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Watkins Glen State Park: NY Finger Lakes Fun!

Watkins Glen State Park, NY is not to be missed!

Watkins Glen State Park in New York is not to be missed.

“How does this silver, green canyon wonderland 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!”

Watkins Glen State Park waterfalls and ravines

Can you believe the beauty of this park?

Among the Best State Parks in the United States

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!

Watkins Glen State Park hiking with a baby

Watkins Glen was fun for all of the ages in our multi-generational family.

Hiking Watkins Glen with a Baby or Toddler

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.

Watkins Glen State Park stone arch bridge and waterfall

Such a romantic bridge, just a two-minute walk from the parking lot.

Parking and Restrooms at Watkins Glen State Park

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!

Easy hiking in Watkins Glen, NY

Beyond a big waterfall is this tranquil, cliff-embraced pool.

How Many Waterfalls in Watkins Glen?

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.”

Now, while 200 feet isn’t as high as the 700 feet Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, the depth of the Watkins Glen gorges paired with the silvery carvings along the side (almost like a beast ran its nails along the stone) made me gasp with beauty. Truly — I’ve rarely seen such a stunning spot as Watkins Glen State Park.

Watkins glen gorge and river

See how far down the gorge goes?

Watkins Glen Hiking: It Can Be Easy!

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” (like Curacao or Bunratty Castle), meaning you can get huge satisfaction and visual glory with minimal effort.

Looking up at the cliffs of Watkins Glen State Park

My father-in-law looking up at the cliffs in awe.

Is Watkins Glen Stroller or Wheelchair Accessible?

“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.

Watkins Glen State Park Stairs

It’s brilliant how the stairs were designed to blend with the surroundings.

Easier Hiking Options at Watkins Glen

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.

Visting Watkins Glen State Park

People come from across the world to see this park.

Is Watkins Glen Safe for Young Kids?

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:

The stairways at Watkins Glen are a little scary, but manageable.

The stairways at Watkins Glen are a little scary, but manageable.

Tips on Watkins Glen with a Toddler

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!

Hiking under a waterfall at Watkins Glen State Park

Would you enjoy this path under the crashing water?

Loud, Proud Watkins Waterfalls

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.)

(2019 update: Devi has now conquered his waterfall worries, following our hike to Bash Bish Falls, the tallest waterfall in Massachusetts!)

Peering into the ravine at Watkins Glen

Colin held Devi carefully as he peered over the ledge.

How Far is Watkins Glen from NYC or Boston?

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.

I will point out, however, that distance needn’t be an issue for such a splendid site. There were people from all over the world travelling or traveling (depending where a person is from, the word is spelled differently) to Watkins Glen when we were there!

Layers of rock and water at Watkins Glen State Park

Look at the layers of rock, foliage, and water.

Do Visit Watkins Glen State Park!

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!

See my big round-up of lots of other things to do in the Finger Lakes!

Enjoy this article? Trip planning? To save you time, I did the search already, so just click these easy affiliate links for hotel deals near Watkins Glen, and beautiful Finger Lakes vacation rentals. A small commission goes to support this site at no extra cost to you, so thanks in advance, and happy travels!

The waterfalls!

Thank you, Watkins Glen!

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Judy

Monday 10th of June 2019

Watkins Glen State Park is absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately back in May, we saw a dog floating down the rapid river, and we could see that the dog had drowned. We had came across the dogs' owner and he had asked us if we have seen his dogs, unfortunately we told him one of his dog drowned and the other one was stuck in a ravine. People were taking pictures of the dog in the ravine, and nobody called the police. So my husband called and they did finally rescue the dog. But I do recommend Watkins Glen State Park, is very beautiful!!

Lillie Marshall

Monday 10th of June 2019

Oh my gosh -- that poor dog!!! Thank you for this warning to keep animals (and humans) safe while visiting! The rocks can be slippery and the water fast.

Kim

Thursday 27th of April 2017

Thanks for sharing! The park looks gorgeous! I am planning to visit with my parents, my sister and my nieces (1 and 2 years old), but since we are all different generations, I was wondering if they would be able to handle Watkins Glen State Park!

Kim

Lillie

Thursday 27th of April 2017

Good question! If you look at the photos, you'll see that there are some stairs and drops, so you may not be able to get very far (bring an on-body carrier for the little ones, not a stroller), but there are great sights right at the start of the trail, so it will still be worth it. Enjoy!

Penny Sadler

Tuesday 11th of August 2015

I'd been told about this park, but not really seen any photos of it. Fantastic! I will definitely check it out!

Lillie

Thursday 24th of September 2015

Jealous! I need to go back.

judi garber

Monday 10th of August 2015

I just wanted to mention-the park has a trolley that will take you up to the top of the trail (it's free) and you can walk down. It makes the hike much easier if you bring young children with you.

Lillie

Monday 10th of August 2015

What a valuable tip! I wish I'd known this when we were there. Just have to make a return visit!

Casey

Sunday 9th of August 2015

What an awesome find! Those pictures are incredible, and just like the website said, I felt spell-bound just looking at them. It's crazy that such a beautiful park is so close to us, yet so little seem to know about it. Thanks for sharing your experience! I'm definitely putting this one on our list of must-sees.

Lillie

Sunday 9th of August 2015

Oh goodie! "Spellbound" is indeed the word.

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