Watkins Glen is a small village in New York State’s Finger Lakes region. Europeans first settled the area in 1791. They were attracted to the area primarily due to the waterpower of the jets of water that flowed through gorges formed by 10,000 years of water pounding the area’s soft shale rock.
The entire Finger Lakes region has long attracted tourists to its laid-back lifestyles, beautiful shorelines, and water recreation activities such as boating and fishing. However, wealthy society guests were particularly drawn to Watkins Glen in the 1860s due to its particularly dramatic gorges (in a region overflowing with glacier-formed gorges).
Watkins Glen Grand Prix
Watkins Glen is the site of the annual Grand Prix car race. Its 1948 introduction was the first post-World War II road race held in the United States and was the catalyst for a revival of road racing in America.
The town commemorates the event in murals, a Grand Prix store, and a visitor center exhibit that includes an artistically-painted grand prix car.
Then came the growth of the region’s wine industry of which Watkins Glen’s Seneca Lake is the center (see our blog on the Finger Lakes wine region).
In addition to wine, our 2022 visit focused on the gorges, and the region’s many majestic waterfalls. The most dramatic of the region’s scenery is on display at Watkins Glen State Park.
No matter how many times we have hiked through the gorge at Watkins Glen State Park, the effects of the awesome power of 10,000 years of rushing water and the beauty never cease to inspire our awe. Glaciers scrapping the walls of the lake valley initially formed the 1.5-mile gorge. Then 10,000 years of rushing waters, including several major floods, cut the valley even deeper.
The gorge’s entrance was initially developed in the early 19th century and its first mill was built in 1830. The gorge was opened to the public in 1863 as a private park. In 1906, the state purchased it and turned it into a state park.
Hiking the Gorges
The gorge has 19 waterfalls over its two-mile length to explore via a number of trails. If you are not a hiker, the park has shuttle buses that can take you to the top of the gorge and back down. But for us, hiking is the way to really experience the beauty.
The 1.5-mile Gorge Trail includes 832 stairs and several bridges that allow you to explore the very different vegetation on each of the gorge’s two sides. The trail’s primary attractions, however, are the rushing water and the graceful curves the water has cut into the soft, primarily slate and sandstone rock face. The most dramatic of the falls have names: Central Cascade, Rainbow Falls, Cavern Cascade, Spiral Gorge, and so forth. However, you don’t have to know the names to appreciate the power of nature and the beauty that it can create.
In addition to the shuttle bus, hikers have several options for returning to the visitor center. You can return trip via the Gorge trail, or take trails along either of the gorge’s two rims via the South Rim or Indian Trails. We returned via the Indian Trail, a gradually declining trail through the forest with a few viewpoints down into the gorge. This gradual stroll ends with a several hundred-step staircase down to the park’s entrance.