Watkins Glen Waterfalls

Watkins Glen Village / Seneca Lake, New York, USA

About Watkins Glen Waterfalls


Hiking Distance: 2-3 miles round trip
Suggested Time: 60-90 minutes

Date first visited: 2013-10-15
Date last visited: 2013-10-15

Waterfall Latitude: 42.37267
Waterfall Longitude: -76.88232

The Watkins Glen Waterfalls were merely the excuse for me to visit the Watkins Glen itself, which was said to be the most scenic of all the glens in the Finger Lakes region of Western New York.

Little did I realize that the waterfalls within the glen themselves more than held their own as side attractions.

Watkins_Glen_182_10152013 - Rainbow Falls - one of the beautiful waterfalls deep within the Watkins Glen
Rainbow Falls – one of the beautiful waterfalls deep within the Watkins Glen

And believe me, there was definitely no shortage of side attractions in this glen!

In fact, some of them (such as Rainbow Falls, pictured above) could have easily been waterfall attractions themselves had they not been clustered about in this popular and famous glen by Seneca Lake.

Within Watkins Glen, I noticed at least four named waterfalls – Cavern Cascade, Central Cascade, Rainbow Falls, and Pluto Falls.

There were several more cascades along the Watkins Glen, including a loud and mostly hidden one by the Sentry Bridge by the Main Entrance at the far eastern end of the park.

Watkins_Glen_214_10152013 - The scenery along the Gorge Trail within the Watkins Glen
The scenery along the Gorge Trail within the Watkins Glen

This side of the glen was where the Glen Creek flowed past the mouth of the glen and continued beyond the southern end of Watkins Glen Village.

In any case, I felt the established walkways within the Watkins Glen were pretty family friendly though it might be difficult for toddlers given the presence of stairs and some dark tunnels.

If my visit hadn’t happened so late in the day (I started around 3:30pm), I probably could have brought my wife and daughter, but we’d definitely have to keep a real close eye on any dropoff exposure along the way.

The Watkins Glen Waterfalls Experience

Although there were many options for hiking in Watkins Glen (including the most popular one being a three-mile loop going up the Gorge Trail and back down the Indian Trail), I only did strictly the Gorge Trail in an out-and-back adventure.

Watkins_Glen_049_10152013 - Context of the Gorge Trail and the Cavern Cascade within the Watkins Glen
Context of the Gorge Trail and the Cavern Cascade within the Watkins Glen

I started at the parking lot at the mouth of the glen (see directions below).

Then, I hiked all the way to the Mile Point Bridge before turning back the way I came.

Theoretically, it was only a modest two-mile round trip hike without too much elevation gain and loss.

However, I ended up taking over 2.5 hours total because literally almost every step within the Watkins Glen yielded photo ops of not only waterfalls but just the overall scenery from within the glen itself!

The Watkins Glen Experience – The Gorge Trail from the Sentry Bridge to the Spiral Tunnel

The adventure started as I entered the Gorge Trail from the trailhead at the mouth of the Watkins Glen.

Watkins_Glen_012_10152013 - Context of a hidden cascade tumbling beneath the Sentry Bridge at the mouth of the Watkins Glen
Context of a hidden cascade tumbling beneath the Sentry Bridge at the mouth of the Watkins Glen

There was a lit up tunnel at the far end of the parking lot, which then curved towards the Sentry Bridge.

From this bridge, I was able to look down at a hidden cascade that didn’t seem to have a name.

Beyond the bridge, I continued up a series of several steps that quickly brought me higher up the gorge while skirting around more cascades.

It was in this stretch that I immediately sensed that just about every moment I decided to pause, there would be a photo op that I had never considered previously.

Watkins_Glen_054_10152013 - Looking back at the Watkins Glen from near the Cavern Cascade
Looking back at the Watkins Glen from near the Cavern Cascade

Once I got up to the top of these steps, the trail flattened out momentarily while passing by some interpretive signs.

There was another set of steps climbing higher up out of the gorge towards the Lily Pond as well as the South Pavilion Entrance of the glen (according to my map, these steps were the Couch’s Staircase).

However, I continued on the Gorge Trail towards more waterfalls up ahead.

As I got closer to the head of this section of the gorge, I encountered what was called the Cavern Cascade.

Watkins_Glen_069_10152013 - The Gorge Trail approaching the backside of the Cavern Cascade, which was another one of the named waterfalls within the Watkins Glen
The Gorge Trail approaching the backside of the Cavern Cascade, which was another one of the named waterfalls within the Watkins Glen

This waterfall featured a plunge as the trail went right behind the falls itself.

Immediately after going behind the falls, I then entered the so-called Spiral Tunnel, which was a series of spiral steps passing through a lighted corridor leading up out of the dark depths around the Cavern Cascade.

I emerged from the tunnel further up along the Gorge Trail and in a more naturally lit (and less shadowy) part of the glen.

The Watkins Glen Experience – The Gorge Trail from the Spiral Tunnel to Rainbow Falls

From there, I continued along the relatively flat trail past a suspension bridge above me (also leading to the Lily Pond higher up the gorge via the Indian Trail) as I went through section known as The Narrows.

Watkins_Glen_097_10152013 - Looking back over the brink of the Cavern Cascade from further upstream along the Gorge Trail in the Watkins Glen
Looking back over the brink of the Cavern Cascade from further upstream along the Gorge Trail in the Watkins Glen

This was really a lush section of the glen thereby having its own microclimate that was almost rainforest-like with its cool, shady, and moist environment.

As I eventually got past the Narrows, I then encountered the Lover’s Lane junction (0.6 miles from the main entrance by the Sentry Bridge).

I could have taken the trail up to that suspension bridge I went past had I chosen to go that way.

However, I persisted within the Gorge Trail through the Glen Cathedral (a fairly open and dry section of the glen) as I approached the 60ft plunge of the Central Cascade.

Watkins_Glen_102_10152013 - Continuing along the Gorge Trail through the Glen Cathedral part of the Watkins Glen
Continuing along the Gorge Trail through the Glen Cathedral part of the Watkins Glen

The Central Cascade was said to be the highest waterfall within the gorge at 60ft.

It was certainly a photo-friendly attraction within the glen from the moment I first saw it as I approached it from the Glen Cathedral.

However, getting to see it from a different perspective near the bridge across its top let me appreciate its tall drop a bit more.

Near the base of the Central Cascade were potholes forming little pools.

These potholes might have been the result of little whirlpools drilling into the underlying bedrock.

Watkins_Glen_243_10152013 - Contextual view of the Central Cascade as the Glen Cathedral closes into the next narrow section within the Watkins Glen
Contextual view of the Central Cascade as the Glen Cathedral closes into the next narrow section within the Watkins Glen

After getting above the Central Cascade and onto the bridge above it, the trail then crossed the Glen Creek and continued further upstream.

It eventually led me face-to-face with the impressive convergence of waterfalls at the signposted Rainbow Falls.

Actually, the Rainbow Falls pertained to the thinner waterfall that the trail let me go behind, while the thicker cascades on Glen Creek didn’t seem to have an official name.

That said, I tended to think of all the waterfalls converging here as the Rainbow Falls because it was the whole collective that made this the most attractive section of the Watkins Glen.

The Watkins Glen Experience – The Gorge Trail from the Rainbow Falls to the Mile Point Bridge

Watkins_Glen_198_10152013 - Continuing along the Gorge Trail while going behind Rainbow Falls to go even higher up the Watkins Glen
Continuing along the Gorge Trail while going behind Rainbow Falls to go even higher up the Watkins Glen

Beyond Rainbow Falls, the trail then climbed up steps and once again crossed the bridge over the Glen Creek itself.

As I continued hiking further upstream, I entered the Spiral Gorge, which was a dark and narrow section of Watkins Glen that apparently was thin enough to not allow much direct light through here.

I could tell how shadowy the section was simply by how blurry my photos taken from here tended to be (especially when I didn’t take the trouble to set up a tripod).

Given the darkness of this section, it was apparently devoid of vegetation within its depths aside from fallen leaves coming from above.

Watkins_Glen_216_10152013 - Hiking further along the Gorge Trail through the so-called Spiral Gorge in the Watkins Glen
Hiking further along the Gorge Trail through the so-called Spiral Gorge in the Watkins Glen

Also within this Spiral Gorge section, it featured a small cascade known as Pluto Falls on the map I was given by the staff at the Main Entrance.

Unlike the other waterfalls I had encountered while in the glen, this one didn’t appear to have a sign (or at least I didn’t notice any).

So I’m kind of assuming that the cascade within this shadowy area was indeed the one named after the Roman God of the Underworld.

There was, however, a sign labeled the Frowning Cliffs, but I wasn’t quite sure how it was so named as it wasn’t keyed to any descriptions on my paper map.

Watkins_Glen_226_10152013 - Looking further upstream towards the head of Watkins Glen from the Mile Point Bridge
Looking further upstream towards the head of Watkins Glen from the Mile Point Bridge

Eventually, I would make it up to the Mile Point Bridge.

The Watkins Glen Experience – Returning from Mile Point Bridge along the Gorge Trail

Beyond the Mile Point Bridge, I could’ve continued another 0.5 miles or so towards the Upper Entrance parking lot.

However, I opted not to do that since shuttles weren’t available during my time at the glen in October 2013.

In terms of scenery, this bridge was kind of anticlimactic and it was really only noteworthy as the landmark that I used to start the turnaround and return to the lower trailhead.

Aside from an interesting weaver bird nest (or some kind of strange bees nest or something), the gorge at this point was shallower than further down the glen.

Watkins_Glen_240_10152013 - Emerging from the Spiral Tunnel on the return hike back through the Gorge Trail in the Watkins Glen
Emerging from the Spiral Tunnel on the return hike back through the Gorge Trail in the Watkins Glen

Thus, it was devoid of dramatic sights like the waterfalls or psychedelic geologic formations.

Even though I was on my way out from this bridge at around 5pm (with darkness coming in pretty quick), I was still surprised to see a handful of people still hiking in the opposite direction (i.e. towards the Mile Point Bridge).

I guess that kind of attested to the popularity of this place, especially since this was probably dinner time for most people used to the early dinners in America.

Authorities

The Watkins Glen Waterfalls reside in the Watkins Glen State Park near Watkins Glen in Schuyler County, New York. It is administered by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.

Watkins_Glen_005_10152013 - Context of the Gorge Trail about to climb up to the Sentry Bridge and enter the mouth of the Watkins Glen
Watkins_Glen_009_10152013 - Looking towards the hidden cascade beneath the Sentry Bridge at the mouth of the Watkins Glen
Watkins_Glen_024_10152013 - Looking down at some of the upper tiers feeding into that hidden cascade by the Sentry Bridge at the mouth of Watkins Glen
Watkins_Glen_030_10152013 - Context of going up the stairs climbing higher up the Gorge Trail alongside the cascades at the lower end of Watkins Glen
Watkins_Glen_041_10152013 - Context looking up at a pair of cascades and the Gorge Trail climbing higher up the Watkins Glen
Watkins_Glen_047_10152013 - Looking up ahead towards the Cavern Cascade and some intermediate cascades further downstream as we get deeper into the Watkins Glen along the Gorge Trail
Watkins_Glen_062_10152013 - Looking right at the Cavern Cascade with the suspension bridge high above it from along the Gorge Trail inside the Watkins Glen
Watkins_Glen_072_10152013 - Face-to-face with the full plunge of the Cavern Cascade. Note how the Gorge Trail goes right behind this waterfall near its top
Watkins_Glen_090_10152013 - Looking back at the Cavern Cascade after having gone around it
Watkins_Glen_113_10152013 - Well upstream from the Spiral Tunnel, I continued going up the lush Narrows section of the Watkins Glen along the Gorge Trail
Watkins_Glen_125_10152013 - Context of the Central Cascade as the Glen Cathedral part of the Watkins Glen started closing in again
Watkins_Glen_130_10152013 - More focused look at the Central Cascade, which was one of the named waterfalls in the Watkins Glen
Watkins_Glen_149_10152013 - More cascades as the Gorge Trail passed beyond the Central Cascade in the Watkins Glen
Watkins_Glen_160_10152013 - The Gorge Trail continued to pass by even more cascades as it went deeper into the Watkins Glen
Watkins_Glen_175_10152013 - Finally getting up to the Rainbow Falls, which was perhaps the most famous part of the Watkins Glen
Watkins_Glen_184_10152013 - Contextual view of the Rainbow Falls, which revealed more of the Watkins Glen context around this waterfall
Watkins_Glen_197_10152013 - Continuing along the Gorge Trail as it made its way to the backside of Rainbow Falls (part of which actually spilled onto the trail itself)
Watkins_Glen_229_10152013 - Looking down at the Frowning Cliffs from somewhere in the Spiral Gorge between Rainbow Falls and the Mile Point Bridge
Watkins_Glen_224_10152013 - I noticed this nest while on the Mile Point Bridge that I couldn't tell whether it belonged to a weaverbird or it was some kind of hive
Watkins_Glen_234_10152013 - Looking towards a hidden cascade high up within the Watkins Glen as I started to make my way back from the Mile Point Bridge
Watkins_Glen_239_10152013 - Enjoying more of the Gorge Trail scenery on the return hike through the Watkins Glen from the Mile Point Bridge
Watkins_Glen_244_10152013 - Now it was time to head back to the parking lot at the mouth of the Watkins Glen.  This photo was taken when I was returning to the lush Narrows section

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To drive to the Watkins Glen and its waterfalls, I’ll describe a few different routes.

From Watkins Glen Village to Watkins Glen State Park

From Watkins Glen Village, I drove south on Hwy 14 (North Franklin St) towards the southern end of town.

Just before the bridge crossing over Glen Creek was the well-signed Main Entrance for the Watkins Glen State Park.

I was fortunate that earlier in the day, I had paid the $8 parking fee for Letchworth State Park, and apparently, that fee also applied to all New York State Parks until the day was over.

Watkins_Glen_003_10152013 - The Watkins Glen State Park parking lot at the lower end of Watkins Glen
The Watkins Glen State Park parking lot at the lower end of Watkins Glen

Therefore, I didn’t have to pay again to enter the Watkins Glen.

From Ithaca to Watkins Glen State Park

To get to Watkins Glen from Ithaca, we took the Hwy 79 west for about 24 miles (taking over 30 minutes).

Once we were in the town, we turned left onto the Hwy 14 going south (North Franklin St), then we followed the directions as above.

Ultimately, the entrance to the Watkins Glen State Park was on our right.

From Letchworth State Park to Watkins Glen State Park

As for getting to Watkins Glen from Letchworth State Park near Portageville, we drove east on Hwy 436 (about 20 miles) to get back onto the I-390 near Dansville.

Then, we continued east on the I-390 for about 25 miles to the Hwy 54 exit at the village of Bath.

Watkins_Glen_004_10152013 - The Watkins Glen State Park parking lot looking towards the road entrance for the lower end of the Watkins Glen
The Watkins Glen State Park parking lot looking towards the road entrance for the lower end of the Watkins Glen

We then followed Hwy 54 (W Washington St; Hwy 415 coincided with this street) for about a mile past the end of the off-ramp then turned left to continue on the Hwy 54 (Liberty St).

Next, we continued for about 7.5 miles towards Keuka Lake before veering right at a fork to leave Hwy 54 and go onto CR-87 (Hammondsport-Wayne Rd) for another 2.8 miles.

We then turned right onto CR-23, which eventually became Mud Lake Rd after passing by Hwy 226, for another 15.6 miles or so before finally reaching Hwy 14 at the north end of Watkins Glen Village.

We then turned right to go onto Hwy 14 and into town where we’d eventually reach the Main Entrance as mentioned above.

For context, Watkins Glen was 80 miles southwest of Syracuse, 146 miles (2.5 hours drive) southeast of Buffalo, 189 miles (3.5 hours drive) southwest of Albany, and 242 miles (4.5 hours drive) northwest of New York City.

Walking down the spiral tunnel while checking out the Cavern Cascade from both its top and backside near its bottom


Walking in the glen starting from the bridge upstream of Rainbow Falls, then ending up looking back at Rainbow Falls itself


Upstream to downstream sweep from atop the bridge above the Central Cascade


Upstream to downstream sweep starting with the Central Cascade then ending at Glen Cathedral


Upstream to downstream sweep from atop the bridge at the lower car park


Upstream to downstream sweep starting from the front of the Cavern Cascade then looking down towards the Couch's Staircase

Tagged with: schuyler county, watkins glen, seneca lake, finger lakes, western new york, upstate, new york, waterfall, ithaca, spiral gorge, frowning cliffs, pluto falls



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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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