Published by Jeremy. Last Updated on March 9, 2023.
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Watkins Glen State Park, located on the southern tip of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes, feels like something that doesn't belong.
This particular region of upstate New York is full of rolling hills as far as the eye can see as well as numerous glacier carved lakes. It is not the place where you would expect to find a 400-foot gorge. But Watkins Glen is just that, and due to its unique location at a very important moment in the Earth's history, the makings of the glen were born.
How Watkins Glen Came to Be
Normally when glaciers move through a region, everything else is wiped out due to the power of the monstrous field of ice moving inch by inch across the land.
This happened in the Seneca Valley, but not all areas were affected. As the glacier receded, high points that were not leveled remained across the landscape.
The location of Watkins Glen was one of these, and thanks to a tributary being present swift erosion of the landscape occurred over the years, resulting in the gorge we know today.
The unique feature of Watkins Glen is that the earth is not made up of uniform material, and as a result the erosion rate throughout the park has varied over time.
The result of this is many sudden changes in elevation, and the presence of waterfalls as the water rushes by, slowly eroding the land to this very day.
I can't think of a better place for a morning hike before a long day of drinking at the nearby vineyards than this one.
A Wonderful Morning Out
Our visit to Watkins Glen was a great morning out during our trip to the Finger Lakes as the park offers an out-and-back loop that can be completed in roughly 2 hours.
We were joined on our hike by park ranger who gave us a wonderful background into the history of the park, including how the glen was formed over thousands of years, modern day history from when the park was privately owned in the 1800s by a newspaper magnate (who was charging a fortune for visitors to enter), to being under state control as it is today (which thankfully runs the park for free- excluding the nominal parking charge in the lot out front).
In addition to enjoying the natural beauty of the park, which is abundant in just about every direction you look, the park carries a lot of history from the man made items built throughout the park's 100+ years of being a tourist attraction.
One of the most interesting of these is not what is visible in the park, but what is not.
Quite some time ago a tremendous storm came through the region, and the rainfall was so great that a flash flood in the gorge triggered the collapse of a rather large train-carrying bridge (as well as flooding most of the town outside of the glen as well).
When the decision to rebuild the train tracks was made, they were designed without one of the central pillars that gave way during the flood- thought to be one of the triggers for the flood build up in the first place. Those train tracks still exist and are a beautiful feature at the park, but is missing one key piece that you'd otherwise think should be there.
Luckily you don't have to worry about safety concerns like that during a visit, as the park rangers take incredible control over the park and monitor the trails to ensure their safety for each and every visitor.
Find Things to Do In Watkins Glen
Watkins Glen State Park is officially open year round; however, the main hiking trails featured in this article maintain seasonal hours as the trails are not safe for visitors in the winter months. As such, opening dates tend to vary as the park closes after the first freeze (early November) and opens on a trail-by-trail basis in early spring as they are cleared and made safe for visitors.
Although the park is free to enter, parking on-site comes with a fee by carload at $8 per vehicle in 2015. Those who park in town and walk over are not charged an entry fee. A shuttle is available to take visitors around the park, with stops at both end of the gorge trail, for an extra charge.
Looking for more things to do in the Finger Lakes? Why not check out the amazing Finger Lakes wineries or plan a bigger Finger Lakes wine tour, Robert Treman State Park, or the Corning Museum of Glass!
About the Author: Jeremy is a full-time travel writer based in Pittsburgh and primary author of this site. He has been to 70+ countries on five continents and seeks out new food, adventure activities, and off-the-beaten-path experiences wherever he travels.