellent photo stop and one of those unexpected surprises. Cross Glen Creek via the stone bridge to continue walking upstream.

As soon as you are on the other side you will see a long line of short waterfalls plunging a few feet into circular pools.

This series of waterfalls is incredibly photogenic and marks another of our favorite spots in the gorge. However, it is about to get even better!

11. Rainbow Falls Watkins Glen

Rainbow Falls Watkins Glen with green leaves waterfalls and plunge pools stunning Gorge Trail photo
Rainbow Falls in Watkins Glen State Park Gorge

You will see another stone staircase ahead, take it and look to the right as Rainbow Falls finally comes into view for the first time.

Rainbow Falls in Watkins Glen State Park is dramatic, beautiful, piercing and delicate all in one emotional punch. It is almost too much information for the brain to handle and requires a good 5-10 seconds to process what you are looking at.

There is just so much to admire about this scene.

Waterfalls and pothole pools, wispy water falling from above, a gorgeous stone staircase and bridge in the background, vibrant colors and dark shadows contrasting all combine to make Rainbow Falls in Watkins Glen Gorge one of the most extraordinary photo spots in the US.

This is the cherry on top of an extremely tasty ice cream sundae, so spend the most amount of time here.

Why Is It Called Rainbow Falls?

Stone path and waterfalls  in new york with colorful leaves in fall
Wide angle photo to show scale at Rainbow Falls

If you visit Watkins Glen State Park late on a sunny afternoon at just the right time for sun rays to penetrate the gorge, rainbows appear as light reflects and refracts in water droplets.

We haven’t had much luck visiting in late afternoon with sun and few crowds, so we are still waiting for our ‘rainbow’ shot here!

As a side note, you can’t help but appreciate the fantastic design and execution of man-made walkways, staircases and bridges in the gorge.

Rather than impacting on the image, they actually add stunning elements to the photo of Rainbow Falls.

Once you’ve been blown away by Rainbow Falls, continue underneath the wafer thin waterfall tunnel, making sure to cover your camera equipment!

Visiting NY Waterfalls? Read our guide to the very best waterfalls in New York to find your next stunning waterfall hike.

12. Frowning Cliff

Frowning Cliff section of the Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail in new york narrow canyon walls
Frowning Cliff narrow and dark section of trail

Head up the steps and cross the bridge that will be in dozens of your photos from behind Rainbow Falls.

You will find yourself walking into a very narrow section of Watkins Glen Gorge Trail.

After the excitement of Rainbow Falls you might think it would be difficult to be wowed again on the hike but the fun isn’t over yet!

Frowning Cliff receives very little sunlight throughout the year so the walls here are mostly bare. This is the most dangerous part of Watkins Glen Gorge Trail in late spring when stubborn ice remains.

The path seems wider here, but it is because the gorge is so narrow that it becomes more noticeable.

13. Spiral Gorge

Spiral Gorge stunning stone stairs and thin waterfall in Watkins Glen State Park
Spiral Gorge waterfall and stone steps

Depending on recent rainfall levels, you may pass under a very thin waterfall as you walk through Frowning Cliff towards another stone staircase.

As you approach this set of steps, you will notice a razor thin waterfall carving through the rocks. This is the beginning of Spiral Gorge and it is another wonderful photo spot to admire.

Climb the steps to see more small waterfalls plunging beautifully through the narrow Spiral Gorge section.

14. Mile Point Bridge

Stone stairs leading to the stone Mile Point Bridge backed by colorful leaves
Mile Point Bridge in Watkins Glen State Park

You will notice another arching stone bridge ahead, this one is called Mile Point Bridge and it essentially marks the end of Watkins Glen Gorge Trail.

There is an option here to cross Mile Point Bridge and hike South Rim Trail back to south entrance.

Personally we have never taken this turn here, instead continuing the hike straight ahead beyond the bridge as the trail flattens.

15. Jacob’s Ladder

Railway bridge at the start of Jacob's Ladder in new york surrounded by colorful leaves in fall
Railway Bridge at the start of Jacob’s Ladder steps

The trail remains picturesque but not on the same level as inside the gorge proper.

You will follow the side of Glen Creek on a much flatter and easier going path until eventually you reach the beginning of a lengthy staircase.

This staircase is known as Jacob’s Ladder and it consists of 180 steps.

Now, by all means you can climb the steps to upper entrance, but there’s really not much point unless you are parked there.

Instead, take a photo of the railway bridge crossing Glen Creek and turn around. You can take a shortcut at Mile Point Bridge up to North Rim Trail via Indian Trail instead.

16. North Rim Trail

Looking down into Watkins Glen Gorge from above on suspension bridge hiking the north rim trail
Looking down into Watkins Glen Gorge from suspension bridge on North Rim Trail

From this point on, you are basically just making your way back to main entrance.

There are a few places to stop, including Lovers Lane Lookout, Point Lookout and the suspension bridge you passed under a long time ago.

In truth, views from above looking down into Watkins Glen Gorge Trail are not exciting or interesting. Much of the view is blocked by leaves or the gorge itself.

The hike back to main entrance is much quicker compared to the hike up Gorge Trail.

Tip: You can of course ignore North Rim Trail and hike back down Gorge Trail to main entrance. Just expect a lot of foot traffic going the opposite way.

Photographer with camera and tripod at Rainbow Falls in Watkins Glen State Park ny
Mark with camera and tripod at Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls Watkins Glen State Park Photography

Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail is an illustrious and celebrated nature photography location and Rainbow Falls is its star attraction.

So how do you get the best photos from Watkins Glen State Park?

Perfect photography conditions for Rainbow Falls and Watkins Glen State Park Gorge would be along the lines of early morning on an overcast October weekday.

These conditions are excellent for vibrant Autumnal colors, no crowds and optimal lighting. We typically visit Watkins Glen State Park every October on a weekday morning for these exact reasons.

Watkins Glen Rainbow Falls Photography Tips

Let’s take a look at our top tips for taking home the best photos of Watkins Glen State Park Gorge and Rainbow Falls.

  • Use a mirrorless or DSLR camera and lens with focal length anywhere between 16-55mm depending on the type of frames you want to create. We use our 16-35mm lens and 24-105mm lens.
  • You absolutely must use a tripod for stability if you want to capture the silky waterfall effect. There are one or two spots you can place your camera on the wall but you won’t have any flexibility over camera angle.
  • Shoot 0.3 second to 3 second exposures using at different apertures to get a nice mix of focus depth and silky waterfall effects.
  • If you are a beginner, shoot in RAW and JPEG. You can use your jpeg now but once you have more experience you will be grateful for the RAW file you can edit in post.
  • Visit early in the morning before the sky is blown out by daylight. Use a ND filter to stop down to the light or a CPL filter to dim the glare in pools below.
  • Top tip – You will see a lot of glare in the closest pool if you try to capture a frame with the entire bridge in shot. Move to your right, cutting off some of the bridge but removing the glare altogether.
Stunning colorful vibrant leaves on trees flanking a creek
Yellow and orange leaves at Watkins Glen State Park in fall

Best Time To Visit Watkins Glen State Park

Let’s take a summarized look at the best times of year and day to visit Watkins Glen State Park New York.

Best Time Of Year

The last week of September and first week of October are the two best weeks of the year to hike Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail. Spectacular fall foliage colors illuminate the gorge and Rainbow Falls becomes even more beautiful.

We don’t recommend visiting Watkins Glen in Winter or Spring when the Gorge Trail is closed. It is by far the best thing to do here, so it would be a shame if you missed out.

Summer is hot and busy in Watkins Glen State Park. You also won’t get fall colors, but you will get lush emerald green leaves lighting up the gorge which are also very attractive.

If you are visiting the Finger Lakes in winter and want to hike a gorge trail, head to Taughannock Falls State Park and hike to the impressive waterfall which will likely be frozen.

Best Time Of Day

Early morning is by far the best time of day to hike Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail. You will beat the crowds and be able to take photos with no people around.

Aim to arrive at 6:00am and be the first car in the lot at main entrance so you can be the first person inside the gorge.

Late afternoon is the best alternative as most people are leaving for dinner or to beat a dark drive home.

We always arrive around sunrise so we can have the trail to ourselves for 30 minutes to 1 hour. There is a chilling but liberating feeling being alone inside such a dramatic setting.

When To Avoid

Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail is extremely busy on weekends between April and October, particularly holiday weekends.

We recommend avoiding the rush between 11:00am – 2:00pm.

Not only will your photos have loads of people in, but you will also have to deal with waiting around as others block the tunnels or bridges.

The only way to enjoy your Watkins Glen State Park experience is to visit when it isn’t packed full.

Cavern Cascade waterfall from behind the falls looking down Watkins Glen State Park Gorge
Standing behind Cavern Cascade waterfall

Where To Eat Near Watkins Glen State Park

You don’t need to leave the village of Watkins Glen to find fantastic places to eat.

If you are visiting in summer we recommend reserving tables at any restaurants you want to try because they fill up fast.

Even in fall you should play it safe by arriving early to dinner or booking a table in advance.

Here are some of the top rated eateries within half a mile of Watkins Glen State Park main entrance:

  • Nickel’s Pit BBQ – Chicken, BBQ, wings, wine, craft beers | Menu
  • Jerlando’s Ristorante + Pizzeria – Italian, pizza | Menu
  • Thai Elephants – Asian, Thai | Menu
  • Babcha’s Pierogies – Highly rated Polish food | Tripadvisor
  • Seneca Cheese Co – Wine and cheese bar with terrace | Menu

Where To Stay Near Watkins Glen State Park

The best way to hike Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail is by staying in a village hotel the night before and waking up early to be the first person hiking the gorge trail.

Having this entire park to yourself is truly a magical experience and staying in town is the best way to do it. Here’s our guide on how to book cheap hotels every time you travel.

Every hotel in the village of Watkins Glen is within walking distance to the Gorge Trail. However, if you stay on the shores of Seneca Lake, you will have to drive to the main entrance parking lots.

Which hotel should you stay at when visiting Watkins Glen State Park?

You can either read our guide to the 8 best hotels in Watkins Glen NY on our sister site, or take a look at our top cheap and luxury options below.

Budget Inn Watkins Motel (Budget)

There are a number of budget friendly motels in Watkins Glen, but we can recommend the Budget Inn Watkins Glen because we have stayed there ourselves.

It also happens to be only 0.5 miles to the main entrance of Watkins Glen State Park.

>> Book Hotel: Budget Inn Watkins Glen

Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel (Luxury)

Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel is located perfectly on the banks of Seneca Lake, a stone’s throw from the best restaurants in town and just half a mile to Watkins Glen State Park main entrance.

This top rated hotel overlooking a marina features fitness center, indoor pool, bar and on site restaurant. We have stayed at the luxurious Harbor Hotel and very highly recommend it if your budget allows.

>> Book Hotel: Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel

Woman holding hands under a waterfall in upstate new york
Kristen enjoying the unique waterfalls in Watkins Glen

Watkins Glen State Park Camping

If hotels don’t fit your budget or you’d prefer to be outdoors surrounded by nature, there are 279 campsites and 9 rustic cabins at Watkins Glen State Park for you to consider.

Campgrounds and cabins are located at the State Park’s South Entrance.


Camping / RV at Watkins Glen is open from Mid May – Mid October and requires a 2 night minimum stay. Peak season is end of June – end of August.

  • Off season: $18 per night ($26 with electric hookups)
  • Peak season: $28 per night ($38 with electric hookups)

Rustic Cabins

Rustic cabins open Mid May – Mid October and require a minimum stay of 3 nights all season. These cabins are rustic which means you bring your own bedding etc.

All season: $58 per night with 3 night minimum stay, so your total for 3 nights will be $174.

Here’s more information on campgrounds and rustic cabins at Watkins Glen State Park, NY.

Watkins Glen State Park Interactive Map

Here’s a link to our Watkins Glen State Park Map.

Click or touch the interactive map to activate, zoom in / out and move around the area to find all recommended restaurants, hotels, points of interest and parking lots.

Map Key:

  • Purple – Hotel recommendations in Watkins Glen, NY
  • Light Red – Restaurant recommendations in Watkins Glen, NY
  • Dark Green – On site tent / RV / cabin accommodation and pavilions
  • Blue – Trailheads
  • Maroon – Parking lots at each entrance
  • Orange – All points of interest and waterfalls on the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail
Gorge Trail sign on rocks with yellow letters
Gorge Trail sign on the hike

Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail FAQ’s

Let’s finish with some of the most asked questions about hiking the amazing Watkins Glen Gorge Trail in New York.

When Does Watkins Glen Gorge Trail Open?

Watkins Glen Gorge Trail typically opens in late May each year. The exact date depends on weather conditions, ice remaining in the gorge and snowmelt.

How Long Does It Take To Hike Watkins Glen Gorge?

Visitors should plan to spend at least 2 hours hiking Watkins Glen State Park Gorge Trail. The hike is exceptionally picturesque and features several stunning photo spots, all of which add significant time to the trail.

How Many Stairs Does Watkins Glen Gorge Have?

Watkins Glen Gorge Trail has a total of 832 stairs from main entrance to upper entrance. However, 180 of those steps can be avoided by turning around at Mile Point Bridge and taking a shortcut to North Rim Trail.

Are Dogs Allowed At Watkins Glen State Park?

Yes, dogs are allowed to accompany hikers on all trails in the park with the exception of the gorge trail. Dogs must be kept on leashed no longer than 6 ft in length. You can not take dogs on any section of Watkins Glen State Park gorge trail.

More New York State Guides

Want more New York content? Head over to our New York Travel Guides to explore the Finger Lakes, Adirondacks and the best of NYC.

We hope this guide to hiking the amazing Watkins Glen State Park gorge trail helps with planning your visit!

Please let us know if you have any questions about Watkins Glen State Park or the Finger Lakes region in the comments below.

Happy Travels,

Mark and Kristen

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Friday 29th of April 2022

Just wanted to say thank you for this article - it had all the information i was looking for. Thank you and safe travels!

Mark and Kristen Morgan

Friday 29th of April 2022

Hi Farah, thanks for letting us know and have a great visit to Watkins Glen!


Tuesday 20th of July 2021

Hi! We are planning to visit Watkins Glen soon! Question though, as I think I might not have understood: If we park at the Main Entrance and take the shuttle to the Upper Entrance, can we avoid the hiking up 800 steps? My partner has some older injuries that don't necessarily hinder us from hiking, but don't want to push it ;) thinking a one-way only hike, more downhill, would be easier for us.

Mark and Kristen Morgan

Tuesday 20th of July 2021

Yes that's right, take the shuttle from Main to Upper entrance, walk down Watkins Glen Gorge Trail all the way through the gorge to Main entrance. There might be one or two small sections of steps but almost all steps are going UP gorge trail so you won't have many to contend with. Hopefully the recent heavy rain hasn't caused any issues inside the gorge. Have a great trip!