Rebecca intently studied the large map unfolded between her outstretched hands. “Trying to figure out which way to go?” I asked.
“Trying to figure out the best way to go,” she replied. “Either way I’ll have 800 steps to climb so I just have to decide if I want to do it quickly or gradually.”
Over Rebecca’s shoulder I saw a stone staircase climbing to the top of the gorge. I glanced over my shoulder and a thundering waterfall beside a much shorter staircase. “I’m taking the scenic route.” I waved goodbye and turned toward the waterfall. My day at Watkins Glen State Park in New York had just started.
Entrance into most New York state parks is free unless you drive a vehicle. Watkins Glen State Park charges an $8 fee per personal vehicle to use their convenient, albeit small, parking lot. I wasn’t at all dismayed to swipe my credit card for this fee considering the gorgeous trail I was about to hike. That pun was entirely intended and you’ll understand in a few minutes.
The state park has gone through a nice upgrade in the last few months. The long parking lot along the river has been replaced with a green space, new hiking trails are being carved into the walls of the gorge, and a new visitor center greets people to the park. There was a little cafe behind the gift shop but I wasn’t here to sip on coffee and ponder the meaning of life; I was here to discover that meaning for myself.
The Sentry Bridge
I could hear the rushing water a few moments before I caught sight of the first of 19 waterfalls in the gorge. The Sentry Bridge crossed the edge of the gorge above the waterfall. I could tell there had been a lot of rain lately because the water roared through the narrow gap.
I pulled out my camera and tripod for the first of many photos. I’ll always be a photographer first and foremost. I knew the hiking would be slow and take hours to finish while shooting long exposure photos which was the very sad reason I couldn’t join the tour with my fellow TBEXers a week earlier. Five minutes later I had the first of many photos and I began the first of many climbs.
I headed toward a staircase inside a tunnel ascending to the Sentry Bridge. Water echoed off the stone walls. Suddenly I heard a slightly high pitched shout, “There’s how many steps in this thing?” I reached the bridge to find an elderly couple looking into the gorge. “The guy at the visitor center said about 800 steps.” The look on the man’s face was priceless. Another flight of stairs and I came across Rebecca with her map, pondering her own route through the gorge.
Hiking the Gorge Trail
The Gorge Trail is 1.5-miles one-way between the visitor center at the bottom of the gorge and a parking area at the top. During the summer tourism season a shuttle bus will run people between the two ends but outside that time frame you’re on your own for completing round-trip hikes. I would suggest parking at the visitor center simply because you get to face the waterfalls while hiking up the gorge, and then it’s all downhill on the way back.
If you casually meander along the trail it will take about an hour to hike the one-way trail. If you’re a photographer like myself it took an hour just to get passed Cavern Cascade, the first big waterfall inside the gorge. Speaking of photography if you want the best photos come really early or really late; the middle of the day hundreds of visitors will be on the trail capturing selfies and videos, especially at Cavern Cascade and the Spiral Tunnel.
Wear comfortable shoes with good grip. Even on a good day the Gorge Trail is often wet from the splashing waterfalls and water dripping from the gorge walls. The entire trail is stone and often natural so it will get very slippery. Trekking poles are a great way for added stability and will help take the load off your knees while climbing the numerous steps, but be sure to use the rubber guards that came with the poles.
The Gorge Trail crosses the river a couple of times. The stone bridges, stone walls, and staircases were all made from material taken from the gorge so the color matches perfectly and could almost be mistaken for natural. Almost.
There are several places worthy of a moment or two (or ten minutes if you capture photos like me). The Narrows is exactly that: a narrow portion of the gorge where the water rushes through like a water slide. There are a couple of short tunnels to hike through along the way and of course many staircases.
My first visit to Watkins Glen State Park was in October 2016. I had arrived just an hour before sunset so I didn’t have much time. I was absolutely mesmerized by the Gorge Trail and kept shooting photos every few steps. That first day I made it as far as Central Cascade where a stone bridge crossed the river between rushing cascades. I learned the next day I had been just around the corner from the most captivating location in the entire gorge.
Rainbow Falls is a waterfall that crashes into the gorge at a ninety-degree angle, sending water falling over the trail and splashing onto the stone wall. Of course that makes this particular section of trail the wettest of all, but equally thrilling to hike. The view from the eastern end (closest to the visitor center) is better, despite the higher vantage point of the bridge just beyond the waterfall.
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A Bittersweet Goodbye
It took two years before I was able to return to this state park. It’s my second favorite state park in the country so it definitely has a special place in my heart. I’m pretty sure this park will never leave my top 10 list.
It only takes about an hour to hike the Gorge Trail but on this day it took me four hours just to reach Rainbow Falls. The crowd had dissipated, the sun was getting real low, and I was having the time of my life. But I knew once again I would not be able to finish the trail or capture enough photos to satisfy my desire.
I put the gear away and just stood at the stone wall facing the rushing water below. The sound echoed off the walls like an orchestra of nature. It drowned out all other sounds and left me with just a roar in my ears. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the realization I had finally made it back!
But with a pang in my heart I finally grabbed my bag and began the long descent back to the visitor center. I stopped one last time when I caught a few rays of sunlight bursting through the gorge. I felt like the gorge was waving goodbye to me with a subtle reminder of why I would need to return again.
Soon. I’ll return soon. I need Watkins Glen State Park in my life again.