Sometime over 12,000 years ago, receding glaciers carved some of the most pristine lakes, giving place for green valleys, deep gorges, and spectacular waterfalls. Watkins Glen State Park hosts some of the most picturesque waterfalls in this area.
Finger Lakes region takes its name from eleven long and narrow lakes spread like fingers across the region. While the geological term finger lake refers to a long, narrow body of water occupying a glacially over deepened valley, a Native American legend says that these lakes were left behind by the Great Spirit, who blessed the land with his hands.
Watkins Glen first paths and wooden bridges were used by the first tourists to the glen when Judge George C Freer first opened the gorge in 1851, and it was privately run until 1906 when it was purchased by New York State. The transformation into what we see today took place after the 1935 catastrophic floods that washed away all the work done until that time. Great labour from a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), restored and reconstructed the park.
Glen Creek, the centerpiece of the park has graciously cut a narrow gorge through rock for over 10,000 years, leaving visitors spellbound. Within two miles, the glen’s stream descends 400 feet past 200-foot cliffs, generating 19 waterfalls along its course. Stunning rapids, waterfalls, remarkable flumes, picturesque potholes combined with stone staircases, arched bridges and winding paths make you realize how well the human craftmanship converged with the natural playground of Mother Nature.
The park has three entrances. Since the Main entrance is located within downtown Watkins Glen, and the parking lot can fill up quickly, we picked the South Entrance. We wanted to hike the Gorge Trail, and although we did not see any sign, we followed the crowd. We saw quite soon the Lily Pond, finding ourselves in no time at the Suspension bridge. Taking the first peek into the gorge only made us quicken our pace.
After crossing the suspension bridge, we turned right, heading to the Cavern Cascade. After a short walk, and descending the stairs of the Spiral Tunnel (which was hand cut back in 1927), we got a glimpse of a beautiful rainbow over a waterfall. Not only the rainbow captured our attention, or the crowdedness along the path, but we found ourselves, suddenly, bewitched by the magical world of the lower part of the canyon.
We could almost read the thousand of years stamped in the multilayered cliffs. The interplay of the sandstone layers and soft shales created such dramatic scenes. We tried to imagine where a waterfall would be placed in few more hundred years, or how long it will take until the fragile slabs will roll over into the glen.
The experience at Watkins Glen is unforgettable. Begging to take countless pictures, the waterfalls, the sheer cliffs, and the winding paths and steps will lead you into another world. You can feel so little in front of the nature’s grandiosity and opulence.
Few interpretative panels along the trail let us learn about the natural history from this area. This way we found out what the big vertical cracks going from one side of the creek up to the opposite wall were. These joints represent a great continental collision, when three hundred million years ago, North America and Africa collided, fracturing this way the rocks of Watkins Glen and pushing up the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania, and the Allegheny Plateau, a large area that includes the Finger Lakes region from New York state.
The winding path took us over and under other waterfalls of various sizes.
Despite a dry summer, we still got a little splash while walking under the Rainbow Falls. We imagined how this would look like after a rain, or in late spring once the snow melts down, and there are significant volumes of water.
I didn’t realize how popular the park is, and how busy this trail can be on a sunny Saturday morning; three miles back and forth took us a little over two hours.
With a slight regret to leave so soon, we found our way out, heading to another famous state park in Finger Lakes region: Robert H. Treman.
Tip(s) of the day:
- Make sure you’re getting a map when you arrive at the park, or you can download one online;
- Park is open year-round dawn to dusk, but the camping, swimming pool, and some trails (including the Gorge trail) are seasonal, need to check the park’s web site for opening dates;
- Best time to visit is early in the morning, week days, and early summer;
- Sturdy footwear is recommended if you go hiking, as the Gorge trail takes you up and down along the canyon; Be ready for some stairs climbing;
- Although pets are allowed in the park, they are not allowed on Gorge Trail;
- With 180 state parks in New York, you might consider purchasing the Empire Pass. If the time does not permit to use the pass throughout the entire year, the vehicle entrance fee to most state parks in NY is $10 daily, and you can use the day pass to as many state parks you can use within the same day.
~ visited in July 2022