Hiking Watkins Glen Gorge Trail – The Prettiest Mile in America

The Watkins Glen Gorge Trail
A sign directing hikers inside the Watkins Glen Gorge.

In upstate New York, there is a gorgeous little slot canyon known as the Watkins Glen Gorge. Long before this spot became a state park it was a tourist destination for many affluent New Englanders. Today it is available to everyone. Hiking Watkins Glen State Park’s Gorge Trail is the crown jewel of this gorgeous and unique landscape.

The Beauty of the Gorge

The side waterfall to Rainbow Falls.

In a short mile and a half of hiking along the Gorge Trail, visitors are rewarded with 19 waterfalls and stunningly beautiful rocky terrain that rises up to 200′ above the floor of the gorge. This wonderland is something from a mythical land or at least the Fjiords of New Zealand or Norway. Coming across this magical spot in upstate New York feels wonderfully out of place. It feels like walking through the wardrobe into the land of Narnia.

The Gorge Trail path

Water Under Central Bridge
The Central Bridge of the Gorge Trail over Glen Creek.

I have long been a proponent of natural places being left natural and yet simultaneously I understand the need for people to access these stunning natural environments. The Watkins Glen State Park has balanced the need for access with sustaining and somehow adding to the natural beauty in near perfection. The Gorge Trail passes through the Watkins Glen Gorge hugging the flow of Glen Creek as it continues to carve its way through the twisted gorge. The stone path and bridges keep visitors close to the creek with amazing views throughout. Yet, these path blends so perfectly with the gorge that visitors are left in awe of how the path flows with the water. The stonework has been integrated so well that it feels like a natural extension of the walls of the gorge.

Stats for Hiking Watkins Glen Gorge Trail

Polished stone of Glen Creek
The Gorge Creek has polished the stone of the creek bed to a smooth slick surface.
  • Main Trailhead: 1009 N. Franklin St, Watkins Glen, NY 14891
    • North Alt (AKA: Upper Entrance): 3310 Route 409, Watkins Glen, NY 14891
    • South Alt: 3530 Route 419, Watkins Glen, NY 14891
      • Doesn’t directly access the Gorge Trail
  • There is a shuttle that runs between all 3 trailheads (Cost: $5)
  • Gorge Trail Distance: 1.5-miles (one-way)
  • Elevation: +/- 400′
    • Main Trailhead gains 400′
    • North Alt: looses 400′
  • Skill Level: Moderate to Easy (The amount of water on the trail can make the 800+ uneven stone steps slippery)
  • Type: Out and back (or visitors can take a bus between trailheads to make it a one-way trip)
  • When to Visit: The Gorge Trail is open seasonally. Usually, open by Memorial Day weekend and closed by late October.
    • 8:00AM or before. It gets crowded!
    • The water flows best early in the season or after a storm.
  • Parking is $8.
  • Click here for Camping Reservations in the State Park.
  • Click here for the Park’s Detailed Hiking Map

Where to Start Hiking

First of the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail Waterfalls.
The first waterfall careens out of Watkins Glen Gorge beckoning those who start at the main entrance to venture into the wonders beyond.

There are three trailheads for hiking Watkins Glen Gorge Trail; the Main, North, and South Trailheads. The Gorge Trail runs between the Main trailhead and the North trailhead. Hikers are also able to access the trail from the South trailhead via an access trail and this is where those who choose to camp inside the park would likely hike the trail from but most visitors will start at the Main trailhead. I highly recommend hiking Watkins Glen Gorge Trail in this direction as the wonders of the gorge are more naturally revealed to hikers as they enter the canyon against the flow of Glen Creek. This guide will follow the Gorge Trail from the Main trailhead to the North trailhead.

Alternative: Hike with the Flow

I would suggest starting at the North trailhead if you are intimidated by the 800+ steps or have young children. The uneven steps are slippery in areas year round and can be a challenge for those without good footing. By starting at the North lot hikers will follow the flow of the creek as it drops 400′ inside the gorge. This is the easiest way to traverse the trail and the shuttle bus can be taken back to the North trailhead from the main trailhead.

Hiking Watkins Glen Gorge Trail

Watkins Glen Gorge Complex
The Main Entrance to Watkins Glen Gorge. Taken from the top of Couch’s Staircase.

We parked at the main trailhead early on a Sunday morning in the early Autumn. At 8:00 AM the lot was nearly empty. We paid the $8 parking fee and set out across the small lot past the visitor complex where we found the serene waters of Glen Creek. It calmly flows adjacent to a very nice outdoor area with signs highlighting the history of the Watkins Glen Gorge.

Sentry Bridge Waterfall

Sentry Bridge on the Gorge Trail
Jennifer on the Sentry Bridge. The first of many stunning stone bridges along the Gorge Trail.

At the western end of the outdoor area lies the first sign of the wonders of the gorge beyond. A waterfall crashes violently as it squeezes between the two verticle cliffs. The scene is made complete by the picturesque stone bridge known as the Sentry Bridge spanning the walls of the gorge. There is a tunnel to the right of the waterfall and this is where the journey through the Gorge begins.

The View from Sentry Bridge

Glen Creek Gorge above The Sentry Bridge.
Glen Creek in the first part of the gorge above Sentry Bridge.

We passed through the tunnel that was hand carved in the early 1900s. The path climbs in an arc through the tunnel emerging at the Sentry Bridge above. The bridge provides a great vantage point. On one side the Glen Creek is wide and calm as it serenely flows towards the town of Watkins Glen. On the other side, it is narrow and flows fast as it careens through a rocky crevice and careens over the waterfall’s edge.

Flowing Through Glen Gorge

Couch's Staircase
Couch’s Staircase rises steeply out of Glen Gorge and up to the south rim of the park.

Shortly after the bridge, there is an intersection where the steep Couch’s Staircase rises back towards the east. This path leads to the south rim of the gorge. The Gorge Trail continuing straight ahead looks tame in comparison as it follows the flow of the creek. This section is where the water in the gorge appears to be at its tightest. The water moves swiftly through the turns squeezing its way through the grooves on the polished rock below.

Cavern Cascade

Stairway to Cavern Cascade
The Gorge Trail stairway to the Cavern Cascade Waterfall.

The path climbs steadily over a short distance to the next waterfall known as the Cavern Cascade. This is a stunning waterfall. The path passes directly behind this waterfall in an amazing piece of trail craftsmanship.

Spiral Tunnel

Directly on the other side of Cavern Cascade, the path enters into a man-made cavern known as the Spiral Tunnel. No secret here, the tunnel is a spiraling staircase taking hikers up above the falls and to the creek beyond.

The Narrows

The Gorge Trail through The Narrows
The Gorge Trail through the section known as The Narrows.

Above the falls the Gorge Trail will continue straight into a section known as The Narrows. The cliff walls rise sharply on either side of the creek. The trail has been squeezed in above the creek along a ledge.

The Glen Cathedral

Glen Cathedral
Inside the Glen Cathedral with the Central Cascade Waterfall and bridge.

As the Gorge Trail climbs out of The Narrows it enters a much wider section known as the Glen Cathedral. The creek here is wide and mostly calm. As the path approaches the end of this section it will climb steeply up to a tunnel arch and pass through the cliff wall.

Central Cascade

Central Cascade Tunnel and Waterfall
The Gorge Trail tunnel emerges with views of the Central Cascade Waterfall.

Emerging from the archway hikers are rewarded with views of the Central Cascade. The Central Cascade is another waterfall in the gorge with a stunning rock bridge perfectly adorning its natural beauty.

Glen Creek at the Central Cascade

Glen Creek central cascades.
The flow of the Glen Creek above the Central Cascade.

The Gorge Trail crosses over the Central Cascade bridge. Glen Creek has etched deep curving contours into the area just above the waterfall which can be taken in from the bridge.

Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls and Bridge
Rainbow Falls and Bridge. This view is worth a trip across the world.

Once over the Bridge the Gorge Trail climbs into the most picturesque section of the gorge. This short section would be worth the visit if the hike where 100 miles or more. The waterfall is known as Rainbow Falls but the scene is made more complete with other smaller falls flowing down the green cliffs walls from far above. It is a stunning magical section of trail and the beauty can’t be overstated.

The Rainbow Falls Stone Bridge

Rainbow Falls Bridge view.
The view back from Rainbow Falls Bridge.

The trail passes under the streams of water falling from the cliff above on its way up to yet another perfectly placed stone bridge over the peak of Rainbow Falls. Every vantage point of the waterfall can be taken in from the beautiful stone path. Better get here early if you want this spot serenely to yourself.

Spiral Gorge

Spiral Gorge
A view of Spiral Gorge inside of Glen Gorge.

Once over the Rainbow Falls bridge the Gorge Trail and the Gorge Creek quickly level out for a short distance. This part of the path and creek meander more softly through the gorge. Before long both climb quickly adjacent to a section of swirling cascades known as Spiral Gorge.

The Mile Point Bridge

Mile Point Bridge in the Watkins Glen Gorge.
The Mile Point Bridge is one mile from the main entrance.

Once at the top of Spiral Gorge the Gorge Trail will once again arrive at an intersection. Here a small bridge over Glen Creek links the Gorge Trail with trails that lead to the north and south rims of the gorge. This is also the 1-mile marker for hiking the Watkins Glen Gorge Trail. Yes, all of the above beauty is crammed into one short mile.

Beyond Mile Point Bridge

Visitors hiking Watkins Glen Gorge
Hikers stroll along the easy section of the Gorge Trial beyond the Mile Point Bridge.

Beyond the Mile Point Bridge, the Glen Creek and subsequently the Gorge Trail become much flatter and calmer as the trail emerges from the deep gorge. This part of the trail while still beautiful lacks the grandeur that accompanies the rest of the path.

The Railroad Trestles

Watkins Glen Railroad Tracks and Trestles.
The railroad above the Watkins Glen Gorge.

At almost 1.5 miles the trail reaches a steep staircase that takes hikers up to the North Entrance. At the base of the staircase stands the trestles for an old railroad line that is still in use. The gorge is still deep in this section and it is an odd sight to see these metal towers reaching down into its depths to support the tracks above.

The Way Back

Watkins Glen Tail Map
A Watkins Glen Gorge Trail map showing the highlights of the Gorge Trail and the alternative trails along the north (red) and south rim (purple).

If you intend to take the shuttle back to the main parking area then climb the stairs. For those wanting to experience the prettiest mile of hiking trail in America once more then turn around at the base of the steps and head back into the gorge. If you want to hike back with some different scenery head up the steps and take the Indian Trail back along the top of the north side of the gorge.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Jo Anne Miles says:

    These beautiful places are breath-taking. Everything Amazing!!!

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