Cascading waterfalls — 19, to be exact — and the spectacular beauty of sandstone and shale cliffs that reach as high as 300 feet beckon visitors to New York’s Watkins Glen State Park
And to think we almost missed it.
My husband Jack and I had planned a late summer vacation in the Finger Lakes region of New York state to give us enough memories to carry us through northeastern Ohio’s dreary winter. The balcony of our motel room overlooked the sunrise side of Seneca Lake, where we would sip morning coffee. Evenings would be spent here as well, sipping wines purchased from among the 50-plus wineries that are within easy driving distance. In between were softly rolling hills and valleys punctuated with farmland and small towns.
If we had extra time, we’d make a pit stop at nearby Watkins Glen International racetrack and, maybe, take a peek at Watkins Glen State Park. Brochures made the latter and its chasm, called The Gorge, sound intriguing. But the primary exercise we’d planned for this vacation was hoisting glasses of fermented grape juice.
Watkins Glen State Park is easy to find; the main entrance is on the southeastern side of the village of Watkins Glen on State Route 14. With time to kill early one morning, we pulled in, learning from the park ticket-taker that our entrance fee of $7 was good for an entire day of comings and goings.
Digital cameras at the ready, we stepped into the parking lot. First, my eyes settled on a small hole in the middle of a huge surrounding horseshoe. Then, I looked up.
And up. And up. All around me were ragged cliffs, “painted” with lush green trees, random scatterings of wildflowers and, at bottom left, a gurgling stream. Finding myself amid such unexpected beauty, my mouth dropped open — and I’m sure I didn’t shut it again until we got back in the car a couple of hours later.
Mercifully, given my bent toward claustrophobia, there was light at the end of the short tunnel leading into the gorge. Once through, we were surrounded by a wonderland of foliage, rock formations and the first of the 19 waterfalls. Within minutes, we’d taken more than a dozen photographs — each.
I should mention that in addition to your legs, your caution should be exercised here. Visitors are warned not to “interact” with wild animals, to watch out for falling rocks and to stay on the marked trails. Noticing that the stone steps and earthen walkways are damp and potentially slippery, I was glad I’d enclosed my usually sandal-clad toes in sturdy hiking shoes.
Watkins Glen State Park began to form, park literature says, some 12,000 years ago as huge glaciers from Canada excavated a trough in an ancient river valley, ultimately creating Seneca Lake. To this day, water from Glen Creek continues its reshaping of the gorge, which was opened to the public in 1863 by Morvalden Ells, a journalist from Elmira, N.Y. Since 1924, the park has been state-owned.
The mile-and-a-half Gorge Trail climbs from 400 feet above sea level at the main entrance to 1,010 at the upper entrance. In between are hundreds of stone steps, interspersed by flat areas where hikers can catch their breath. A trail not far from the tunnel leads to the South Entrance, and picnic areas, a playground, the park office and a camping area (the park boasts 305 camp sites, 251 of them non-electric).
Sensible folks take a shuttlebus from the main to the upper entrance, then hoof it downhill all the way. Thinking we’d be traversing a short distance, however, we weren’t so smart. As it turned out, though, both of us were far too consumed by the beauty of this place, and making sure we brought home plenty of pictures, to worry about the journey ahead. One look at Sentry Bridge, just through the tunnel, convinced us this wasn’t the time to quit. At this scenic spot, a hole was cut in the rock in the mid-1800s to allow water from a flour mill to pass through.
Next up, so to speak, was Cavern Cascade, where water has eroded a narrow section over thousands of years, creating a walkway. It is shortly after this that other paths connect, one leading up to the South Entrance. As we trudged along, we marveled at the layers of stone, the plants in the Narrows area, where the climate is similar to a rain forest. At the expansive Glen Cathedral area, a trail called Lover’s Lane intersects with the Gorge Trail and joins the Indian Trail at a suspension bridge. Signs here told us to look down: We were standing on a slab of rippled stone — once the floor of an ancient sea that once covered much of New York state.
Central Cascade, the highest waterfall in the gorge, drops more than 60 feet. Beyond that swirls the Glen of Pools, which ends in Rainbow Falls. Much like the Cavern Cascade, weaker shale layers in the bottom of the cliff here have been worn away, creating a walkway behind the falls. Without a waterproof camera, taking pictures here is a bit tricky; those of us with sensitive digitals must watch out for drips.
Farther up, beyond the bridge that spans Rainbow Falls, we came to the spiral gorge, with its dripping springs, and Pluto Falls, reportedly named for the Roman god of the underworld. At the Mile Point Bridge, we could have traversed to Indian Trail and, ultimately, reached the South Entrance using the South Rim Trail. But we’d done so well this far, we reasoned, so why not go for broke?
Just then, we passed a couple who had started their journey at the top. Noting our labored breathing, they assured us we didn’t have far to go — but added that we still faced a huge obstacle, a seemingly endless series of steps called Jacob’s Ladder.
The name conjures visions of a stairway to Heaven. But the only resemblance to the hereafter, I’m afraid, is that the steps lead upward. Huffing and puffing, I was sure the Devil had a hand in creating this monster.
But reach the promised landing we did — where blessedly, we were greeted by flat ground, clean restrooms, a machine that spit out bottles of cold water and best of all, benches. At this entrance, too, is a picnic area, plus a snack bar and gift shop. The shuttlebus, the sign said, arrives about every half hour, and the short ride back down to the main entrance costs $3 per person (at this point, of course, we’d gladly have paid three times that much).
With our feet once again on flat terra firma, we remembered to stop in the gift shop, where I bought a T-shirt that proclaimed the victory of my climb. Our visit to this beautiful 776-acre park was, we agreed, an experience we’ll remember fondly for years to come.
Watkins Glen State Park
P.O. Box 304
Watkins Glen, NY 14891
The mile-and-a-half Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen State Park climbs from 400 feet above sea level at the main entrance to 1,010 at the upper entrance. In between are hundreds of stone steps, thankfully interspersed by flat areas where hikers (and eager photographers) can catch their breath.