“HOW DOES THIS EXIST?!” I gasped as we stood on the overlook gazing at the slithering stone ravine below, the thundering waterfall ahead, and emerald trees above. “I thought this was going to be some dinky little meadow, not the most out-of-this-world spot I’ve seen in years!”
I suppose I should have seen this greatness coming well before arriving for our five-day Finger Lakes, New York trip. In a 2015 USA Today poll, Watkins Glen beat out over 6,000 other state parks to be voted #3 best park in the entire United States!
The day we visited Watkins Glen, I was with my husband, 20-month-old traveling toddler, and fabulous parents-in-law. What was striking was that the park had something for all of us, and we could access that joy within a just few minutes of stepping out of the car.
Arriving at Watkins Glen, there is plenty of room for cars in the main parking lot, and the restrooms and concession stands offer relief for the hangry (hungry-angry) and diaper-damp. Then, simply turn 180 degrees from the restrooms, and you’re looking right at the gorgeous bridge and waterfall pictured above!
It is at that point that you start to realize that this park gets really pretty, really quick. The official Watkins Glen website explains it in an appropriately dramatic way: “Watkins Glen State Park is the most famous of the Finger Lakes States Parks, with a reputation for leaving visitors spellbound. Within two miles, the glen’s stream descends 400 feet past 200-foot cliffs, generating 19 waterfalls along its course.”
Here’s the even better news for those lazy pumpkins among us, or those who can’t walk far, or who are schlepping unreasonably chubby toddlers like Colin was: You don’t even need to walk two miles to see the best of Watkins Glen. Our pack of five literally walked fifteen minutes along the path to see these stunning sights. I would declare this park an “Easy Travel Win,” meaning you can get huge satisfaction and visual glory with minimal effort.
“But,” you may protest, “how can you say ‘minimal effort’ when I see steep, slick stairways snaking over cliffs? Isn’t this hike arduous, even for fifteen minutes?” That IS a good point, and one to take into consideration with regards to accessibility. You definitely cannot bring a stroller or wheelchair into this section of Watkins Glen due to the intermittent stairs, but if you drive to the other side of the park, there are some flat paths on offer.
See the vertiginous staircase pictured above? I took a photo of it because it’s pure art, but it is actually not part of the main path; it’s an optional, more difficult other trail. In contrast, most of the paths leading from the main parking lot look like the smooth sailing with a sturdy railings pictured below.
I’m making a point of going over this in detail, because I had a long conversation with a parent who was considering bringing her children to Watkins Glen about which ages would be appropriate, and which would be too dangerous. The first thing to know is that there were MANY children of all ages at the park, so it’s definitely doable, but a guardian must certainly be vigilant about the movements of kiddos for moments such as this side staircase pictured below, which has no railing:
Given this, and given Devi’s talent of identifying the most dangerous action in the quickest amount of time, we opted to keep our little scamp in a front carrier that Colin kindly lugged. Even in the carrier, though, I do warn you that wee ones might be frightened of certain elements of Watkins Glen. Most notably in Devi’s case, this waterfall that the path actually passes UNDER was too thunderous for comfort!
Once we were past the waterfall (which was awesome for those of us who weren’t wailing!) Devi calmed right down, though he maintained a trepidatious look throughout the hike which rather marred our family photos. (Sorry Devi — we honor your many emotions and affirm your right to feel what you feel.)
At this point, I hope you’ll see mighty clearly why Watkins Glen has become my new favorite State Park. Driving 6 hours from Boston or 4.5 from New York City seems deliciously fast access to such a world-class work of nature. I had some good smiles reading the comments on my Watkins Glen photos on my @WorldLillie Instagram feed by people yelling, “I am so mad at myself that I live two hours away and have never been to this park. I’m going next weekend!” If I can get a few more folks to experience this perfect park, my work is accomplished.
So what do YOU think? Have you ever been to Watkins Glen? If so, how was your visit? If you haven’t been there yet, does this seem like a place you might want to check out? Do share!
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