Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Watkins Glen

Rainbow Falls and Triple Cascades
2 miles loop, 450 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, New York State Park fee or Empire Pass required

An intimate sandstone gorge and graceful waterfalls make Watkins Glen State Park one of the most scenic and fantastic landscapes of New York State’s Finger Lakes region and a must-visit for anyone traveling through the region. The Gorge Trail- a beautifully built stone pathway through the canyon with rock staircases and arch bridges that harmonize with the nature around it- is the best way to see this state park, which lies just outside its namesake town at the southern end of Seneca Lake. The hike described here is a loop through the park that follows the Gorge Trail through the canyon’s highlights and then returns via a smoother path on the canyon’s north rim. There are plenty of stairs and the trail is usually wet and passes underneath falling water, so come with appropriate shoes and perhaps a rain jacket.

I visited Watkins Glen on an October fall foliage trip through upstate New York. I won’t provide detailed directions here, as it’s unclear where which direction most visitors would come from; the hike starts from the large parking lot at the mouth of the gorge, which is off of Route 14 (Franklin Street) just south of downtown in the town of Watkins Glen. There is a large parking lot at the park entrance that charges $10 a day for parking (there is nearby street parking in town as well, but much of that parking is limited to 2 hours or so). A large visitor center, restrooms, an outdoor relief map, and plentiful interpretive signage were just beyond the parking area at the mouth of the canyon.

There are two separate entrances to the park as well: one on the south rim of the gorge and another on the north side, at the far end of the gorge. The most straightforward way to access the gorge is still to enter from the main entrance; it’s also the most spectacular entrance. From the visitor center area, the Gorge Trail leads directly into the gorge, while the North Rim Trail leads up to the north rim of the canyon. At the time of my visit, the opening stretch of the Gorge Trail- which passes through a rock tunnel, crosses Sentry Bridge and travels underneath Cavern Cascade- was closed. Instead, we had to initially ascend the north rim via the North Rim Trail and then descended into the canyon and join the Gorge Trail at a point slightly farther into the canyon. While this caused us to miss the famed and scenic Cavern Cascade stretch of the gorge, we still got to see the rest of the gorge, including the famous Rainbow Falls segment in the heart of the gorge. It’s unclear if Sentry Bridge will be repaired in a reasonable time frame, so conditions on the trail may change by the time you visit; either way, it’s still worth visiting the rest of the gorge if you’re in the area.

We started our hike by walking along a paved path paralleling Glen Creek through the wider mouth of the gorge to the base of the Entrance Cascade, a waterfall that tumbled out of the canyon’s narrows into a broad bowl cut into the sandstone cliffs. The wide canyon mouth was the site of a sawmill in the early nineteenth century built by Samuel Watkins, the village’s namesake, who took advantage of the gorge’s abundant hydropower for industrial purposes. The natural beauty of the gorge was later recognized and tourism in the area developed by the late nineteenth century, although the current set of paths through the gorge did not exist until the Civilian Conservation Corps built them following a massive flood on Glen Creek in the 1930s that destroyed most of the previous visitor infrastructure.

Entrance Cascade and Sentry Bridge
From the viewpoint at the base of the Entrance Cascade, the Gorge Trail continued into a tunnel; but this marked the closure point on the Gorge Trail, so we backtracked slightly to the beginning of the North Rim Trail, which led uphill via a wide staircase. Over the next 200 meters, the trail ascended 120 feet, quickly rising above the canyon mouth below and soon delivering some views out to the village of Watkins Glen and beyond to the low ridges of the Finger Lakes. For most visitors, this is the most physically strenuous stretch of the hike, as the stairs are relentless until the trail reaches the rim of gorge.

Village of Watkins Glen
Once on the north rim of the gorge, the trail flattened out a bit. At 0.4 miles from the trailhead, we came to Point Lookout, where we had a view down into the gorge; here, a connector trail left the North Rim Trail and descended into the gorge to join up with the Gorge Trail. We took this connector trail, which dropped us into the sculpted sandstone walls of the canyon and soon brought us to the Gorge Trail and the tumbling waters of Glen Creek. Upon meeting the Gorge Trail, we took the right fork to travel up the canyon.

While not necessarily small, the gorge at Watkins Glen is a landscape that is beautiful on an intimate rather than a majestic scale. Here, wave-like canyon walls of eroded sandstone surrounded us, with Glen Creek happily burbling as it flowed down the canyon and autumn leaves floating down into the gorge from the hardwood canopy above. The trail itself blended in beautifully with this landscape: the Civilian Conservation Corps had built rustic rock walls and staircases that harmonized well with the sandstone and shale layers of the gorge.

Watkins Glen
Central Casccade
We followed the Gorge Trail over the next 0.6 miles until reaching the Mile Point Bridge, passing by the Lovers Lane turnoff along the way. The gorge was immensely scenic at first and only became more so as we went along, with the beauty of the gorge peaking after the junction with the Lovers Lane Trail, in a stretch that included Central Cascade, Rainbow Falls, and the Frowning Cliff. It’s advertised that there are 19 waterfalls in total in Watkins Glen; I’m a bit unsure of that number, but there are certainly over five significant drops in Glen Creek along the Gorge Trail in addition to Rainbow Falls, a tributary stream that feeds into the gorge by plunging straight down the shale and sandstone walls.

Central Cascade
Gorge above Central Cascade
Gorge below Rainbow Falls
Rainbow Falls and Triple Cascade
Behind Rainbow Falls
Watkins Glen has a complex and rich geological history. The plateaus of the Finger Lakes region are of a similar geological origin to the plateaus of West Virginia and Kentucky: they are all part of the broader Allegheny Plateau, an uplifted region of sedimentary layers. These sedimentary layers were laid down in the Paleozoic Era when a shallow sea covered much of what is now upstate New York. The resulting layers of shale and sandstone were uplifted directly during the Alleghenian Orogeny when the North American continent collided with the African plate to form Pangaea; this mountain-building event also created the more geologically complex crystalline Appalachians (the Blue Ridge, the Taconics, etc) to the east.

Frowning Cliff
In more recent geologic history, Ice Age glaciers scoured the Allegheny Plateau in the Finger Lakes region, eroding deep and wide valleys in the region that are now filled by those lakes. Smaller tributary glaciers fed into the large glacier carving out Seneca Lake’s valley, but these smaller glaciers did not leave gashes as deep as the larger glaciers; thus, after the ice retreated, hanging valleys formed above Seneca Lake. These hanging valleys created the elevation differential necessary for waterfalls to form; when Glen Creek flowed down one such hanging valley, it began cutting a gorge into the sedimentary layers of the Allegheny Plateau on its way down to Seneca Lake, creating the Watkins Glen that you see today.
Pluto Falls
Frowning Cliff
At a mile from the trailhead, we came to the appropriately named Mile Point Bridge, where there was a four-way junction in the trail. The Gorge Trail continued ahead, but connector trails split off to either side here, leading to the South Rim Trail and the Indian Trail. While there was about a half mile of canyon left between here and the upper entrance to the park, we chose to end our journey through the gorge here, partly because the gorge was less impressive upstream of the bridge and partly because we had spent so much time enjoying Rainbow Falls and Central Cascade that it was getting late. We took the connector for the Indian Trail to start heading back: this trail carried us uphill through some staircases to the top of the gorge’s north rim, where we joined up with the Indian Trail and turned right to start heading back towards the trailhead.

Mile Point Bridge
The Indian Trail descended steadily along the canyon’s north rim; while the trail generally stayed slightly back from the rim, a few spur staircases on the south side of the trail led to viewpoints overlooking Rainbow Falls and Central Cascade. At one point, the Indian Trail came to an unmarked junction: we took the right fork here to stay along the rim of the gorge (the left fork led to a nearby cemetery). At 1.5 miles into the hike, after a particularly steep stretch of descent, the Indian Trail came to a multi-way trail junction with the Lovers Lane Trail and a suspension bridge spanning the gorge. We walked out onto the suspension bridge here to gaze 200 feet down into the gorge, then continued along the trail along the rim until reaching Point Lookout, where we had begun our journey down into the gorge earlier. From Point Lookout, we followed the North Rim Trail downhill to the visitor center to finish this gorgeous hike.

Watkins Glen is a true highlight of the Finger Lakes region. Is it popular and crowded? Yes. But where else are you going to see such a spectacular interplay of sandstone and falling water? Avoid peak tourist times if you want to avoid crowds, but don’t miss this absolutely gorge-ous hike.

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