The popular Gorge Trail of Watkins Glen State Park offers 19 waterfalls and numerous cascades and water sculptured potholes in a mere 2 miles as it drops through the deep, narrow gorge on its way to Seneca Lake. The gorge is so deep and narrow as it descends over 400 feet that it has little microclimates along the bottom. These microclimates are cooler and wetter than the ridge and are home to the unique mixture of flora. The trail passes behind two separate waterfalls and through several tunnels, providing visitors with the opportunity to experience the power of water from a very close range. Watkins Glen State Park in the Finger Lakes region of New York is the most famous of the region’s state parks. A trip through the gorge will be remembered for life.
The trail is popular, busy, and well maintained. It is paved with stone so the many visitors don’t overwhelm and destroy the tread. Though it is only about 2-miles each way, it has over 800 steps, so it may be hard for people with knee problems. It is nearly always wet from spray and the many seeps dripping from its steep canyon walls, so wear proper footwear. There are scenic man-made rock walls that blend in well with the surroundings along many of the step drop-offs acting as guardrails. Still, keep an eye on your kids because these rails can easily be climbed. In the summer, the state park offers a shuttle to the top ($5 in 2018), so you can walk down from the top if desired. Also, hiking options exist to loop back from the top on the Indian Trail. If you are staying at the campground, you can start hiking from the Onondaga Loop between site 188 and 189, which intersects the Gorge Trail at Mile Point Bridge. Additionally, you can start at the South Pavilion below the campground and intersect the Gorge Trail near the Suspension Bridge that offers a cool birds-eye view 85 feet above the gorge. The state park map is a good resource for planning a hike and getting general information about the park.
The gorge was formed by the power of ice and water. During the Pleistocene era, the area was covered by a series of glaciers that formed the 11 north-south running finger lakes of the region. The shearing power of the glaciers cut the steep sides of the lakes, creating east-west running hanging rivers with steep plunging falls that slowly cut into the rock creating the deep gorges of the region with all their cascades and falls.
The gorge was first developed and opened to the public in 1863 as a privately run tourist resort. It was a world-renowned destination and continued until 1906 when New York State purchased it and turned it into the state park. Many of the manmade features of the trail such as the bridges, tunnels and spiral stairways would never be able to be made today, but without them, few people would be able to enjoy, up close, all the rugged beauty of the gorge.
The hike most people take from the bottom to the top is easy to follow and well signed. From the main entrance off of Franklin Street in the town of Watkins Glen, proceed through the entrance tunnel, cross the first footbridge, and follow the Gorge Trail. You are now in a different world. Take your time and enjoy the roar and many sights of Glen Creek cutting its way slowly through the rock. Soon you will come to the Cavern Cascade where the trail snakes behind the falls and then enters the manmade Spiral Tunnel through the rock. The tunnel lets you out at the top of the Cavern Cascade, where you can peer down at it from just feet away. Continue your walk along The Narrows and eventually reach the Central Cascade, a powerful narrow falls that cut itself vertically through the rock. Cross the footbridge. Continuing will take you behind the smaller Rainbow Falls. After that you’ll soon pass by the Spiral Gorge and then come to Mile Point Bridge, where the trail from the campground intersects Gorge Trail. Continue on the Gorge Trail, now quieter and less steep. In about a half a mile you will reach infamous Jacob’s Ladder with its steep climb and the last 180 stone steps to reach the Upper Entrance. If time and energy exist, it is highly recommended to turn around at the top and retrace your steps back because new vantage points will be discovered on the way back. Or you can do the more gradual Indian Trail along the ridge top to get back to the Main Entrance. The final option, in season, is to take the shuttle bus down.