“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!”
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!
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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!)
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!
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!
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The author, Lillie Marshall, is 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 3.7 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!