Watkins Glen State Park – Waterfall Wonderland

Waterfall Wonderland – Visiting Watkins Glen State Park

As far as waterfalls and parks go, Watkins Glen State Park and gorge trail is the Mac Daddy of waterfall areas.  This place is a fairy tale land of cascading water, eroded gorges, pools and bridges.  A fantastical mix of man-made stone paths, stairs, bridges and tunnels.  Thousands of years of receding ice sheets and water have carved out many major waterfalls in the Finger Lakes area.

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Consider that the region contains the Finger Lakes themselves which were carved out by the ice ages as well as the rivers, streams and run off that feed the lakes, eroding the cliffs around the southern tips of the lakes, forming collections of waterfalls and gorges in Watkins Glen and Ithaca.  Indeed Niagara Falls was similarly formed yet the Ithaca area boast a falls that is even higher than Niagara.

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On a recent trip to wine country surrounding Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake, two of the largest of the Finger Lakes and the one with the most concentration of vineyards and winerys (130!) plus distillerys and breweries we checked out a number of falls including Watkins State Park.  Here are some travel notes and photographs of some of the falls long the trail that winds up the gorge over a narrow stone gravel path with bridges, overlooks, tunnels and stairs with a reward of bathrooms and a snack bar at the end of the 1 mile trail.

Jacob’s Ladder, near the upper entrance to the park, has 180 stone steps, part of the 832 total on the trails!

Photography Prints

If You Go….

  • Arrive early if you want to beat the crowds and photograph the wonders.  The park is open from dawn to dusk and the shuttle bus from the top to bottom and back runs starts at 9 am.  By 10:30 the hoards and busloads will decend on the trail chocking it into wall to wall humanity as the back up starts around the selfie inducing part of the trail that dunks under a waterfall.
  • Bring water or money for the snack bar at the top or bottom.
  • Start at the bottom and enjoy a downhill stroll on the way back.  Or take the shuttle bus if you are out of shape.  The stairs at the end of the trail on the upper part are particularly killer. The rest of the trail is no problem – if you are in shape.
  • Bring a tripod for waterfall pictures.  There isn’t a lot of light in the deep gorge and you’ll want to take long exposures for blurs water pictures.
  • Overcast days are best.  The light in the gorge can be very contrasty with very bright spots and very dark areas.
  • Leave the dog, stroller and wheelchair or walker at home.  This is a narrow path.  Some areas are tough to pass, requiring one person to duck their head.
  • Don’t throw rocks and keep your kids under control!
  • There is parking in the bottom of the park and at the top.  Parking is $7 for the car.  Walk-ins seem to be free.  Your fee is good for any other New York State Park for the rest of the day so its rather reasonable.
  • Plan on a few hours to walk the entire path. More time if you are taking pictures or get caught in a tour bus jam.
  • Unless its been raining a lot, expect the summer water flow to be much smaller than the photos in the brochures.  Fall is particularly beautiful when the leaves fall into the water.
  • Hold on to your water bottle!!  No one wants to come to a beautiful place and see a bunch of dropped water bottles.
To take the black and white photographs of Watkins Glen shown above, I carried my hefty tripod, my Canon 6D full frame camera and a Canon 24-70 lens.  There were a few times I wish I had a bit longer length to zoom in on a falls and bypass the people, but changing lenses in such a tight vicinity of tour group people, might have resulted in an expensive lens tumbling down the gorge.
Equipment mentioned in this article:

Watkins Glen State Park is located outside the village of Watkins Glen, south of Seneca Lake in Schuyler County in New York’s Finger Lakes region. The park’s lower part is near the village, while the upper part is open woodland. It was opened to the public in 1863 and was privately run as a tourist resort until 1906, when it was purchased by New York State. Official Watkins Glen State Park website: http://parks.ny.gov/parks/142/details.aspx