Dreamy Exploration of the Gorges in Watkins Glen

Updated: Jan 18

I will begin this post with a fair warning if you are not a Lord of the Rings (LOTR) or The Hobbit Fan, some of my reference and excitement will be missed on you. I hope that does not turn you off from proceeding to read, but this location gave me serious LOTR vibes. A dream of mine has been to visit New Zealand and visit the filming locations for these films.

When I planned my trip out to the Olympic Peninsula, you can check out that blog post here. I searched out specific locations from it, looking like the entrance to Rivendale. I did find the trail! There are so many dreamy spots there. Little did I know in the Northeast region of the USA, there was a location that would surpass the PNW for LOTR vibes.

Now, with that nerding out explained and sharing my deep unashamed love of LOTR, let us jump into Watkins Glen. First off, where to stay. Since I went for the weekend with friends and wanted to go on a budget, we stayed at Watkins Glens KOA. I highly recommend this campsite, it was so clean and family-friendly.

One thing I will say these sites are pretty close together. I have been to a few KOAs, and each location is slightly different. Here the overall KOA had a mini-golf, pool, and playground. If you are looking to stay put at your campsite, you will have fun there!

Where is Watkins Glen?

Watkins Glen is located in the Finger Lake region of New York state. There are 5 finger lakes, Watkins Glen, I would are is located by the best finger lake, Seneca Lake. You can read about Seneca Lake in my blog post about Seneca Lake Wine Trail. Many flocks here for bed and breakfast locations, hotels on and near the water. 

However, Watkins Glen is about 5 minutes off the south end of Seneca Lake. It is easy to access from any of those locations, but there are many campground options near The Glen. If you ask a local about Watkins Glen, you might hear them reference this location as The Glen.

Watkins Glen is off the main road, N Franklin Street. There is parking next to the visitor center or across the street. Parking is $8 for the day. If you saw an $8 charge for your visit, it is paying for parking. I visited the park during COVID restrictions in August of 2020. I am not sure if there is a visitor charge outside of parking.

How To Enter?

Watkins Glen has three different park entrances the Upper Entrance, Main Entrance, and the South Entrance. I recommend parking at the Main Entrance. That is the way I entered, and it is by the Visitor Center if you want to pick up any souvenirs or speak to someone about the park.

The Main Entrance is off the main road, N Franklin Street. There is parking next to the visitor center or across the street. Parking is $8 for the day. If you saw an $8 charge for your visit, it is paying for parking. I visited the park during COVID restrictions in August of 2020, I am not sure if there is a visitor charge outside of parking.

Background to Watching Glen:

It is said that the glaciers from the Laurentide and Wisconsin ice shaped the Finger Lakes region. The lakes were streams that flowed northward and flowed into the hanging valley. Watkins Glen is one of these hanging valleys at the end of Seneca Lake that eventually became a deep gorge.

This gorge has a two-mile walking trail that was open to the public in 1863The Glen Creek flows through the center of the gorge. This is the primary water source you see.

The Glen was first opened to tourists in July 1863; you had to purchase a ticket. Then when ownership changed and New York State purchased in 1906, making the park free! The park estimates just ender 500K visitors per year and appears to increase over the years.

Explore Watkins Glen:

Now that you know all the logistics go explore the park! During COVID, there is only one way to walk the park. Coming from the main entrance, you must go down the gorge trail the turn and take the Indian trail. After the Gorge Trail section, the S Rim Trail appeared to be closed when we visited it was under construction, so our loop was slightly cut short. We'll get more into that after the experience.

When you enter the park, it is as though you're entering a different world. Even though you're a few feet from the main road, you've completely forgotten about it. A few feet you start going up a set of stairs then on the right will be a spot overlooking a waterfall backdrop.

Take your time here to enjoy the space. It is so easy to rush here with the crowds, but let them move on. There is a stillness to this place that can be felt and enjoyed as you make your way through. I was constantly saying how I felt like I was on an adventure in Rivendell! I was just in awe of the curvature of the rocks. How you twist and turn through the gorge is fantastic.

There are a lot of steps! It is about 400 elevation increase through the park, and you can feel it! Some spots it is gradual, but some steps will take you straight up so your calves will feel this. It is a quick loop, but that doesn't mean it won't take effort to make your way through the park.

Watkins Glen Gorge:

This is where the trail begins and opens up. This if the first gorge view from the main entrance. You can get a glimpse of it from the road. However, the lookout for the spot, you take steps down to look up at the gorge, which is a nice view.

Rainbow Falls:

Now, this is where I got some major LOTR and Rivendell vibes. There is this beautiful view of Glen Creek coming down the center. There is this beautiful stone bridge to walk over the creek. While walking under the waterfall, it falls off, moss-covered rocks. You get a mist falling off the rocks.

Cavern Cascade:

This is another waterfall you get to walk under. The waterfalls are stronger here than Rainbow Falls. It is a perfect spot for a photo. You get the rock to bend into a cove, water flowing. You get a great spot snapped or views. It is the best of both worlds. Then you enter these covered steps. It is like you're walking through a castle in a way with the rock steps and walking through the rocks.

Central Cascade:

This spot is possible the most challenging spot to snag a photo. It can quickly get grounded for a place on the bridge and people below. This spot is not a waterfall spot to walk under, below the bridge, there is a waterfall coming through the gorge. This is where you get the final gorge view before walking out.

This was the final spot we enjoyed on the Gorge Trail before looping out to eat Indian Trail. I will say, you didn't need to loop out on the Indian trail to return the Main Entrance. You can taketh South Rim trail out, which I wish I experienced, it's just an excuse to return!

Facts & Attractions of Watkins Glen:

  • Watkins Glen is the most famous of the Finger Lakes

  • Within the Glen, the stream drops 400 feet past 200-foot cliffs, generating 19 different waterfalls

  • American currency is in American dollars and cents

  • Watkins Glen is in New York and the capitol is Albany

I hope you enjoyed hearing about my trip to Watkins Glen, New York. If you have any questions about the area, please email me at rebeccanoelle@r-noelle.com. 

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