Growing up I read all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, and always imagined what it would be like to visit the waterfall-laden utopia and home of the elves, Rivendell. Being a ficticious place, my odds of getting there were slim.
Enter Watkins Glen, in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Watkins Glen isn’t Rivendell (no Elrond here, although I did see a guy who looked a bit like a young Hugo Weaving), but it is absolutely stunning. The gorge, that is, and that’s why everyone trucks here on their way to or from Niagara Falls, unless you’re here for the one week when NASCAR takes over. The rest of the town has its ups and downs, but we’ll get to that. For now, let’s start with the highlights: the falls.
There are 19 waterfalls interspersed throughout the 400m gorge at Watkins Glen State Park. Walking through the gorge you feel like you’ve been dropped into a whole other world, the sound of water cascading down rock faces and crashing into the pools below varying in volume depending on which set of falls you’re closest to. If you’re near one of the bigger falls you’re constantly being gently sprayed by a fine mist, a sensation I appreciated considering it was July and the kind of hot that borders on stupid.
On this trip I spent two days in the gorge – one day with family in the middle of a very busy summer day. Thousands of eager tourists tramped along the trails in the park, either ascending (if you go, prepare to climb, and prepare to walk on wet trails) from the main parking lot near the village, or descending from an alternate lot at the top near some open woodlands. Even with all of those people around, endlessly snapping selfies and exclaiming, “is there a snackbar nearby?” (there isn’t, unless you ascend the 800 step stairway of death at the end of the gorge), it feels like a truly special place.
The second day I got up at the crack and hit the gorge on my own just as the sun was coming up. Despite one antsy tourist from Ohio who had parked his 1999 rusted Saturn in the empty lot, I had the gorge to myself. He was seriously uptight about his car:
Him: “There was no one at the gate – they’ll tow my car, won’t they? Oh God, I can’t afford to have my car towed.”
Me: “You’re good, you won’t get towed, I saw something at the front saying you’re okay to park.”
Him: “But what if they tow it? Oh, man, this is the worst.”
Me: “Not the worst. You can park there, but if you’re worried, move your car.”
Him: “I don’t want to, I’d have to walk an extra block.”
Me: “Then no suggestion I can give will help you, my friend. Enjoy the gorge.”
If you have the chance to get up early and beat the crowds, go for it; especially if you want to photograph the falls. Hearing the rush of the falls, the birds, feeling the warmth of the sun as it peaks over the gorge, with no one around, is truly special. It’s also faster – some of the trails can be tight when you have busloads of visitors shuffling through the gorge. It took me less than half the time to cover the same couple of kilometres I had covered the day before. And I was shooting – a lot.
You also don’t have to wait for people endlessly posing on the Rainbow Bridge (pictured above) to get the shot you are looking for. The trickiest bit is keeping your camera dry, as these falls in particular throw off a lot of spray, no matter where you’re standing.
In addition to the bigger falls, there are plenty of smaller falls, rock formations, and pools that make this place interesting.
If you do decide to hike the gorge, think of it as just that – a hike. We saw people in flip flops (nice on a hot day, but tough on slippery, narrow ascending trails) and more than one woman in heels. Hey, I’m all for looking good while on vacation, and there’s no question that while standing still these women looked fabulous, but when they had to walk on wet rocks they looked like baby giraffes who have yet to figure out how their legs work. And that’s a good look on no one, except baby giraffes, because let’s face it – baby giraffes are adorable. So go in to the gorge at Watkins Glen State Park knowing that good footwear will serve you well.
Outside of the State Park, I liked Watkins Glen.
Make no mistake, it’s a small town, a bit rundown along the main drag, and not much to choose in the way of restaurants, hotels, or other amenities. But it has a charm to it, a charm that fights through the boarded up businesses and houses. People are friendly, the lake is gorgeous, and the area around the lake reminds me of the Okanagan Valley, in British Columbia, where I lived for nearly fifteen years.
Like the Okanagan there are plenty of wineries and craft breweries dotted along the shores of Lake Seneca. Much to my chagrin, we didn’t have time to do the craft beer trail, but it’s high on my list for next time. I’m not a wine drinker, so I will leave that to others to comment on.
We stayed at the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel, an excellent hotel on the shores of Lake Seneca. The WGHH is highly rated on tripadvisor, and other travel sites, and it’s earned its ratings honestly. We were greeted by a super eager bellman who raved about the local attractions and happily ran out to our little Toyota Yaris to grab a few bags for us (we didn’t ask him to, but he insisted). Sadly, our room wasn’t ready when we checked in, but we were headed to the gorge anyway, so Super Eager Bellman checked our bags with a smile and we were off. It’s the best bell service I’ve had at a hotel in a while.
The rooms are large, clean, and the beds unbelievably comfortable. Like, quit your job and sleep for the rest of your life comfortable. Awesome shower, no bathtub. No microwave, either, which didn’t bother me on this trip but might be on future trips, and the wifi was free (excellent) but slow (not so excellent).
The hotel backs onto the marina (see my HDR rendition of the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel below), which makes for some nice views, and it’s handy to a couple of restaurants. We ate at the Village Marina Bar and Grill. PHENOMENAL burger, one of the best I’ve had in a while, but really slow service. Even so, the views were brilliant, the company and the food excellent for bar food. Don’t expect fancy here, but do expect solid bar food, cold beer and good views.
So would I recommend Watkins Glen? Absolutely. The gorge itself is worth the trek from Southern Ontario (we made it in about four hours from the west side of Toronto) or for anyone within striking distance in upstate New York, Pennsylvania or surrounding areas. In fact, the gorge is so good, I can’t believe it’s not more popular than it is – it’s one of the most underrated outdoor attractions I can think of. And if you’re a photographer who likes to shoot this kind of stuff, add this to the (never-ending, I’m sure) list.
A few more pics from the area:
Even when falls aren’t present, the gorge and the rock formations are captivating:
The marina is a nice place to kick back and watch the world go by, as well:
Have you been to Watkins Glen? If so, what did you think? Comment below (and feel free to mention your own blog) – cheers!