“The Glen” (aka Watkins Glen State Park)
We may have learned in school that water finds its own way and, over time, proves to be stronger than stone.
But it is still difficult to fathom how small streams can carve their way through rugged stony hillsides creating deep dramatic gorges. Yet scattered throughout the Finger Lakes region you’ll find an abundance of these steep-walled ravines with their stone cliffs and stunning waterfalls.
One of the most magnificent of all is found at Watkins Glen State Park where Glen Creek continues its gradual descent all these thousands of years after the last glaciers receded, still making its way to Seneca Lake.
The result is quite breathtaking and each year hundreds-of-thousands of visitors experience the sheer wonder of nature’s grandeur as they stroll along stone paths and up stone staircases, stepping beneath, beside, and behind the 19 different waterfalls cascading through the park.
"Dark and damp, with cavernous pathways, alien-like stone formations, rare plants . . . Watkins Glen is the type of setting you would expect to find in a fantasy film rather than Upstate New York. Carved into the escarpment at the southern end of Seneca Lake (the deepest of the Finger Lakes), this hanging valley is the oldest and most renowned State Park in the Finger Lakes region." - NYFalls.com
Over the past few years, Watkins Glen has received national acclaim having been voted third best state park in the United States and second best attraction in all of New York State.
That is not merely due the incomparable beauty of the gorge (also known as “Big Gully” back in the 1790s), but also to the efforts of a number of individuals and organizations who have made it accessible to the public: from famed conservationist Andrew Haswell Green who bought the glen during the mid-1870s; to the Civilian Conservation Corps which, in the early 1900s, rebuilt the infrastructure of the Gorge Trail creating the natural-looking paths, bridges and other structures that lend themselves to the overall majestic aesthetic of the trail.
Beautification efforts also include extensive 2018 renovations by New York State enhancing the overall visitor experience with a new and improved Visitor Center, interpretive panels and educational areas, as well as an observation deck near the gorge entrance and a scale model of the gorge for those with accessibility challenges so that they might be able to experience more of the gorge than ever before.
Believe it or not, tourists have been making their way to "The Glen" since as far back as the late 1800s.
In 1890, a resort known as Glen Springs opened and featured a hotel and a sanitarium (think elegant spa). Back in the day, natural springs were quite popular for their restorative properties. While searching for oil, it seems a couple natural springs (containing different mineral qualities, some more apt for drinking, others for therapeutic bathing) were discovered on the property allowing the owners the chance to offer guests comparable treatments to those they might otherwise have to travel to Europe to experience.
The property included a hotel, sanitarium, bath house, cottages, gymnasium . . . today, folks flock to the park for a different, although still quite restorative reason. To take in the majestic and dramatic gorge with its sundry waterfalls.
“The Glen” was first opened to tourists on July 4, 1863 by local newspaper owner Morvalden Ells and landowner, George Freer. Upwards of 10,000 tickets were sold in the first year!
After changes in ownership over the years, New York State purchased the property in 1906 and opened the park to visitors, free of charge. In 1924, the first established New York State Parks department in the Finger Lakes Region took over management of the park.
Much of the stonework in Watkins Glen State Park was completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was active in the park from 1935 to 1941. They built park buildings, trails, stonework, bridges, and many other projects.
And that stonework certainly accentuates the natural beauty of the park with walkways and stairways that seem as if they were hewn straight from the rugged cliffs. Old photos reveal people traversing some of the craggy cliff faces on ladders and wooden stairs making the experience seem rather precarious at best.
With an average of over three-quarters of a million visitors each year (these days), that could prove quite treacherous.
Apparently the resort was quite something back in its day.
The following was taken from an online source siting a brochure about The Glen Springs from 1903:
“The Glen Springs Park comprises sixty acres of woodland and lawn about equally divided, and one can wander for miles over well-built walks, obtaining from almost every point grand and beautiful vistas of lawn, lake, forest, and glen. Within the park are bowling alleys, tennis courts, croquet grounds, and golf links. Pleasant drives abound in every direction, while those who prefer the water will find every convenience for boating at the steamer landing. . . . The management aim to furnish the cuisine, conveniences, and service of a family hotel of the highest class. An orchestra plays in the parlors every morning and evening. Sacred concert every Sunday evening.There is a first-class livery connected with the house. Excellent accommodations furnished for those who prefer to bring their own horses and carriages.” - NYFalls.com
At a time when mineral water spas were appealing, the wonderful natural surroundings were marketed for their restorative nature. While the historic resort is long gone, the rejuvenating qualities found by immersing oneself in such an extraordinary natural space is still quite palpable.
Watkins Glen Today
Today, Watkins Glen State Park is one of the top attractions in New York State. Considered a flagship park by the State of New York, this incredible destination has been leaving visitors spellbound for generations.
Winding its way beside and, in some spots, under "the cascading spray" of 19 waterfalls of varying sizes, the gorge trail packs quite a visual feast within a 2-mile stretch. There are over 800 steps, making the trail a moderate challenge, albeit with plenty of places to stop, rest, and enjoy the views. With all those steps, however, the gorge trail is not wheelchair accessible and is open seasonally - usually from mid-May through the end of October.
The Rim Trail, which overlooks the gorge and is open year-round, also connects with a portion of the nearly 1,000 mile Finger Lakes Trail.
Fun for the Whole Family
Though the two mile trek through the gorge can be somewhat challenging with small children in tow due to the over 800 stone steps, with numerous camping options (including over 275 campsites and 9 cabins), an Olympic-sized swimming pool, as well as proximity to Seneca Lake and downtown Watkins Glen, the park is popular with families.
Glen Creek and Historic Road Course
In 1948, the first post-World War II road race in the country was held on a 6.6 mile course that ran through the village streets of Watkins Glen, starting and ending in front of the Schuyler County Courthouse, and winding its way up, down and throughout the rural hillsides.
You can drive your car on the famous road course circuit today while enjoying the local scenery on two-lane backroads as well as through the heart of town.
There's a spot where you can safely pull over and out of the way at "Stone Bridge," one of the more iconic and treacherous spots on the historic route. There you’ll witness the small stream ambling its way below the bridge on its gradual path downhill toward the park where it continues to carve its way through the gorge.
“Within two miles, the glen's stream descends 400 feet past 200-foot cliffs, generating 19 waterfalls along its course. The gorge path winds over and under waterfalls and through the spray of Cavern Cascade” (from NY Parks website).
Breathtaking. Picturesque. Dramatic. Rugged. Therapeutic.
These are just a few of the words used to describe the scenic gorge trail for which Watkins Glen State Park is known.
Bring your selfie-stick and your tripod because this is one spot where you'll want to collect visual mementos of your visit.