How to Hike the Stunning Watkins Glen Gorge Trail

When thinking of New York most minds go to the famous landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty or Central Park, but few think of Upstate New York where the city slickers go to relax and unwind.

Upstate New York is one of the most underrated areas in the US. From gorges and stunning waterfalls to sunflower fields and wineries, the area is packed with fun and exciting things to do including the many waterfall hikes at Watkins Glen.

One of my favorite things to do when visiting the Finger Lakes region is to hike the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail in the famous Watkins Glen State Park. It is on the south end of Seneca Lake and is one of the most beautiful areas to hike in New York state, if not the entire country!

The hike itself is not too long, offers gorgeous views, has an intriguing history, and is convenient to access. It does get crowded, but if you follow the tips in this post, you will be on your way to a fantastic experience!

Where is the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail

The Gorge trail is located in Watkins Glen State Park. The Park is in the village of Watkins Glen, south of Seneca Lake in Schuyler County in New York’s Finger Lakes region.

There are three entrances into the Park:

Main- 1009 N. Franklin St, Watkins Glen, NY 14891
South- 3530 Route 419, Watkins Glen, NY 14891
Upper- 3310 Route 409, Watkins Glen, NY 14891

The main entrance to the Park is the most popular entrance and the best one for accessing the gorge trailhead. A shuttle bus operates during the busy season that runs between all three parking areas every 30 minutes.

Watkins Glen State Park Information

In 2015 Watkins Glen was voted the 3rd best State Park in the country (the first was Letchworth, another upstate NY gem) by USA Today. Several other publications, including Conde Nast and Travel & Leisure, voted it #1 in the state. It has over 19 waterfalls and 400 ft cliffs, Rainbow Falls being the most predominant waterfall in the Park.

The Park offers seasonal camping with over 300 RV, tent, and cabin campsites for $18-$30 a night. Amenities include hot showers, restrooms, and a dumping station. Visitors can also enjoy an Olympic size swimming pool, guided tours, multiple hiking trails, the nearby town of Watkins Glen, and trout fishing in nearby Seneca Lake. The park is open year round along with the North and South Rim Trails. The Gorge Trail closes at the end of October and reopens mid to late May.

Entry is free, but there is an $8 vehicle fee paid via self-pay stations located in the parking lots (more on parking below).

Watkins Glen Gorge Trail Map

The Gorge Trail is usually open as an out and back trail (during COVID in 2019, it was one-way only), but other trails combine with the Gorge trail to make it a loop trail. I recommend parking at the lower entrance walking one way (lower entrance to upper entrance) on The Gorge Trail and returning on the North Rim Trail or the Indian Trail back to the lower (main) entrance parking lots.

How to get to the Watkins Glen Gorge Trailhead

Where to Park?

There are three entrances into the Park with large parking lots connecting to the Gorge Trailhead. During high season there is a shuttle bus (for a $5 fee) that runs between all three parking lots every 30 minutes. However, the main entrance is the best to access the Gorge Trail.

The three entrances are described below.

Main Entrance

The main entrance is at the intersection of N Franklin Street and 10th. Hiking from the Main Entrance to the Upper entrance is the best way to hike the gorge trail to get the best views of the gorge and waterfalls. You also avoid walking down 180 extra steps if you enter through the main entrance.

If parking is a challenge at the main entrance, try one of the other two entrances. However, you could get lucky and find a parking spot on Franklin street which would be better than using the other entrances. The main entrance to Watkins Glen State Park is right off of busy Franklin Street, loaded with restaurants and shops, and makes a great area to grab a bite after a grueling gorge hike (although this isn’t a grueling hike).

Upper Entrance

From the upper entrance off of Route 409, you can access the trailhead by descending multiple steps from the parking lot through the play area to a 108 step staircase called “Jacobs Ladder.”

South Entrance

The South entrance is the best for camping amenities, but it isn’t easy to access the trailhead. This entrance is located off of Route 319. I’ve never used this entrance, but according to the map, if you use the south entrance, you will have to take a connector trail or the South Rim Trail to a bridge that leads over the gorge to the Indian Trail, where you can pick up the Gorge Trail. However, you will miss a good portion of the gorge trail going this way unless you backtrack a bit.

Best time to hike the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail

The trail is opened seasonally from late May to late October. The larger waterfalls are still roaring during summer, but some of the smaller ones reduce to a trickle. They will be stronger if you go after a rainfall, but the water may be muddy, and the trail will be slick. It gets swamped in the summer, so make sure to enter early or late to avoid the crowds (avoid 9-4 pm) and have a better experience.

Watkins Glen is open from dawn till dusk.

Most Popular Hiking Trail Options

The Gorge Trail is an out-and-back trail or can be hiked as a loop adding on the S Rim or Indian Trail. I recommend the loop option. Looping back on The Indian and South Rim Trail is not as scenic compared to the Gorge trail but avoiding the crowds and a quiet walk through the woods is a great option.

These exact routes can be found in the ALL TRAILS APP.

Glen Creek Gorge Trail

  • 1.4 miles out and back, moderate

The Glen Creek Trail is the main trail and the most scenic of all the hiking trails in Watkins Glen State Park. Start from the main parking area. Find the trailhead by walking along the paved area lining the gorge. Next, head to the rock tunnel, and go up the stairs to the bridge overlooking the gorge to start the hike. You may see a wood staircase near the entrance to the Gorge Trail, but this staircase leads to the Indian Trail, not the Gorge Trail.

After a mile, you will come to the Mile Point Bridge; this is where you should turn around and walk back to the main entrance along the gorge trail. Go the same way you came to get back to the parking lot.

Gorge Trail to Indian Trail

  • 3.4 miles loop, moderate

Gorge to Indian is the route I recommend. It is the easiest to follow and is a true loop but does require an additional 180 stairs going up and another 100 ish going down (the last 100 ish are short and wide steps). Get to the gorge trail the same way as above (Glen Creek Gorge Trail). Continue past the Mile Point Bridge marker along the gorge trail to the famous “Jacob’s Ladder.” There are 180 mildly steep steps, but there are areas to sit and rest on the way up. At the top of the staircase, you can go straight to the upper entrance and parking lot where there are restrooms and vending machines, or take an immediate right to find the Indian Trailhead.

Follow the wide packed dirt Indian Trail back to the main entrance. You will pass St. Mary’s cemetery, and two lackluster gorge overlooks. There is a long staircase with almost 200 stairs, maybe even 200, but they have a gentle slope. There is no cover along this part of the trail so bring a hat, water, and sunscreen if you are hiking in the heat.

Gorge Trail, South Rim Trail, Finger Lakes Trail

  • 3 miles loop, moderate

Once you come to the Mile Point Bridge on the gorge trail (clearly marked by a sign), go left over the bridge to the S Rim Trail. Turn left on the S Rim Trail towards the campgrounds and parking lot. This is a wide trail through the woods with very few views of the George. However, a suspension bridge along this trail leads to the Indian Trail and has better views of the gorge below. Leashed dogs are permitted on this trail but not on the Gorge Trail.

When the trail forks stay left onto the Finger Lakes Trail, the trail ends on Old Corning Road, about 0.2 miles from the main entrance and parking area. Alternatively, you can take the staircase called “couches staircase” on your left near the end of the trail. This leads to the first bridge of the gorge trail, which you can take back to the main entrance parking area. Sometimes this gate to the staircase is closed.

Couches Staircase Overlook

What to expect when hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail

The gorge trail is paved but uneven in some sections and has many stairs that are usually slick from the mist of the waterfalls. The hike is easy since the walking pace is slow, and the stairs are spread out. If you enter after 9 am during the busiest time of the day, expect a lot of people and to go extra slow along the trail as many people stop to take photos. Most of the path is wide enough for two persons, so you can pass slower walkers if you want to.

The official stone stair count is 836. The most challenging stair section is “Jacob’s Ladder” at the end of the gorge trail but you can avoid this section by starting the hike at the main entrance and hiking the gorge as an out and back trail or taking the S Rim Trail back to the main entrance. Still, there is a slight incline along the S Rim Trail and another set of stairs to get back to the main entrance.

You will be guided through chiseled stone tunnels, over stone bridges, and under flowing waterfalls for 1.5 miles along the gorge. You might feel some mist from the falls along the way, but unless you stick your head into the waterfalls you walk behind, you will remain dry along the trail.

Most of the trail is covered, but if you take the Indian Trail back, the last 5-10 mins are not covered and can get pretty intense during summer. The S Rim Trail is through the forest and covered the entire way.

Overall it is a pleasant and easy walk that takes 1.5-2 hours to complete. There are facilities at each entrance but not along the trails. Bring water, a hat, and sunscreen if hiking on a warm day, and don’t forget your camera!

Other things to do in Watkins Glen

The Watkins Glen area of the Finger Lakes Region has a lot of fun activities for all interests. I love spending a few days in this area every time I head out on a Finger Lakes road trip.

Watkins Glen gets very busy in the summer and hosts several events throughout the year, including NASCAR races at the Glen. If staying overnight book in advance and avoid busy weekends. I usually stay at the Harbor Hotel if I am with family or one of the many bed and breakfasts or campsites on a solo road trip.

Fun things to do in Watkins Glen

  • Shopping, eating at Ben and Jerrys along Franklin Street (the main street through downtown)
  • Sunsets at Seneca Lake pier with the red boat house
  • Drive your car around the Watkins Glen International Race Way
  • Enjoy Seneca lake by boat tour, try Captain Bill’s Seneca Lake Boat Tours 
  • Go wine tasting at the many world-class wineries surrounding the lake
    • Ryan William Vineyard
    • Leidenfrost Vineyards
    • Boundary Breaks
    • Tabora Farm and Winery
  • Enjoy Horseback Riding north of Watkins Glen on the east side of Seneca Lake
  • The village of Montour Falls is only a few minutes away with great views of the lake and more waterfall chasing
  • Elmira, “The Queen City” is 30 mins south of Watkins Glen. It is the location of Mark Twain’s summer home and final resting place.

***

I hope you enjoy the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail as much as I do. Upstate New York and the Finger Lakes region are beautiful and unique areas to explore in the United States. It really is one of the country’s most unique hidden gems.

Let me know in the comments below how much you enjoy hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail and if there is anything else I should add to this guide!

Hi, I'm Sam

After a lay off from the corporate world I decided to SEE the world. Sharing all my bucket list experiences to help spark your wanderlust and inspire your next adventure!

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