things to do at watkins glen state park for first time visitors

5 Things to do in Watkins Glen State Park For First Timers

There are many things to do in Watkins Glen State Park (and near it) and I want to show you 5 of the main ones in this post that speaking from experience, most first time visitors miss.

As someone who has been to Watkins Glen State Park many times, it’s hard to describe just how beautiful this place is or what a treat you’re in for if you’re never been here. In my experience, the seemingly unreal photos you see of this place are not just accurate, but in most cases are even more beautiful when you actually go. So this post is going to show you what to do in Watkins Glen State Park as well as the surrounding area (the town, more things to do and so forth).

Quick info on Watkins Glen State Park:

underneath rainbow falls in watkins glen state park

  • Name: Watkins Glen State Park.
  • Location: Finger Lakes NY, specifically in the town of Watkins Glen (near Seneca Lake).
  • Things to do: You walk through a gorge with waterfalls, tunnels and amazing views.
  • Family friendly place? Yes!
  • How long is the hike? About 2 miles in and out (pretty easy hike, mostly on stone stairs).
  • Does it cost to enter? Yes, there is a $5 parking area, but access to the park is free.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5.
  • Recommended place to visit? 100%. It’s one of the most beautiful parks I’ve ever seen in NY and all of the US.

The 5 things to do in Watkins Glen State Park:

things to do at watkins glen state park for first time visitors

  1. Explore the Watkins Glen State Park gorge trail.
  2. Stay at the Watkins Glen State Park camping area.
  3. See the town of Watkins Glen.
  4. Explore 7 other parks near Watkins Glen (list provided).
  5. Check out the secret swimming hole near Watkins Glen State Park.

Now a lot of these activities have more than one thing to do within them, so in reality you actually have well over a dozen things to check out when you go here, but I want to start with the main attraction:

1) Exploring the Watkins Glen State Park gorge trail:

rainbow falls area in watkins glen state park

There are actually 2 main trails in Watkins Glen State Park:

  1. The Gorge trail which takes you inside the gorge and and gets you the best views of the waterfalls and the park (most photogenic).
  2. The Rim trail which takes you over the park. It’s OK but not even close to as good as the gorge trail.

Point is if you’re able to (because the gorge trail is closed during winter and early spring season), do the gorge trail for the best experience at Watkins Glen State Park. It’s the one you’ll take to see all of the waterfalls, tunnels and main attractions.

In short, all of the Watkins Glen State Park photos you see are probably taken from parts of this trail. The photo above is from it’s most famous waterfall, known as Rainbow falls. The “trail” is more of a walk on rocks, many steps (100s) and similar surfaces. It does get muddy because there is often water in the area so I would wear hiking shoes to avoid slips. You may also want to consider wearing waterproof socks if you go when it’s cold there.

To begin, you’ll want to start at the Watkins Glen Parking area, which is $10 per car and depending on when you arrive may often be full (plan B is to wait for a parking or just park in town which is literally across the road).

Note: There are actually 2 other parking areas around Watkins Glen State Park and sometimes people can get confused. The main one to see the park, I shared above. It’s right by the town and lower entrance of the park which is where you’ll want to start.

Once you park, you’ll proceed into the gorge (there will be bathrooms and historical spots beforehand you can check out). Once you enter the gorge, there will be many waterfalls you’ll see while you’re on the mile long hike and one thing to know is that because this park is often crowded, getting the perfect photo of one or more of these areas isn’t easy, like this one:

amazing waterfalls to see at watkins glen state park

That’s one of the first major waterfalls you’ll see in Watkins Glen State Park (there’s almost 20 of them), and you will actually walk underneath it, and then through a tunnel to further continue up the gorge. When you reach the end of the trail, you will see a sign (and an opening in the gorge) indicating you have finished. You’ll then just walk back down to the parking.

2) Stay overnight in the Watkins Glen state park camping area:

watkins glen state park camping area new 02

It’s one of the most famous camping spots in Finger Lakes and it’s literally right by the park itself too. In fact, there is an entrance right into the main trail from it. Here is their official site.

But aside from that, if you’re looking to camp somewhere near Watkins Glen, there is no closer or better spot than this. There is about a $30 fee to stay overnight (and an entrance fee), but you have picnic tables, bathrooms, showers and even pools in this area, and that’s on top of the fact that you’re next door to the park itself.

  • If you’re just looking to explore Watkins Glen for a day, go to the parking area above.
  • If you’re looking to stay overnight and love camping, go to the official camping spot instead.

3) Explore the town (here’s what to do in Watkins Glen):

watkins glen state park photos new 07

Considering that the town of Watkins Glen is literally next to the state park itself, it obviously makes sense to explore it too (I would do that after you see the park). In this town, there are many restaurants, a museum, a beautiful small park right by Seneca Lake and more. You can check out the town, go boat riding on Seneca Lake and more.

4) More things to do near Watkins Glen State Park (5 of them):

While Watkins Glen State Park is my favorite area in all of Finger Lakes, the truth is that there are so many things to do near the area that it’s really just the beginning. Now one thing you can do is try these other activities near Watkins Glen State Park first, then finish with exploring the park as it is the best area in my opinion, but if you already checked it out, then it’s totally fine to see these other spots after as well:

things to do near watkins glen new one 09

1) Drive around Seneca Lake:

There’s an entire day of things to see around here and here are some spots I recommend you see there:

  • Hector Falls (one of the best Finger Lakes waterfalls I’ve seen).
  • Glenora Falls.
  • Marina spots around Seneca Lake.
  • Boating around Seneca Lake.
  • Vineyards.

2) See Motour Falls (15 minutes away):

It’s another beautiful town with a giant waterfall, restaurants and places to see. It’s easy to mix in a visit here alongside

3) Taughannock Falls State Park (30 minutes away):

This is the biggest waterfall you will find in this area and the park, hikes and scenery around it as awesome too. If you’re visiting Watkins Glen for more than a day, I recommend you dedicate one of those days to see this park too.

4) See Robert H. Treman State Park (40 minutes away):

This is located near Ithaca NY and is a similar looking park to Watkins Glen. Robert H Treman State Park also has beautiful waterfalls and similar trails, but there is also a beautiful swimming hole in the area to check out.

5) See Buttermilk Falls State Park (30 minutes away):

Buttermilk Falls State Park is also a look a like to Watkins Glen, but it’s bigger and has more to do (within the park area).

Note: You can see both Robert H Treman and Buttermilk Falls State Park in one day easily as they are only 10 minutes from each other and combined with Watkins Glen, are some of the best state parks in New York that I have ever seen.

5) Hike to the secret Watkins Glen swimming hole:

watkins glen state park map swimming hole 07

I’ve created a map above (with an X) to show you where it is, but you’d need to start at the campgrounds or near it. I have researched this spot a few times and will try to go there the next chance I get but overall, this is a 2-3 mile hike in and out where you basically walk upriver on the same Glen Creek which flows into Watkins Glen and it’ll take you to a gigantic, wide waterfall with swimming hole in it.

This trail is more a classic hike that is moderate and there might be ticks or snakes in the area, so wear protective clothing and just in case, use things like Alltrails. I would also recommend reading my how to not get lost in the woods post for extra resources on that. But overall, you’re just hiking upriver to get there, then back downriver to get back to the starting point.

Update: I have personally explored the Watkins Glen swimming hole and think it is incredible! Here is a photo of it:

watkins glen state park photos secret waterfall hike 04

How to complete the full list above of things to do in Watkins Glen State Park:

The good news is that like I said before, the above order of things to do in Watkins Glen State Park and the activities nearby isn’t a rule. You can totally mix it up which activities you prioritize doing first through the last, but I would plan to cover these 5 things to do in a way where stopping at one location makes it easy to get to the other and so forth until you cover all 5 and obviously that all depends on how long you plan to visit this area.

If you’re only coming in to Watkins Glen State Park for one day: Then I would dedicate most of your time to seeing Watkins Glen State Park gorge trail, then whatever time you have after to see the nearest spots (like Seneca Lake).

But if you’re visiting this place for a few days: Then you can totally mix things up, do all 5 things above and even leave exploring Watkins Glen State Park for last, but just make sure you don’t miss it!

When is the best time to visit Watkins Glen State Park?

when is the best time to visit watkins glen state park new 02

Anytime after May-November is good. Between December and February they close the main trail because of ice. However, do note that between May and September, it is also very crowded in this park, so if you can arrive early to check it out, that would be best. Also consider going in late October for seeing some of the best places to see fall foliage in New York, but specifically in Watkins Glen.

Here are more amazing Watkins Glen State Park photos:

These can all be seen inside the main gorge trail:

more watkins glen state park photos new 01

Also here are many more Watkins Glen State Park photos.

More questions about what to do in Watkins Glen State Park:

How long does it take to walk through Watkins Glen?

Without stopping, you can walk through Watkins Glen in about 1-2 hours.

How difficult is the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail?

The gorge trail in Watkins Glen is pretty easy, but there are many steps in places and it is slippery, so it can be a moderate hike at times.

Do you have to pay to walk Wakins Glen State Park?

There is no fee to walk through Watkins Glen State Park, but there are paid parking areas near it.

Is the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail open in 2023?

Yes, the Watkins Glen Gorge trail opened in May 2023.

Do you need hiking boots for Watkins Glen State Park?

I would wear hiking shoes just in case for Watkins Glen because of the slippery and wet areas.

And that concludes all of things to do in Watkins Glen State Park and if you do have followup questions on it, let me know!

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  1. There are soon many waterfalls in the fingerlakes, you could spend weeks here! Not too far away is also Letchworth Falls, and the of course, Niagara Falls on the Canadian border. Go to the east and explore the Adirondack mountains. Everyone thinks of NYC, but the rest of the state is fabulous for nature lovers!!!

    1. Yeah most people who I show photos of that are from New York can’t believe that those areas (the ones I talk about and that you mentioned) exist in this state, and I completely agree with you too Cathy.

  2. i’m glad you shared this. The epic scenery can pass for a movie location! The good thing is that it doesn’t look dangerous to trek, as what you have also mentioned. 

    I never knew that New York has a hidden paradise that is accessible and has a lot of accommodation option for families who wish to stay a bit longer or has little kids and pets to trek with. Exploring places should not be expensive but meaningful and I Glen State Park is a good example. Thanks for sharing!

    1. New York State in general has spots like this if you know where to look and in this case, Watkins Glen is within the Finger Lakes area of New York, where areas like this are close by to one another. I included a link of the region and what else there is to see there, but yes, Watkins Glen is my favorite so far and it is safe to walk there for the most part.

  3. Vitaliy, you are 100% right, this looks like an epic place to check out. Great photos, btw.

    My fiancée and I are full-time RV Lifers, and even though we aren’t mobile yet, within the next year we hope to start our journey out into the US. We are constantly looking for cool places to add to our list of potential travel destinations, and it looks like The Nature Seeker just helped us to lock in a good one. Neither of us had ever even heard of Watkins Glen, but it’s going on the map of our other places now.

    I’m curious, do you know if there are any good RV parks near the area? 

    Thank you for the informative article Vitaliy, we definitely appreciate it. I can tell you seriously enjoyed your time there, it shows through in your writing and the excellent photos you captured. I hope we will enjoy it just as much!

    I wish you great success, and I hope you have an excellent day!


    1. Hi Bobby, thanks for the kind words. There’s actually a bunch of camping sites around all 5 areas in Finger Lakes, where Watkins Glen is. I do believe a lot of them contain RV spots as well. I’ll be doing a post on this soon, but a simple Google search shows these spots in the area.

      Glad you added Watkins Glen to your list, and I would suggest exploring the greater Finger Lakes region because there’s much more to see besides this spot (which is still stunning on it’s own).

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